The New York Times
The Devil's Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct Americaby Barnet Schecter
As Barnet Schecter dramatically shows in The Devil's Own Work, the cataclysm in New York was anything but an isolated incident; rather, it was a microcosm-within the borders of the supposedly loyal northern states-of the larger Civil War between the North and South. The riots erupted over the same polarizing issues--of slavery versus freedom for African/i>… See more details below
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As Barnet Schecter dramatically shows in The Devil's Own Work, the cataclysm in New York was anything but an isolated incident; rather, it was a microcosm-within the borders of the supposedly loyal northern states-of the larger Civil War between the North and South. 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. And the riots' aftermath foreshadowed the compromises that would bedevil Reconstruction and delay the process of integration for the next 100 years.
The story of the draft riots come alive in the voices of passionate newspaper rivals Horace Greeley and Manton Marble; black leader Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and renegade Democrat Fernando Wood; Irish soldier Peter Welsh and conservative diarist Maria Daly; and many others. In chronicling this violent demonstration over the balance between centralized power and civil liberties in a time of national emergency, The Devil's Own Work (Walt Whitman's characterization of the riots) sheds new light on the Civil War era and on the history of protest and reform in America.
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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.
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.
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).