Book Review by Deirdre Sinnott:
The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, by Barnet Schecter
Books referenced in this review:
American Negro Slave Revolts, by Herbert Aptheker
Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, W.E.B. Du Bois
The Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury
Paradise Alley, by Kevin Baker
Toward the end of Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York the petty squabbles and turf wars of two gangs are put into perspective as a much larger, real-life battle breaks out on the streets of New York City, reminding the viewer that the events we’ve been watching are taking place during the U.S. Civil War.
New York City, the main conduit for the export slave-grown cotton, had strong economic ties to secessionist elements in the south. Run by the southern-sympathetic Democratic Party, the City was filled with anti-black and anti-Civil War rhetoric. Racist demagogy trumpeted from the pages of reactionary newspapers, the halls of Congress, and on street corners by political operatives to manipulate class anger of poor and exploited Irish and German immigrants against the small, super-oppressed African-American community.
When President Abraham Lincoln, faced with growing losses on the battlefield, recruitment problems, and restricted by laws preventing the use of state militias for more than nine months, considered starting a federal military-conscription draft, New York’s slums exploded in a violent uprising called the Draft Riots. On July 13, 1863 people who lived in the most squalid conditions raged through the City. They developed into a roving lynch mob attacking and murdering African-Americans, burning the Colored Orphan Asylum, sacking one of the draft offices, liberating weapons from the state armory, and causing massive property damage throughout the city.
Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work is an important and well researched view of this great disaster. Schecter does an admirable job setting the conditions that led to the Draft Riots. He brings readers from the battlefields of Civil War, through the Five Points slums teeming with Irish immigrants, and into the inner workings of the various political parties. We learn about the smoky-rooms deals of the corrupt Tammany Hall Democrats and the political wrangling in New York and Washington.
It may surprise readers to know that at the time of the Civil War a great debate arose over the constitutionality of a federal conscription-draft when most states controlled their own militias. However the provision in the Draft Law allowed a man to avoid military service for a $300 fee, an idea seen in Washington as a great income gathering device, made certain that the only poor men could be drafted. At the time a worker might earn $300 only after a years-worth of work.
The rebellion continued for three days before the federal government recalled troops from the successful battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to control the city. By Friday, July 17th, after multiple deadly battles between protestors and troops, New York was mostly quiet. In the wake of the uprising, thousands of people both African-American and wealthy had fled the city for New Jersey and Westchester. While the rich were ultimately compensated for losses and the draftees given state money to purchase their buy-outs, the African-American population didn’t recover for decades.
While The Devil’s Own Work is extremely sympathetic to the plight of the Black population of the U.S. it fails to view either the enslaved Africans or free Blacks as a social force in their own right. For that readers must go to other books that show that the enslaved population was constantly active in resistance and in attempting to end slavery. One book can never cover all aspects of a social struggle as large as slavery’s end-days, but this flaw is one that weakens the in-depth view Schecter has brought to the other aspects of the period.
To supplement this book read W.E.B. Du Bois’ transcendent work Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. Here the most oppressed are shown in their actual role as part of the great social revolution that was the Civil War and reconstruction. To understand the depth of the struggle waged by the enslaved Africans since their kidnapping and bondage in the Western hemisphere see: American Negro Slave Revolts, by Herbert Aptheker. Culled from newspapers, private diaries, and slave narratives, the constant battle for freedom comes to life.
A beautiful novel that takes place during the Draft Riots that interweaves the stories of Black New Yorkers, Irish immigrants, newspaper reporters, and uprising participants is Paradise Alley, by Kevin Baker. By following the events from several perspectives and using many real-life incidents from the Draft Riots, Baker creates an overview that is both moving and cinematic.
While the period is loosely covered in director Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York, a short vivid description is provided in Herbert Asbury’s book of the same title. True to its subtitle, An Informal History of the Underworld, Asbury’s tawdry narrative, dubiously billed as “non-fiction,” provides a ripping-good read.
For those seeking information about this period, particularly as it played out in New York City, The Devil’s Own Work provides both historical accuracy and good entertaining overview, two attributes most non-fiction writers strive for.
Copyright © Deirdre Sinnott, 4/12/06.