The Catholic Thing
A Catholic Civil War History Lesson Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Tuesday, 09 July 2013

Last week, America observed the 150th anniversary of the Union victory at the battle of Gettysburg. To top off the commemorations, over 10,000 people in period costumes participated in a re-enactment at the Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania. 

Little attention has been paid over the years, however, to the tragic events that took place ten days after General Meade’s army drove the forces of General Lee back to Virginia: the New York City draft riots.

When Lincoln signed the Conscription Law of 1863, many Catholics feared that its draft quotas would treat them unfairly. They also believed that the loophole, which permitted draftees to hire legal substitutes for themselves, was de facto discrimination against poor Catholics. Rich Anglo-Saxon Protestants could buy their way out of the service by offering poor Catholic men $300.  In fact, one future president, Grover Cleveland, and the fathers of two future presidents, James Roosevelt (father of Franklin) and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., took advantage of the Conscription Law’s escape clause.

In New York, the Irish resented that African-Americans were exempt from the draft, and they were further convinced that quotas were fixed to penalize Democratic Catholic voting precincts and to destroy the memberships of fledging craft unions. The New York Daily News contended that, “it was the intention to draft the Democrats so that the Republicans should be able to control the election.”

To judge by the draft numbers in New York’s congressional districts, the charges were probably true.  In Catholic districts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a disproportionate number were drafted compared to Protestant-dominated upstate districts.

In an intemperate Independence Day speech, New York’s Democratic governor, Horatio Seymour, told his constituents, “Remember that the bloody and treasonable, and revolutionary doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as a government.”

New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley further inflamed passions with an editorial addressed to Archbishop J.J. Hughes in which he complained: “your people had helped create the war by their adhesion to the Democratic Party, in the Election of Polk in 1844, by supporting the Mexican War, and by the refusal of priests to preach abolition of Negro slaves.”  “Your people,” he scolded, “for years have been and today are foremost in the degradation and abuse of this persecuted race.”

This rhetoric plus the commencement of the draft bred trouble and on July 13, 1863, all hell broke loose in the City of New York.  After conscription lots for were drawn at the Ninth Congressional District Draft Office, a mob of foreign laborers attacked the building.  This incident sparked riots that would engulf the city for the next few days. Residences, draft offices, hotels, saloons, and restaurants were gutted.  Important and rich uptown Republicans and free blacks were attacked.

            John Joseph Hughes, first archbishop of New York

Horace Greeley, watching his city burn, now reached out to the archbishop he had recently attacked to quell the riots.  The dying Hughes spoke out, but reminded Greeley he was culpable:

In spite of Mr. Greeley’s assault upon the Irish, in the present disturbed condition of the city, I will appeal not only to them, but to all persons who love God and revere the holy Catholic religion which they profess, to respect also the laws of man and the peace of society, to retire to their homes with as little delay as possible, and disconnect themselves from the seemingly deliberate intention to disturb the peace and social rights of the citizens of New York.

By July 15, military brigades arrived from Gettysburg to quell the riot.  That evening, Archbishop Hughes had flyers posted all over the city that read:

To the Men of New York who are now called in many of the papers Rioters:

Men!  I am not able, owing to rheumatism in my limbs, to visit you, but that is not a reason why you should not pay me a visit, in your whole strength.  Come then, to-morrow, Friday, at two o’clock to my residence … and permit me to address you sitting.  My voice is much stronger than my limbs.  I take upon myself the responsibility of assuring you that in paying me this visit, or in returning from it, you shall not be disturbed by any exhibition of municipality or military presence.

Five thousand people gathered outside the archbishop’s residence.  Too weak to stand, Hughes addressed them from a chair.  He reminded his flock, “a man has a right to defend his shanty, if it be no more, or his house, or his church at the risk of his life; but the cause must be always just; it must be defensive, not aggressive.”  After cheers and a final benediction, he told the crowd to go home and they answered in unison, “We will.” 

Hughes’s appeal worked.  The riots simmered down, but the damage was done.  Millions in property was destroyed and 105 were dead – 84 killed by police or soldiers, 11 blacks and 10 police killed by the rioters.

In the aftermath, to avoid future violence the Protestant leader of Tammany Hall, Boss William Marcy Tweed, created a fund to pay the $300 exemption fee for “hardship cases.” The influential Protestant magazine Harper’s repudiated the harsh rhetoric of the likes of Horace Greeley:

It must be remembered in palliation of the disgrace which, as Archbishop Hughes says, the riots of last week have heaped upon the Irish name, that in many wards of the city, the Irish were during the late riot staunch friends of law and order . . . that the Roman Catholic priesthood to a man used their influence on the side of the law. . . . It is important that this riot should teach us something more useful than a revival of Know-Nothing prejudices.

Meanwhile, a quarter million Catholics fought bravely on the battlefield. In an increasingly anti-Catholic America, it’s worth recalling these and other ways in which Catholics have been discriminated against and their considerable contributions to the life of the nation ignored.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic VoterHis most recent book is Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Ib, July 09, 2013
Thank you, George Marlin for recounting this history. I'm sure you could relate many more narratives of how "Catholics have been discriminated against and their considerable contributions to the life of the nation ignored." I encourage you to write a book on this ... I for one would be eager to read it!
written by Sue, July 09, 2013
Just as the Catholic clerics of the 19th century may have brought part of this persecution of Catholics on themselves by IN FACT failing to to preach against slavery, so the clerics of this 21st century.....we can all fill in the blanks.
written by Manfred, July 09, 2013
Thank you for an excellent post, Mr.Marlin. The good news was trhat the Irish were quick learners, and by dint of politics, they assumed control of Tammany and they were THE power in New York by 1870. They proved they could be just as corrupt as the Protestants and they continue proving it today on issues such as legal abortion and sodomite marriage.
written by Jack,CT, July 09, 2013
Prof Marlin,
As a grandson of Irish immigrants I so
apreciate it, May the Lord Bless You.
written by Jill D, July 09, 2013
We see here the great influence of a Catholic leader on the thoughts and actions of everyday Catholics. Why won't our current Catholic leaders be equally assured that the folks are just as hungry today for wisdom and leadership and justice? Where is Abp Hughes today??
written by Tony, July 09, 2013
When it came to protecting the rights of native peoples, the Catholics were there first, as witness the Jesuit missions. If I were Catholic in the north before the war, I might well have wondered exactly what the abolitionists intended to do with the South and with the blacks there if they had their way. The abolitionists had their warts aplenty, and many of them were bitterly anti-Catholic on "principle". There was some considerable overlap between the Know-Nothings and the Abolitionists.
written by Dan Deeny, July 09, 2013
An interesting article. Did the priests "refuse to preach the abolition of Negro slaves"? Is there evidence for this? And Manfred is correct to point out that Irish-American Catholic politicians are now supporting abortion and sodomy. Jill D is right to ask where today's Abp Hughes might be.
written by Athanasius, July 09, 2013
I have always been anti-abortion, but in my 20s I kept my beliefs mostly private as I didn't want to make waves. But then I happened to be watching the mini-series "North and South", and there was a particularly cruel scene in which a slave had gotten drunk and disturbed his master's party. The overseer punished him by branding him with a hot iron.

I remember shivering at the cruelty and thinking how good it was that we lived in such civilized times now. But then a voice said to me, "What about abortion?". I realized then and there the horror of abortion, and we are not any more civilized today then the southern slavers were then.

I decided that day to be more outspoken for the cause of life, and to pray more fervently for an end to abortion. I still don't do as much as I should for this cause.

Just yesterday I saw pictures on NRO of the pro-abortion protests in Texas. The hate on the signs and faces of the crowds was disturbing. For many people, unbridled sex without responsibility is their god, with no respect for the unborn child. We are still barbarians when we do not follow Christ.

In the final analysis, unless American culture embraces the culture of life which comes to us from our God through Jesus, then the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are just worthless pieces of paper. Obama already ignores them, and he gets away with it because a large segment of the people like the fact that he does.

Unless we change the hearts of the people, it doesn't matter who is president. Just look at Egypt. Even the so-called moderates who are protesting against the Muslim Brotherhood still feel free to gang rape women who are supposedly their fellow protesters if they stray to far from their families.

written by Seanachie, July 09, 2013
Informative article, George. Sad that Greeley's coupled anti-Irish-anti-Catholic "scoldings" remain today in some circles alive and well. Consider Ms. Obama's reported distress over Irish-Catholic families establishing political dynasties in Chicago and IL. Also consider that Mr. Obama thought the following words of Jeremiah Wright were quote-worthy (page 293, Dreams of My Father): “It is this world, a world where cruise ships throw away more food in a day than most residents of Port-au-Prince see in a year, where white folks’ greed runs a world in need, apartheid in one hemisphere, apathy in another hemisphere… That’s the world! On which hope sits!” Racist? Moreover, in terms of infanticide and aberrosexual relationships advocacy, is not Obama a champion? What too of Obama's anti-Catholic mandates in Obamacare...are these merely unintentional oversights or evidence of a long-time pattern of personal, anti-Catholic bias? And, just for the record, Pelosi, who promoted and steered Obamacare through the House and aids and abets virtually every major anti-Catholic practice is not, thankfully, an Irish-American.

written by Frank Fezza, July 10, 2013
Excellent and informative...The "power brokers" of that time were able to get away with anti-Catholic bias, the political far-left of today, starting with Barack Obama, are calling for policies that are clearly anti-Catholic....
written by John, July 11, 2013
Thanks for sharing this; I truly enjoyed it! One line struck me,

'The New York Daily News contended that, “it was the intention to draft the Democrats so that the Republicans should be able to control the election.”'

The New York Daily News may have been wrong as the soldiers voted overwhelmingly in 1864 to reelect Lincoln. Some argue that Lincoln would have lost to the unsuccessful General McClellen if the votes of soldiers had not been counted (the grandfather of today's absentee voting).

And don't forget the great courage Catholics such as the Irish Brigade and Father Corby displayed on the battlefield in an effort to save the Union!
written by Sue, July 13, 2013
There was a City Journal article a while ago

"How Dagger John Saved New York's Irish" - City Journal. . .

: "When it came to charity, Hughes had nothing but contempt for the way New York officials went about it, warehousing the poor in the municipal almshouse and giving them subsistence levels of food, shelter, and clothing until they died, usually of typhus, ty-phoid fever, consumption, or cholera. Hughes dismissed this approach, which made no effort to re-moralize the demoralized poor, as “soupery.”

By contrast, Hughes imported church groups that had shown elsewhere in the world that they could help solve tough social problems. The most famous was the St. Vincent de Paul Society, a group of laymen who gave personal service to the poor. They visited prisons, organized youth groups, and taught reading and writing. Whenever they provided food, clothing, or shelter, they required the recipients, when possible, to work in return. An order of nuns, the Sisters of Mercy, worked closely with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, visiting the city’s almshouses and prisons and urging the women in them to find work and to conduct themselves according to Church teachings. They founded their own home for immigrant girls, a halfway house between dependency and work, where they provided spiritual guidance, taught such basic skills as cooking and cleaning, and helped women find jobs, usually as domestics"

and then, there's this in another article:

- ["Will not the Martyrs be blessed?"] - Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War". Harry S. Stout.

""When accused of persecuting fellow Catholics in the South and permitting the slaughter of Irish Catholic troops in his own army, a combative Archbishop John Hughes of New York wrote to his counterpart, P.N. Lynch of Charleston, South Carolina. In a blistering response, he denied any possibility of peace without surrender: "Since violence, battle and bloodshed have occurred, I dare not hope for peace unless you can show me a foundation of rock or solid ground(but not quicksand basis) on which peace can be reestablished." As for the accusation he was abetting the slaughter of Irish troops, Hughes replied curtly, "If this end were a deliberate policy of the North, I should scout and despise it." But as things stood, Hughes's loyalties remained with the North rather than with fellow Catholics in the Rebellion."

written by Amadan, July 18, 2013
If only we had bishops like this today instead of those who use bromides about Religious Liberty and slogans that would have been condemned by the popes of Hughes' day.

Is it any wonder that the only nation to recognise the independence of the Confederacy was the Holy See?

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