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The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America Hardcover – December 27, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
The 1863 draft riots in New York City, the bloodiest in the nation's history, emerge as a microcosm of the convoluted and contradictory politics of the Civil War era in this absorbing study. Historian Schecter (The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution) pens with a gripping account of the five days of rioting. But he also probes beneath the turmoil to examine the ethnic, religious and class conflicts that made the confrontation so explosive. The rioters, largely working-class Irish Catholics, vented their fury at a draft law that exempted those who could pay $300, at the city's WASP Republican business elite and, inflamed by racist demagoguery, at African-Americans with whom they competed for low-wage jobs and status in America's racial hierarchy.Schecter contends that these dynamics played out nationally in the gradual demise of Reconstruction, thus setting the stage for racial and labor conflict in the century to come. Copiously researched and highlighted with a wealth of period commentary, his lucid narrative colorfully recreates a historical watershed and offers a rich exploration of the Civil War's unfinished business. 40 b&w photos, maps, not seen by PW.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
When fireman Peter Masterson led a mob's attack on a federal draft office, producing the first murders of New York City's 1863 riot, he ignited social tinder that was not exclusive to New York in mid-nineteenth-century America. Historian Schecter backgrounds his thorough account of the tumult with social disorders that frequently occurred elsewhere. To existing social resentments, particularly of Irish immigrants toward economic competition from blacks, the Civil War added its combustibles, for New York was not stoutly Unionist. Peace Democrats dominated its politics; its business class sympathized with the South; and its Copperhead newspapers denounced the war and the draft. These factors affected the course of events that Schecter masterfully narrates. From Masterson's initial incitement to the frenzy's subsidence several days and hundreds of deaths later, the author moves seamlessly between the conflagration on the street and the frantic attempts of authorities to quell the mayhem, and explains the affair's ramifications on the Reconstruction era. An excellent encapsulation of the war's social context in the North. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Lincoln’s motives and personality never get to front and center, which isn’t disappointing because it forced the scholarship to become more original. But so much of the research was tangential and sometimes irrelevant, and sometimes too basic. The place of two prominent New York politicians, Horatio Seymour and Fernando Wood, is sufficiently explored. Seymour is an ugly and uninteresting character. Wood, including his marriage to a 16 year old and his role in the House about the 13th Amendment, is a dynamic part of politics playing to hatred. It would seem to be a fact that New York has improved over the years and lives up to “the melting pot” better now than in all of the 19th century. Wood’s realpolitik also has more flare than anything about a Tweed. The Tammany Hall histories never appeal to me, and Schecter includes 1869-70 information as a type of unwanted bonus or page filler. The only Irish appeal in the book, as opposed to honest and courageous stands of blacks or kindly German neighbors or discreetly activist Quakers, concerns the Fenian Brotherhood. Then I may have read 100 or more pages of more anonymous mob violence. It is interrupted by the $300 clause, but if I already know about this, then one mob looks like a hundred. Officially, it started on a Monday and went through Wednesday. The Democratic powers in the city took steps necessary to keep federal intervention at bay.
On page 258, Democrats/Irish have their way again. “Ultimately, sixty-seven people were found guilty. Twenty-five of them were given six months or less in the city jail, while plea bargains ensured light sentences for many of the rest … The man who led the attack on [a black family], … killing the mother, was sentenced to two years in the state prison at Sing Sing.” Many of these lenient sentences were viewed as exorbitant for theft, since they were the same punishments. To repute Sherman, there then came a 1864 plot to burn New York city and Chicago one hotel at a time. There is also the most interesting personal narrative in what it uncovers for me, that of Horace Greeley. After all the grief he famously gave Lincoln for putting Union before Abolition, he became a Jefferson Davis sympathizer and paid part of his 1867 bail in Richmond. He also cleared the air that his stance against slavery was actually not for racial equality for the integrity of free labor. At least he was not a coward during the riots. I would like to know the crux of his feud with William Cullen Bryant.
The City is not the one we are familiar with, or idealize. People are in constant fear of losing their jobs; they have to put up with a seeping, filthy, overpopulated Hobbesian battlefield. Schecter uses Horace Greely as a grand example, a man solely focused on abolishing slavery, who still does not get it, oblivious (from time to time) to the impoverished working man who is bound in a subsistence slavery, with no way out and no future. What you can say about Greely is what gives the old maxim its truth: The road to hell is paved with the best intensions.
No wonder the Irish immigrants used the draft law, which permitted the rich to escape military service, for what followed; the melting pot of NYC this time is the perfect mix for rioting: racism, bigotry, and class struggle. The corrupt politicians, racist utopians, and Southern agitators, know for a certainty that they are doing The Devils Own Work, and stoke class warfare to combustion.
We also see New York's Finest, the nascent Metropolitan Police Force, with a solid sense of duty (surprising in 1863), risking their lives, again and again, out numbered, trying working day and night to save the city.
The one thing we never understand about these urban dwellers of the 19th century is that, the Lincoln Administration initiated the Homestead Act in 1862, and perhaps it was only a risky chance, but a chance nevertheless, to get out of the slums and disease, and start over. This was one sure way of avoiding the draft, and facing less danger. Still we have a mass of people sticking with the devil that they know. And we are also faced the with result of the war and end of Reconstruction in 1877: Nothing has changed, blacks in the South are still slaves except in name, and the Northern working class is still impoverished. Schecter has given us an exciting and action packed look at the home front, and enables us to see that no matter how much time goes by, the beast of corruption, is still the hand maiden of democracy. All in all this is a fantastic view of life, in America's greatest and most evil of cities.