The Real Heroes of the 1863 Draft Riots

The staircase in my rectory is lined with pictures of the twelve pastors who preceded me in my parish, which is called Hell’s Kitchen.  I hope that thirteen is a benign number. While the neighborhood now is experiencing the most promising real estate development in the history of the nation, it did not get its nickname for being what it is now.  Here is where the boatloads of Irish immigrants from the Great Famine arrived at the nearby docks, amid terrible poverty, crime and vice, giving our vocabulary the “Paddy wagon” and “donnybrook.” The faces of my first predecessors are serious, for those pastors had a hard job to do for God and I cannot hope to fill the shoes of those men who toiled in ill streets.

The first of them was Monsignor Arthur J. Donnelly who built a huge parish from scratch in 1857, regularizing marriages and tending abandoned children, and trying to form a Catholic culture just as Archbishop Cullen had managed to do somewhat in Dublin where, contrary to romance, oppression had long neglected the moral norms of the Church.  Donnelly was pastor during the Civil War and was appalled by what was happening to his people and nation as he tried to establish the parish.  The great church, school, and convent that he established were moved a generation later two blocks north to make way for the Pennsylvania Station.

The Draft Riots took place July 13-16 in 1863. They had precedent in Cincinnati in 1862 where Bishop John Purcell’s brother, the Reverend Edward Purcell, was singular in his anti-slavery publicity through The Cincinnati Telegraph. Orestes Brownson, whom John Henry Newman hoped might join his new Catholic University in Dublin, observed that pro-slavery Catholics for the most part  “only acted out the opinions they had received from men of higher religious and social position than themselves,” and insisted that  “had they been guided properly, the riots would never have taken place, or at least the main participants in them would not have been Irish Catholics.”

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In New York the riots lasted four days and at least 120 were killed, while some estimates have 500 or more. Over 2,000 were injured, and more than 50 businesses and homes and two Protestant churches were destroyed. Racism melded with religious bigotry and some Protestant churches were threatened because they were pro-Republican and centers of the abolition cause.  Rioters sacked the Protestant “Five Points Mission” as a parish priest, at great danger to himself, tried to stop them while wearing his stole and waving his Breviary. Two blocks from my rectory a black man was lynched on a lamp post, mutilated, and set on fire.  The nearby Presbyterian church was about to be torched when Monsignor Donnelly appealed to the mob and the church was saved.   Today at Mass I sit in a large oak chair that was the gift of the Presbyterian minister and his elders in gratitude for their rescue. When Monsignor Donnelly died in 1890 after thirty-three years as pastor, the Presbyterians attended his Requiem Mass, the first they had ever seen.  Many of the overwhelmed police were Irish Catholics, horrified at what they saw, and they behaved heroically, like the local regimental Colonel Henry O’Brien, who was killed protecting a policeman.

However, as we have seen in recent times, race hustlers saw their opportunity to inflame the lower passions of men, and the mobs were encouraged by “community activists” from the Lower East Side and from as far as Philadelphia, with local gangs such as the Dead Rabbits, the Roach Guards, and the Forty Thieves, and the Plug Uglies and Blood Tubs from Baltimore. Some local Catholic pastors put themselves at risk, one stopping the looting of Columbia College, as did others in smaller riots in Hoboken, Hudson City and Jersey City. Nothing stopped the burning of the Colored Orphans Asylum on 43rd Street from which 233 children managed to escape just as the previous year dozens of black women and children barely escaped the torching of a tobacco factory in Brooklyn. The bishops of Buffalo and Cleveland issued pastoral letters and one pastor in Troy saved a black church from arson. But these were unusual interventions.  The great Fredrick Douglass, himself a former slave, who had spent six happy months in Ireland two decades earlier, inspired by the liberator Daniel O’Connell, lamented that “a people who so nobly loved and cherished the thought of liberty at home in Ireland become, willingly, the oppressors of another race.”

The riots, which remain the worst civil insurrection in our nation’s history, were barely mentioned in New York on their 150th anniversary.  They were precipitated by the iniquitous Conscription Act the previous March, which allowed exemption from the newly imposed draft upon payment of $300, which was the annual wage for many laborers. Rich men like the fathers of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid the fee easily. Irish soldiers were over 15 percent of the Union enlistment, and the carnage was terrible.  However, feelings also were fueled by resentment at Emancipation and fear that black laborers, especially longshoremen, would take jobs from whites. Sentiment was exacerbated by Catholic journals, such as the Freeman’s Journal, the Catholic Register, and the Catholic Metropolitan Record, which, speaking for Archbishop John Hughes, had declared in May 1861 that slavery existed by the “Divine permission of God’s providence.”

The supposed chief hero of it all was in fact slow to address the scene. Archbishop John Hughes had come to America from County Tyrone and was employed as a gardener and stonemason in Maryland, where the Jesuits long before had owned a large slave population.  The future bishop of New York, John Dubois was then the head of St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburgh and rejected his application for seminary studies.  Elizabeth Ann Seton persuaded Dubois to take him in, since Hughes’s lack of academic qualifications had not been his fault, given the Irish Penal Laws, but there was also a distinct difference in personalities.  Dubois had been educated in the classical tradition in Paris under the Sulpicians, having also been a schoolmate of, remarkably, the revolutionaries Robespierre and Desmoulins, at the Lycéé Louis-le-Grand.  During the French Revolution, Robespierre respected their old school tie and actually helped Dubois escape.

Dubois was the only non-Irish Ordinary in the history of New York, suffering much at the hands of those who considered his erudition the stain of a “foreigner.” They complained that he did not speak English well—this in spite of the fact that he had been tutored in English by Patrick Henry, and his eloquence impressed James Monroe, to whom he had been introduced by Lafayette. It must not have been easy for him to have been assigned Hughes as his coadjutor in 1838, especially as Hughes, called “a tyrant, but with feeling,” harbored a habit of not forgetting a grudge.  Later, Hughes berated the local laity for their mistreatment of Dubois, but it could be said that his animus was more against the trustee system that Dubois had also opposed.  The old Frenchman asked to be buried under the sidewalk so that the people could “walk on me in my death as they did while I was alive.” Hughes obliged him with unseemly meticulousness.

One biographer said that Hughes was “impetuous and authoritarian, a poor administrator and worse financial manager, indifferent to the non-Irish members of his flock and prone to invent reality when it suited the purposes of his rhetoric.” If he was a “fool for Christ’s sake,” he generously supplied the raw material.  He enjoyed the grand stage, as when he threatened to turn New York into “another Moscow” if any church were attacked by the Know-Nothings.  The grandiloquence was rather vacuous since, although there were ignorant anti-Catholic bigots like Samuel Morse and P.T. Barnum rumbling in New York, the real torchings were in Philadelphia.  In 1843-44 Hughes toured plantations in the South and Cuba, and on his return he preached in Old Patrick’s Cathedral on the virtues of the slave system.  While slavery was “an evil” as he had written in a youthful poem, he decided that it was “not an absolute and unmitigated evil.”

Hughes went so far as to oppose the Free Soil movements and asked, in defense of slave masters, “Is not the father of the family invested with the power of God that he is sovereign, commanding and expecting to be obeyed as he should?”  The archbishop’s sister, Margaret had married into the Rodrigue family, which had fled the 1793 slave rebellion in Haiti. She helped instill in her brother a fear of the race she thought as tempestuous as they were inferior. When the Civil War broke out, he wrote to the pro-slavery Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charlestown, South Carolina, a native of County Fermanagh, agreeing with him on states rights, and in May 1861 he declared that abolition violated the United States Constitution, and demanded that Lincoln should resign from the Presidency should he free the slaves. A great friend was William Seward and he regretted that Seward had lost the Republican nomination to Lincoln. Seward was “the only one in the cabinet of Mr. Lincoln fit to be at the helm.” Seward kept a portrait of Hughes in his house, which he told some Nativists was Washington in his Masonic robes.

Through Seward’s influence, in 1861, Hughes received a presidential commission to tour Europe in advocacy of the Union, which he patriotically defended, apart from the slavery issue. Privately he wrote to European merchants warning them that abolition would hurt their commerce.  His trip is often cited as a valiant success, which to some degree it was with Napoleon III, although France was unlikely to turn against the Union.  He received a federal expense account of about $118,000 in current exchange, and then asked to extend his travels for another six months at a higher fee, which Lincoln rejected.  Much is made of Lincoln’s hint to the Holy See that Hughes be given a special honor, interpreted as the Red Hat.  It is quite unlikely that Lincoln was fluent in such ecclesiastical matters and Cardinal Antonelli may have sensed that Seward had proposed this at the prompting of Hughes, who was a man not without ambition.  The request was ignored.

The Draft Riots were the darkest blot on the Church in the United States until the modern sex scandals and their concomitant episcopal dereliction of duty. Some polishing of reality has been attempted to vaunt Archbishop Hughes as a hero who saved the day.  But Mayor Fernando Wood  (himself a Confederate sympathizer) and other civic officials had been pleading with Hughes to do something and he did not act.  Finally, he responded to an appeal from Governor Horatio Seymour.

The archbishop’s residence then was on the corner of Madison and 36th Street, which still exists, although the balcony has been removed and a beauty parlor and optical shop occupy the ground floor.  On Thursday, July 16, unwell, and wearing the toupee which had long been his gesture to vanity, and which none of the faithful dared to remark, he appeared before 4,000 most of whom, he said, were not rioters, although some in the crowd sporadically shouted the crudest racial epithets which the archbishop ignored.  Amid the din, he chose to be humorous and elicited laughter with his jibes at the abolitionists, and said virtually nothing about slavery but much by innuendo about his foes Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, never mentioning the attack on Greeley’s office building.  Previously he had condemned Bennett for being anti-Catholic, a wonderful charge since Bennett was a devout Catholic of the Scottish Highlands.  But Bennett was a different sort of Celt. He did not please Hughes when once he remarked on the beauty of the Catholic solemn liturgies but unkindly added that to celebrate them properly among the “general run of New York Irish was like putting gold rings through a pig’s nose.”  The crowd disbursed and the speech did not end the riots.  The arrival in Murray Hill of the first of 4,000 Federal troops, many bearing the scars of Gettysburg, did. Until then, through Thursday night, violence continued.

One case:  “Coroner Naumann held an inquest yesterday on the body of Mr. Henry Yates, a colored man, 41 years of age, who committed suicide at the house of his employer, James Martin, in Madison-street, by first cutting his throat, and then hanging himself to a cellar door by means of a small cord. The deceased resided in Water-street, and when the houses of the colored people were attacked by the mob on Thursday night, he undertook to defend his wife and children. The resistance which he offered was such as to excite them to the highest pitch, and many swore that he should be burned alive if caught. He secreted his family in the best way possible, and when resistance became hopeless he ran to the house of his employer where he was soon after found dead in the condition above stated.”

Offended that Hughes claimed to have saved the day, Greeley charged Hughes with having helped foment the chaos, and pointed out that if he had indeed been able to quell the riots, he should also have been able to prevent them. Greeley mocked Hughes for having “supported conscription, but not coercive conscription,” and asked “Was there any other kind?”  On Friday, Hughes wrote to Seward: “The plea of the discontents is, on the surface, the draft. At the bottom, however, in my opinion, the discontent will be found in what the misguided people imagine to be a disposition on the part of a few here and elsewhere to make black labor equal to white labor….”

Lord Macaulay said, “There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles II. But the seamen were not gentlemen, and the gentlemen were not seamen.” To make myth oblige fact, it may be said of the Draft Riots, that there were heroes and prelates in the New York of 1863, but for the most part the heroes were not prelates and the prelates were not heroes.  Or so it seems when one looks at the pictures of those old pastors in Hell’s Kitchen.

 Editor’s note: Pictured above is Archbishop John Hughes.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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