Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America

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On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army retreated in tatters from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Union began its march to ultimate victory in the Civil War. Nine days later, the largest riots in American history broke out on the streets of New York City, nearly destroying in four days the financial, industrial, and commercial hub of the nation. Northerners suspected a Confederate plot, carried out by local "Copperhead" sympathizers; however, the reality was much more complex and far-reaching, ...
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The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America

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Overview

On July 4, 1863, Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army retreated in tatters from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the Union began its march to ultimate victory in the Civil War. Nine days later, the largest riots in American history broke out on the streets of New York City, nearly destroying in four days the financial, industrial, and commercial hub of the nation. Northerners suspected a Confederate plot, carried out by local "Copperhead" sympathizers; however, the reality was much more complex and far-reaching, exposing fault lines of race and class still present in America today. The riots erupted over the same polarizing issues-of slavery versus freedom for African Americans and the scope of federal authority over states and individuals-that had torn the nation apart. Drawing on the experiences of newspapermen and politicians, soldiers and Citizens, Barnet Schecter sheds new light on the Civil War era and Reconstruction, and on the history of protest and reform in America.
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Editorial Reviews

Alison McCulloch
Schecter throws a wide net in his detailed account of the riots, setting the violence amid the racism, political corruption and brutal inequities of the time, looking not only at what inspired the rebellion, but also at what it left in its wake: a seven-year exodus of black residents and a political climate ripe for the "ongoing counterrevolution against Reconstruction."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The 1863 draft riots in New York City, the bloodiest in the nation's history, emerge as a microcosm of the convoluted and contradictory politics of the Civil War era in this absorbing study. Historian Schecter (The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution) pens with a gripping account of the five days of rioting. But he also probes beneath the turmoil to examine the ethnic, religious and class conflicts that made the confrontation so explosive. The rioters, largely working-class Irish Catholics, vented their fury at a draft law that exempted those who could pay $300, at the city's WASP Republican business elite and, inflamed by racist demagoguery, at African-Americans with whom they competed for low-wage jobs and status in America's racial hierarchy. Schecter contends that these dynamics played out nationally in the gradual demise of Reconstruction, thus setting the stage for racial and labor conflict in the century to come. Copiously researched and highlighted with a wealth of period commentary, his lucid narrative colorfully recreates a historical watershed and offers a rich exploration of the Civil War's unfinished business. 40 b&w photos, maps, not seen by PW. Agent, Sabine Hrechdakian. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
For several days in mid-July 1863 New York City, white working-class, mainly Irish Catholic mobs rebelled against the government's first military draft, which allowed those capable of paying the $300 exemption to avoid conscription. Before being brutally suppressed, rioters caused great destruction in the city, battling police and soldiers, torching rich Republican Protestants' homes, and seeking ethnic cleansing of the city's African Americans. Like historian Iver Bernstein's The New York City Draft Riots, independent scholar Schecter's (The Battle for New York) book explores immediate antebellum and postbellum economic and social relationships that buttressed antidraft riots in New York and other cities. But building upon more recent scholarship and his own archival research, Schecter presents a gripping story, clearly and accurately centering the riots in the context of political power relationships: New York City Democratic Party leaders, with pro-Confederate sympathies, played upon class, ethnic, and religious animosities and antiblack racism to mobilize white working people in support of their party's objectives in reshaping the national agenda, first for the Civil War and later for Reconstruction. An appendix offers a walking tour of Civil War New York, for which additional details are provided via the book's eponymous web site. Highly recommended for public and undergraduate libraries.-Charles L. Lumpkins, Pennsylvania State Univ., State College Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

"The most lethal urban riot in American history, the New York City draft riots in July 1863 were not an isolated event. Barnet Schecter provides the most detailed narrative of the riots, and also places them within the national context of the Civil War and the local context of ethnic, racial, and political conflict during the decades from the 1840s to the 1870s. The experience of New York's African American community receives more attention in The Devil's Own Work than in any other study."--James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom

"An acute study of perhaps New York City's most barbarous episode...Schecter throws a wide net in his detailed account of the riots, setting the violence amid the racism, political corruption and brutal inequities of the time, looking not only at what inspired the rebellion, but also at what it left in its wake."--Alison McCulloch, New YorkTimes Book Review

"A coruscating chronicle of this shameful episode in American history. He might well have contented himself with a blow-by-blow account, but he also lays bare the depth of pro-Southern "copperhead" sentiments in the North--in New York City in particular--and the persistence of such sentiments after the war."--Fergus M. Bordewich, Wall Street Journal

"A fascinating look at the explosive witches' brew of resentment and rage that ignited deadly Civil War draft riots and which continued to haunt the nation for another hundred years thereafter. It's all here in this thought-provoking and meticulously rendered work: race and class, protest and reform, and a myriad of colorful voices."--Jay Winik, author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America

"Schecter's riveting narrative places the violence, dramatized by Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York," in a national context, as a microcosm of forces that deferred integration for a century."--USAToday

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802714398
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.53 (d)

Meet the Author

Historian Barnet Schecter is the author of The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Prologue : "we have not one devil, but many to contend with"
1 "The rebel horde had invaded Pennsylvania in force" 9
2 The battle lines are drawn : race, class, and religion 29
3 Horace Greeley and the birth of the Republican Party 46
4 Fernando Wood, the "Southern" mayor of New York 59
5 "Slavery must die that the nation might live" 77
6 Emancipation and its enemies 96
7 "A highwayman's call on every American citizen for '$300 or your life'" 113
8 "Down with the rich men!": the New York City draft riots begin 125
9 "Chased, stoned, and beaten" : "a crusade against Negroes" 143
10 Monday night : "the fiery nucleus of the entire riot" 157
11 "Government in the hands of the white race alone" 171
12 "The police cannot much longer sustain the contest" 184
13 Doom or deliverance : Wednesday, July 15 - day three 201
14 "Hellish passions culminating in riots, arson, and murder" 214
15 The final days : Thursday and Friday 224
16 A plot to "make the Northern States a battle-field" 240
17 Aftermath : sitting on two volcanoes 253
18 "Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country" 269
19 "Villainous threats of laying northern cities in ashes" 286
20 War's end : slavery is dead, the "demon of caste" lives on 298
21 "Condemnation and reversal of Negro suffrage" 310
22 Strange bedfellows : Greeley and the liberal republicans 332
23 A final devil's bargain : the end of reconstruction 353
App A walking tour of New York 371
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2006

    Expansive, Rivetting, Deatailed Account of Civil Unrest

    Barnet Schecter¿s magisterial study of the five day insurrection that erupted in New York City, ¿The Devil¿s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America¿, is one of those historical accounts that illuminate more than just the times the work is set in. By providing a multilayered analysis to the issues that marked this breakdown of social order, and through a deft, perfect-pitch, use of basic sources, Mr. Schecter lets the contemporary voices of those living through these events and, at times, driving them, speak for themselves. The result is a tableau of compelling immediacy that is rarely seen in a historical study. Some of the expected characters are here: Lincoln, Seward and Lee, etc. but it is the less well-known characters of that era that permit the real force of the book to be felt. By knitting together and contrasting the recorded dialogue of the restive ferment of the slums of New York and Boston with the tense interchanges originating in the mahoganied board-rooms of these same cities Mr. Schecter recreates the social tensions of these turbulent times. With what seems to be an unerring sense of how the character of a subject will define for him the peculiar social reality that he may act in, we meet figures who by virtue of the author¿s skill and sympathy are never rendered as simple, one-dimensional heroes or villains. Landmark works in any field of study require that a sense of scope, sensitivity and balance be observed throughout the effort. But such traits alone cannot mark it as memorable. For this the electricity of personal exchanges in statehouses, boardrooms and back alleys must be captured in their raw force and then be woven in into a narrative that flows with seeming effortlessness, from it its own momentum. This is what Mr. Schecter has accomplished.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 17, 2006

    Civil War Unrest

    Over the years I've read many Civil War books that have mentoned the New York Draft Riots,but have never gone into great detail about the event until now.By July 1863 the fate of the Union hung in the balance.While an anxious Pres.Lincoln and a nation awaited word on the titanic clash that was taking place in a town called Gettysburg,military officials were gearing up for the draft.Battles at Antietam,Fredericksburg,and Chancellorsville had depleted the Union Army's ranks.The Irish already weary of the war (The Irish Brigade had suffered grievous losses at Antitam and Fredericksburg)were further enraged by the $300 it cost to buy a replacement.They also resented the fact that their jobs would go to the blacks while they were off fighting.It only takes a few to roil the masses,which is what exactly took place.Three days of rioting left hundreds dead and wounded,it took an army unit returning from Gettysburg to help put down the insurrection.The book records many of the atrocities committed by the Irish mobs towards the blacks (lynching,dismemberment)but also documents the valor of many Irish towards the blacks.The burning of the Colored Orphanage comes to mind.This book can be read by both historian or someone who doesn't know much about the Civil War and wants to learn more. A solid addition to any Civil War library.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2006

    The Definitive Book on the Civil War Draft Riots and Aftermath

    Barnet Schecter's new book is much more than an in-depth examination of one of America's most deadly civil disturbances, it is a tour de force rendering of the many problems the newly 'Re-United' States suffered through during the entire Reconstruction Era (1865-1877). Schecter's exhaustive look at the real causes behind the July 1863 'Draft' Riots is certain to make this book the definitive account of those several tragic days yet, he doesn't end his compelling story when authorities finally -- with the help of Federal troops -- brought the violence to a halt on July 17, 1863. Schecter traces the post-riot effects that the economic, racial and political forces unleashed during the riots had on the attempts to 'reconstruct' the South and achieve social justice for all Americans during the Reconstruction Era. The research is impeccable, the narrative is compelling and the entire book is an outstanding 'window on the past,' chronicling an entire era. Supplementing this 'must-have' book is a delightful appendix, the author's 'Walking Tour Guide to Civil War New York' that readers may use to discover the surprising history of that era still to be found in America's greatest city. I enthusiastically recommend Barnet Schecter's outstanding new book, as well as his previous book, 'The Battle for New York,' an outstanding account of Washington's battles from Long Island/Brooklyn to Ft. Washington during the Revolutionary War in 1776. Like 'Civil War Draft Riots,' Schecter has provided an informative and very interesting walking tour guide for 'The Battle for New York' (also available at Barnes & Noble).

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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