This post was written by Jonah Estess, former digital projects intern in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library.
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York familiarized audiences with the New York Draft Riots, a tumultuous, multi-partied conflict including Five Points neighborhood residents, the uptown elite, Union soldiers, rioters, as well as New York’s African American population. From a sketchbook filled with scenes of daily life, the New-York Historical Society has chosen to digitize a set of 13 sketches of New York City during the Draft Riots of July 13-16, 1863. Despite offering just one perspective of the events that transpired during those days, it is nonetheless an important view of a conflict born out of the roiling lower echelons of New York’s social strata.
Three hundred dollars in 1863: the cost of a substitute to take your place in the draft. (For comparison, this was also the cost of a small plot of land or approximately 1,500 pounds of “West India Coffee”). Not only were the city’s poor, working class, and immigrant populations unable to take advantage of the loophole—immigrants comprised a significant portion of the poor and working classes—but African Americans and their supporters found themselves trapped between the rock of state-sponsored draft-style coercion and the hard place of being of a different race. Frustrations towards the city’s wealthy residents along Fifth Avenue, many of whom furnished substitutes, manifested itself in physical aggression against black men, women, orphans, and those who supported emancipation.
One sketch tells of Ann Derrickson, the white wife of a black man, who 21-year-old Jim Best killed while she defended her mixed-race son. According to testimony given to city coroner Edward Collin by a widowed garment worker named Ellen Foos: “Jim Vess struck the boy with a cart-rung; when the deceased was struck she fell right over her son and tried to protect him; she called out to them ‘For God’s sake kill me but save, Oh save my boy.’”
Another sketch is accompanied by a firsthand account of the Five Points during the first day of rioting. This depiction of rioters’ homes in the Five Points shows no people and is captioned with a quote from Captain John Jourden of the 6th Ward Metropolitan Police: “On the 13th of July not a single thief was left in the Five Points.”
Of course, the vast majority of Five Points’ residents were not thieves. Surely some rioters would have taken advantage of the chaos to steal or loot, but not all acted with the same objectives in mind. Just as the draft and policy of substitution by payment coerced New York City’s underprivileged youth into Yankee ranks, retaliation sought to bring an end to such unfair practices. Consequently, rioters burned the draft office and attacked the homes and businesses of wealthy New Yorkers. Though many were motivated plainly by racial hatred, these several sketches in the collection offer an unlikely medium from which to understand the experiences of those expressing legitimate frustrations.
A third sketch, entitled “An Experiment” depicts two men it top hats standing in front of a water pump, one apparently on the verge of sipping water from his cup. Little about the sketch tells where these men are standing; however, their dress seems consistent with Bowery gangs such as the Bowery Boys and Atlantic Guard who waged pitched battles against their, largely Irish, adversaries from Sixth Ward, which included Five Points. As Luc Sante explains in Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York: “In the crudest sociological terms, it could be said the Bowery gangs represented the working poor, and the Sixth Ward gangs were the underclass.” While rioters may have acted out against New York City’s elite, this sketch suggests the nuance of competing factions at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.
These sketches thus reveal the social complexity of the New York City Draft Riots. It is unclear for exactly what purpose the artist, a Mr. or Mrs. J. H. W., had in mind when filling this sketchbook. But with war raging in the South, and New York being the political and cultural hotbed that is always had been, this amateur artist is sure to have appreciated something of the import of what now fills the sketchbook.
As we gaze back at more recent history, we realize the remarkable impact that New York’s distant past has had on our reaction to conflicts such as the Vietnam War. Sources such as these digitized sketches, at least for as long as they appear on one’s screen, allow us to reevaluate our understanding of social upheaval in the lives of disenfranchised, as well as privileged groups.
To access the fully digitized Draft Riot sketches, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16694coll47/id/219
To access all other fully digitized collections within the Civil War Treasures Collection, please visit http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p16694coll47