Character of a City illustrated by Riots.
New Material for History of Draft Riots. History of the
Rebellion incomplete without History of them. The Fate of
the Nation resting on the Issues of the Struggle in New York
City. The best Plan to adopt for Protection against Mobs.
The history of the riots that have taken place in a great city from its foundation, is a curious and unique one, and illustrates the peculiar changes in tone and temper that have come over it in the course of its development and growth. They exhibit also one phase of its moral character, furnish a sort of moral history of that vast, ignorant, turbulent class which is one of the distinguishing features of a great city, and at the same time the chief cause of its solicitude and anxiety, and often of dread.
The immediate cause, however, of my taking up the subject, was a request from some of the chief actors in putting down the Draft Riots of 1863, to write a history of them. It was argued that it had never been written, except in a detached and fragmentary way in the daily press, which, from the hurried manner in which it was done, was necessarily incomplete, and more or less erroneous.
It was also said, and truly, that those who, by their courage and energy, saved the city, and who now would aid me not only officially, but by their personal recollections and private memoranda, would soon pass away, and thus valuable material be lost.
Besides these valid reasons, it was asserted that the history of the rebellion was not complete without it, and yet no historian of that most important event in our national life had given the riots the prominence they deserved, but simply referred to them as a side issue, instead of having a vital bearing on the fate of the war and the nation. On no single battle or campaign did the destiny of the country hinge as upon that short, sharp campaign carried on by General Brown and the Police Commissioners against the rioters in the streets of New York, in the second week of July, 1863. Losses and defeats in the field could be and were repaired, but defeat in New York would in all probability have ended the war. It is not necessary to refer to the immediate direct effects of such a disaster on the army in the field, although it is scarcely possible to over estimate the calamitous results that would have followed the instantaneous stoppage, even for a short time, of the vast accumulations of provisions, ammunition, and supplies of all kinds, that were on their way to the army through New York. Nor is it necessary to speculate on the effect of the diversion of troops from the front that such an event would have compelled, in order to recover so vital a point. Washington had better be uncovered than New York be lost. One thing only is needed to show how complete and irreparable the disaster would have been; namely, the effect it would have had on the finances of the country. With the great banking houses and moneyed institutions of New York sacked and destroyed, the financial credit of the country would have broken down utterly. The crash of falling houses all over the country that would have followed financial disaster here, would have been like that of falling trees in a forest swept by a hurricane. Had the rioters got complete possession of the city but for a single day, their first dash would have been for the treasures piled up in its moneyed institutions. Once in possession of these, they, like the mobs of Paris, would have fired the city before yielding them up. In the crisis that was then upon us, it would not have required a long stoppage in this financial centre of the country to have effected a second revolution. With no credit abroad and no money at home, the Government would have been completely paralyzed. Not long possession of the city was needed, but only swift destruction.
Doubtless the disastrous effects would have been increased tenfold, if possible, by uprisings in other cities, which events showed were to follow. Even partial success developed hostile elements slumbering in various parts of the country, and running from Boston almost to the extreme West.
In this view of the case, these riots assume a magnitude and importance that one cannot contemplate without a feeling of terror, and the truth of history requires that their proper place should be assigned them, and those who put them down have an honorable position beside our successful commanders and brave soldiers. It is also important, as a lesson for the future, and naturally brings up the question, what are the best measures, and what is the best policy for the city of New York to adopt, in order to protect itself from that which today constitutes its greatest danger mob violence? If it ever falls in ruins, the work of destruction will commence and end within its own limits. We have a police and city military which have been thought to be sufficient, but experience has shown that though this provision may be ample to restore law and order in the end, it works slowly, often unwisely, and always with an unnecessary expenditure of life. In conversing with those of largest experience and intelligence in the police department on this subject of such great and growing importance, we are convinced, from their statements and views, a vast improvement in this matter can be made, while the cost to the city, instead of being increased, will be lessened; that is, a cheaper, wiser, and more effectual plan than the present one can be adopted. Of course this does not refer to mere local disturbances, which the police force in the ordinary discharge of its duties can quell, but to those great outbreaks which make it necessary to call out the military. Not that there might not be exigencies in which it would be necessary to resort, not only to the military of the city, but to invoke the aid of neighboring States; for a riot may assume the proportions of a revolution, but for such no local permanent remedy can be furnished.
The objections to relying on the military, as we invariably do in case of a large mob, are many. In the first place, it takes the best part of a day to get the troops together, so that a mob, so far as they are concerned, has time not only to waste and destroy for many hours, but increase in strength and audacity. The members of the various regiments are scattered all over the city, engaged in different occupations and employments, and without previous notice being given, it is a long and tedious process to get them to their respective headquarters and in uniform. This wastes much and most valuable time. Besides, they are compelled to reach the mustering place singly or in small groups, and hence liable to be cut off or driven back by the mob, which in most cases would know the place of rendezvous.
In the second place, the members are taken out from the mass of the people, between whom there might be a strong sympathy in some particular outbreak, which would impair their efficiency, and make them hesitate to shoot down their friends and acquaintances.
In the third place, in ordinary peace times, these uniformed regiments are not the steadiest or most reliable troops, as was witnessed in the riots of 1863, as well as in those of the Astor Place in 1849.
They hesitate, or are apt to become hasty or disorganized in a close, confused fight, and driven back. In the commencement of a riot, a defeat of the military gives increased confidence, and indeed, power to a mob, and snakes the sacrifice of life, in the end, far greater.
In the fourth place, clearing the streets does not always dissipate a mob. A whole block of houses may become a fortress, which it is necessary to storm before a permanent victory is gained. Half disciplined men, unaccustomed, and unskilled to such work, make poor headway with their muskets through narrow halls, up stairways, and through scuttle holes.
In the fifth place, the military of the city cannot be called away from their work for two or three days, to parade the city, without a heavy expense, and hence the process is a costly one.
In the last place, the firing of these troops at the best is not very judicious, and cannot be discriminating, so that those are shot down often least culpable, and of least influence in the mob in fact, more lives usually are taken than is necessary.
The simplest, most efficient, and most economical plan would be to select five hundred or more of the most courageous, experienced, and efficient men from the police department, and form them into a separate battalion, and have them drilled in such evolutions, maneuvers, and modes of attack or defense, as would belong to the work they were set apart to do. A battery might be given them in case of certain emergencies, and a portion carefully trained in its use. At a certain signal of the bell, they should be required to hasten, without a moment's delay, to their head-quarters. A mob could hardly be gathered and commence work before this solid body of disciplined, reliable men would be upon them. These five hundred men would scatter five thousand rioters like chaff before them. It would be more efficient than two entire regiments, even if assembled, and would be worth more than the whole military of the city for the first half day.
Besides, clubs are better than guns. They take no time to load they are never discharged like muskets, leaving their owners for the time at the mercy of the mob. Their volleys are incessant and perpetual, given as long and fast as strong arms can strike. They are also more discriminating than bullets, hitting the guilty ones first. Moreover, they disable rather than kill, which is just as effectual, and far more desirable. In addition to all this, being trained to one purpose, instructed to one duty, a mob would be their natural enemies, and hence sympathy with them in any cause almost impossible.
Great Riots of New York 1712 to 1873, Including a Full and Complete Account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863