A Catholic Civil War History Lesson


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, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.