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The early July morning broke tranquilly over the great city, and the rattling of vehicles was heard in some of the streets, where men were going to their places of business. In a large portion of it everything wore its usual air of tranquility, yet a close observer would notice an uneasiness resting on the countenances of men. Furtive glances were cast down side streets, and people seemed on the watch, as though in expectation of something to come, and the very atmosphere appeared laden with evil omens. Around police head-quarters, and inside the building, were large bodies of policemen and the U. S. troops under General Brown. But uptown, in the vicinity of Thirteenth Street and Second and Third Avenues, crowds of men began early to assemble, though perfectly quiet in their demeanor, while smaller knots in the adjoining wards could be seen discussing the events of the day before. In the meantime, exciting reports came from Harlem and Yorkville as early as five o’clock, the following telegram was sent to the Twentieth Precinct: “Notify General Sandford to go immediately to Eighty-sixth Street and Harlem mob burning.” Indeed the air was charged with electricity, but the commissioners now felt ready to meet the storm whenever and wherever it should burst. A large force of special policemen had been sworn in, while General Brown had over seven hundred troops, ready to co operate with the police. The public buildings were all well guarded Sandford had a strong force in the arsenal, and the military and civil authorities stood waiting the next movement of the mob. Telegrams arriving, showed that the northern part of the city was alive with gathering crowds, while from Sixth Avenue on the west nearly to Second Avenue in the east, and down almost to Broome Street, the streets were black with excited men. Stores were closed, factories emptied of their hands, who voluntarily joined the rioters, or were forced into their ranks, and there was evidently a gathering of the elements in those directions for a fearful storm. Soon immense crowds began to patrol the streets in different wards, showing that simultaneous action would be required at various points. The troops were called out and marshaled in Mulberry Street, and those companies selected for immediate action drawn up in line. Colonel Frothingham, after an earnest conversation with the officers, addressed the soldiers. He told them that the fate of the city was in their hands, and everything depended on their good conduct. Knowing the temptations to disorderly conduct in the midst of the great city, he urged on them especially to obey implicitly their officers under all circumstances. His manner and words were earnest, and listened to with profound attention. Soon a company headed by Sergeant Carpenter, with a police force two hundred and fifty strong, started for Second and Third Avenues, where the greatest gatherings were reported to be.
At this time the rioters seemed hesitating about their course of action. There was apparently no recognized leader, no common understanding and purpose, though all were engaged in animated discussions of some topic. Dirty, ferocious-looking women were scattered through the crowd; some of the men were armed, while all looked defiant and determined.
There were doubtless many who had come from mere curiosity, and a few attempted to allay the excitement, among them a Catholic priest, who harangued them, urging them to maintain peace. His address seemed to have considerable influence on those immediately around him; but as soon as he left, his words were forgotten, and the mighty throng, estimated by some at ten thousand, began to be agitated by passion. What would have been the first act of violence, it is impossible to say, had they been left undisturbed. But at the cry of “the police and soldiers are coming,” everything else was forgotten.
Inspector Carpenter, coming down Twenty-first Street, struck Second Avenue, and wheeling, moved in solid column through the crowd up to Thirty-second Street. The force was assailed with hoots and yells, and all kinds of opprobrious epithets, but no violence was shown, until it had crossed Thirty-second Street. The mob not only filled the street, but numbers, with piles of stones and brick bats, had climbed to the roofs of the houses. These deeming themselves secure, suddenly, with one accord, rained their missiles on the rear of the column.
The men fell rapidly, and two were dangerously hurt. Carpenter immediately halted his command, and ordered fifty men to enter the houses, and mounting to the roof, clear them of the assailants. Barricaded doors were at once broken in, and every one that opposed their progress clubbed without mercy, as they made their way to the upper floors. Captain Mount of the Eleventh Precinct, led this storming party. Officers Watson and Cole distinguished themselves by being the first on the roof, fighting their way through a narrow scuttle. As the police, one by one, stepped on to the roof, they rushed on the desperadoes with their clubs, and felled them rapidly. Those who attempted to escape through the scuttles were met by the police in the rooms below; or if one chanced to reach the street, he was knocked down by those keeping guard there. Some dropped from second and third story windows, and met with a worse fate than those who staid behind. One huge fellow received such a tremendous blow, that he was knocked off his feet and over the edge of the roof, and fell headlong down a height of four stories to the pavement beneath. Crushed to death by the force of the fall, he lay a mangled heap at the feet of his companions.
The fight was sharp and fierce, and kept up for nearly an hour, and bodies scattered around showed with what deadly force the club had been wielded. But with the clearing of the houses there came a lull in the conflict, and the immense crowd looked on in sullen silence, as the police reformed in the street, and recommenced their march. The military force that had accompanied the police, had formed on the avenue, about a block and a half above where the latter were stationed, while the detachment was clearing the houses. Two howitzers were placed in position commanding the avenue. Colonel O’Brien, of the Eleventh New York Volunteers, who was raising a regiment for the war, had gathered together, apparently on his own responsibility, about fifty men, and appearing on the field, from his superior rank, assumed command. For a short time the rioters remained quiet, but as the police marched away, they suddenly awoke out of their apparent indifference. Maddened at the sight of the mangled bodies of their friends stretched on the pavement, and enraged at their defeat by the police, they now turned on the soldiers, and began to pelt them with stones and brick bats. O’Brien rode up and down the centre of the street a few times, evidently thinking his fearless bearing would awe the mob. But they only jeered him, and finding the attack growing hotter and more determined, he finally gave the order to fire. The howitzers belched forth on the crowd, the soldiers leveled their pieces, and the whistling of minie balls was heard on every side. Men and women, reeled and fell on the sidewalk and in the street. One woman, with her child in her arms, fell, pierced with a bullet. The utmost consternation followed. The crowd knew from sad experience that the police would use their clubs, but they seemed to think it hardly possible that the troops would fire point blank into their midst. But the deadly effect of the fire convinced them of their error, and they began to jostle and crowd each other in the effort to get out of its range. In a few minutes the avenue was cleared of the living, when the wounded and dead were cared for by their friends. Order had been restored, and O’Brien, with some twenty or thirty men, marched down to police head quarters, and offered his services to Genera Brown. Colonel Frothingham thanked him, but soon saw that the Colonel was not in a fit state to have command of troops, and so reported to General Brown. O’Brien appeared to comprehend the state of things, and asked to be excused on the plea of sickness. He was excused, and rode away. Whether he disbanded his handful of men, or they disbanded themselves, was not stated, but he was soon back again at the scene of the riot. His residence was close by, but had been deserted that morning by the family, which had fled in alarm to Brooklyn. Scowling visages lowered on the colonel, as he rode slowly back among the crowd, and low muttered threats were heard. Although an Irishman, and well-known in that neighborhood, his sympathy with the Government had awakened more or less hostile feeling against him, which his conduct today kindled into deadly hate. Apparently unconscious or reckless of this, he dismounted, and entered a neighboring drug-store or saloon. After remaining a few moments he came out, and paused as he beheld the crowd that had assembled around the door. There was little said, but dark and angry countenances were bent on him from every side, and he saw that mischief was intended. Drawing his sword, and taking a revolver in the other hand, he deliberately walked out into the street. He had taken but a few steps, when a powerful blow on the back of his head made him stagger forward. In an instant a rush was made for him, and blows were rained so fast and fierce upon him, that he was unable to defend himself. Knocked down and terribly mangled, he was dragged with savage brutality over the rough pavement, and swung from side to side like a billet of wood, till the large, powerful body was a mass of gore, and the face beaten to a pumice. The helpless but still animate form would then be left awhile in the street, while the crowd, as it swayed to and fro, gazed on it with cool indifference or curses. At length a Catholic priest, who had either been sent for, or came along to offer his services wherever they might be needed, approached the dying man and read the service of the Catholic Church over him, the crowd in the meantime remaining silent. After he had finished, he told them to leave the poor man alone, as he was fast sinking. But as soon as he had disappeared, determined to make sure work with their victim, they again began to pound and trample on the body. In the intervals of the attack, the still living man would feebly lift his head, or roll it from side to side on the stones, or heave a faint groan.
The whole afternoon was spent in this fiendish work, and no attempt was made to rescue him. Towards sundown the body was dragged into his own back yard, his regimentals all torn from him, except his pantaloons, leaving the naked body, from the waist up, a mass of mangled flesh clotted with blood.
But the dying man could not be left alone in his own yard. A crowd followed him thither, among which were women, who committed the most atrocious violence on the body, until at last, with one convulsive movement of the head, and a deep groan, the strong man yielded up his life.
While this tragedy was being enacted here, similar scenes were occurring all over the city. Mobs were everywhere, the spirit of pandemonium was abroad, and havoc and revenge let loose.
Lieutenant Wood, whom General Brown had sent off, with a company of regulars, came in conflict with a mob, two thousand strong, in Pitt and Delancey Streets. Marching along Houston to the Bowery, he turned down the latter, and kept on to Grand. On reaching Pitt Street, he beheld the hooting, yelling crowd coming straight towards him. He immediately formed his little force of one hundred and fifty men in line across the street, and brought them to “shoulder arms.” One of the ringleaders stepped forward to speak to him, when Lieutenant Wood waved him off. This was the signal for the attack, and immediately a shower of stones fell among the soldiers. The officer ordered the men to fire it was said over the heads of the rioters in order to disperse them. The result was scattering shots in return from the latter. Wood then ordered a point blank volley, when men tumbled over right and left. The crowd did not wait for a second, but fled in every direction. Wood then marched back to headquarters, but on the way slipped and sprained his ankle, which caused a report that he had been wounded.
A bloody conflict also took place between the police and mob in the same avenue where Colonel O’Brien fell, below Thirtieth Street. There was a wire factory here, in which several thousand carbines were stored. Of this, some of the rioters were aware, and communicated the fact to others, and a plan was formed to capture them. Having discovered from the morning’s experience that the military had been called in to aid the police, arms became imperatively necessary, if they hoped to make a successful resistance. All public depositories of arms they knew were guarded, but this factory was not, and hence they resolved to capture it without delay. Swarming around it, they forced the entrance, and began to throw out the carbines to their friends. The attack, however, had been telegraphed to head-quarters, and Inspector Dilks was dispatched with two hundred men to save the building, and recover any arms that might be captured. He marched rapidly up to Twenty-first Street, and down it to the avenue. Here he came suddenly upon the mob, that blocked the entire street. As the head of the force appeared, the rioters, instead of being frightened, greeted it with jeers and curses. It was two hundred against a thousand; but the inspector did not hesitate a moment on account of the inequality of numbers, but instantly formed his men and ordered a charge. The mob, instead of recoiling, closed desperately on the police, and a fierce hand-to-hand encounter took place. The clubs, however, mowed a clean swath along the street, and the compact little force pushed like a wedge into the throng, and cleared a bloody space for itself. The orders were to recapture all the arms; for this was of more vital importance than the capture of men. Wherever, therefore, a musket was seen, a man would dash for it, and, seizing it, fight his way back into line. On the pavement, the sidewalk, and in the gutters, men lay bleeding and dying, until at last, the more resolute having been knocked on the head, the vast crowd, like a herd of buffalo, broke and tore madly down the street. One of the leaders was a man of desperate courage, and led on the mob with reckless fury, though bleeding freely from the terrible punishment he received. As his comrades turned to flee, leaving him alone, a fearful blow sent him reeling and staggering towards the sidewalk. As he reached it, he fell heavily over against the iron railing, and his chin striking one of the iron pickets, the sharp point entered it and penetrated through to the roof of his mouth. No one noticed him, or if they did, paid no attention to him in the headlong flight on the one hand, and swift pursuit on the other. Thus horridly impaled, his body hanging down along the sidewalk, the wretched man was left to die. At length Captain Hedden noticed him, and lifting up the corpse, laid it down on the sidewalk. It was found, to the surprise of all, to be that of a young man of delicate features and white, fair skin. “Although dressed as a laborer, in dirty overalls and filthy shirt, underneath these were fine cassimere pants, handsome, rich vest, and fine linen shirt.” He was evidently a man in position far above the rough villains he led on, but had disguised himself so, as not to be known. He never was known. The corpse, during the fight that followed, disappeared with the bodies of many others.
The street being cleared, Dilks turned his attention to the factory, which was filled with armed rioters, who were determined to defend it to the last. Detaching a portion of his force, he ordered it to take the building by storm. Dashing over all obstacles, the men won the stairway step by step, and entering the main room on the second story, felled a man at almost every blow. Those who succeeded in escaping down-stairs were knocked on the head by the force in the street, and soon no rioters were left but the dead and dying. How many fell in this fight it is impossible to tell; but one physician alone dressed the wounds of twenty-one desperately wounded men. Taking what guns they could find and had captured in the street, the force marched triumphantly back, cheered on their way by the spectators.
In the meantime, Mayor Opdyke’s house in Fifth Avenue had again been attacked and partially sacked. Captain Maniere, one of the provost marshals, however, assembled a small force, and drove out the rioters, who were mostly young men and boys, before the work of destruction was complete. The news of this attack had been telegraphed to head-quarters of the police, and Captain Helme, of the Twenty-seventh Precinct, dispatched to its defense. At his approach the rioters dispersed. Soon after, he was ordered with his command over to the Second Avenue, accompanied by a detachment of troops under Captain Franklin. This was in the afternoon the mob had reassembled, and reinforced by those who had been dispersed at Thirty-fourth Street, where Colonel O’Brien fell, had overcome the small body of police at the wire factory, and again taken possession of it. They had found some boxes of guns that had been overlooked by Dilks, and having armed themselves, determined to hold it. Even women joined in the defense. As the force approached, it was greeted with shouts of defiance and missiles of every kind. An immense crowd was gathered outside, while the windows of the five story building were filled with angry, excited faces, and arms wildly gesticulating. Charging on this dense mass, and clubbing their way to the building, the police entered it, and streaming up the stairways, cleared it floor by floor, some being knocked senseless, others leaping from windows, to be killed by the fall, and others escaping down stairs, to be met by the force in the street. A thorough search was now made for arms, and the building emptied of them. Taking possession of these, the police and military took up their line of march for head-quarters. They had not proceeded far, however, before the mob that had scattered in every direction began to pour back again into the avenue, and close on the military that were bringing up the rear. Following them with hoots and yells that were unheeded, they became emboldened, and pressing nearer, began to hurl stones and bricks, and everything they could lay their hands on, against the soldiers. The latter bore it for awhile patiently; but this only made the wretches more fierce and daring. Seeing there was but one way to end this, Captain Franklin ordered his men to “About face;” and “ready, aim, fire,” fell in quick succession. The yelling, shouting crowd were in point blank range, and the volley told with deadly effect. The street was strewed with dead and dying, while the living fled down the avenue.
In the meantime, mobs had sprung up in every part of the city; some larger and some smaller; some after Negroes, others firing buildings or sacking them.
Some idea of the pressure on the Police Commissioners during this forenoon, and the condition the city was in, may be gathered from the following dispatches, which are only a small portion of those received and answered in two hours:
10.20. From Thirteenth. Send military here immediately.
10.22. To Seventh. Find military and send them to Thirteenth Street forthwith.
10.45. From Sixteenth. A mob has just attacked Jones’ soap factory; stores all closed.
10.50. To Twenty-sixth. Tell Inspector Leonard to send one hundred men here forthwith.
10.55. To Twentieth. From General Brown. Send to arsenal and say a heavy battle is going on. Captain Wilkins and company of regulars will report to me here at once.
11.18. From Sixteenth. Mob is coming down to station house; we have no men.
11.20. From Eighteenth. The mob is very wild, corner Twenty-second Street and Second Avenue. They have attacked the Union steam factory.
11.35. To Twenty-sixth. Send another one hundred men here forthwith.
11.35. From Twentieth. Send one hundred men to disperse mob assailing Mayor Opdyke’s house.
11.38. To Twenty-first. Can you send a few men here?
11.40. From Twenty-second. The mob has gone to Mr. Higgins’ factory, foot of Forty-third Street, to burn it.
11.45. From Eighteenth. What shall we do? The mob is about 4,500 strong.
Answer. Clear them down, if you can.
11.50. From Eighteenth. We must leave; the mob is here with guns.
11.50. From Twentieth. Mob tearing up track on Eleventh Avenue.
11.58. The mob have just sacked a large gun store in Grand Street, and are armed, and are on the way to attack us.
12.10. To Fifteenth. Send your men here forthwith.
12.35. From Twentieth. Send two hundred men forthwith to Thirty-fifth Street arsenal.
12.36. From Twenty-first. The mob have just broken open a gun store on Third Avenue, between Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh Streets, and are arming.
12.40. From Twenty-first. Send help the crowd is desperate.
And so on.
Between these rapid telegrams asking for help, were others making and answering inquiries. And so it was kept up from daylight till midnight for three days in succession. These urgent calls for help coming from every quarter at the same time, would have thrown into inextricable confusion a less clear head than Acton’s. It was a terrible strain on him, and had it continued a little longer, would have cost him his life. In the midst of it all he received anonymous letters, telling him he had but one more day to live.
But while the police head-quarters were thus crowded with business, and the commissioners were straining every nerve to meet the frightful state of things in the city, other means were being taken to add to their efficiency.
Governor Seymour had reached the city, and after being closeted with Mayor Opdyke, had issued a proclamation, calling on the rioters to disperse, and saying that they would be put down at all hazards.
At a meeting of the merchants and bankers in Wall Street, it was resolved to close up business, and form volunteer companies of a hundred men each, to serve under the military. General Wetmore was one of the first to offer his services. The high spirited citizen, William E. Dodge, was among the most prominent advocates of the measure, and soon found himself a captain under orders. The steamboat of the harbor police was busy in bringing troops and cannon from Riker’s and Governor’s Island, and rapidly steaming from point to point on the river, to prevent destruction around the docks. Around the arsenal cannon were placed. At the city armory, corner of White and Elm Streets, were a company of the Eighty-fourth New York Militia, and some of the Zouaves and other troops. The Sub-treasury and Custom House were defended by the Tenth National Zouaves and a hundred and fifty armed citizens. In front of the Government stores in Worth and White streets, the Invalid Corps and a company of marines patrolled, while howitzers loaded with grape and canister, stood on the corner of the street. Nearly four hundred citizens had been sworn in at police head-quarters as special policemen, and had been furnished with clubs and badges. All this time the fight was going on in every direction, while the fire bells continually ringing increased the terror that every hour became more wide-spread. Especially was this true of the Negro population. From the outset, they had felt they were to be objects of vengeance, and all day Monday and today those who could leave, fled into the country. They crowded the ferry boats in every direction, fleeing for life. But old men and women, and poor families, were compelled to stay behind, and meet the fury of the mob, and today it became a regular hunt for them. A sight of one in the streets would call forth a halloo, as when, a fox breaks cover, and away would dash a half a dozen men in pursuit. Sometimes a whole crowd streamed after with shouts and curses, that struck deadly terror to the heart of the fugitive. If overtaken, he was pounded to death at once; if he escaped into a Negro house for safety, it was set on fire, and the inmates made to share a common fate. Deeds were done and sights witnessed that one would not have dreamed of, except among savage tribes.
At one time there lay at the corner of Twenty seventh-Street and Seventh Avenue the dead body of a Negro, stripped nearly naked, and around it a collection of Irishmen, absolutely dancing or shouting like wild Indians. Sullivan and Roosevelt Streets are great Negro quarters, and here a Negro was afraid to be seen in the street. If in want of something from a grocery, he would carefully open the door, and look up and down to see if any one was watching, and then steal cautiously forth, and hurry home on his errand. Two boarding houses here were surrounded by a mob, but the lodgers, seeing the coming storm, fled. The desperadoes, finding only the owner left behind, wreaked their vengeance on him, and after beating him unmercifully, broke up the furniture, and then fired the buildings. A German store near by, because it was patronized extensively by Negroes, shared the same fate, after its contents had been distributed among themselves. A Negro barber’s shop was next attacked, and the torch applied to it. A Negro lodging house in the same street next received the visit of these furies, and was soon a mass of ruins. Old men, seventy years of age, and young children, too young to comprehend what it all meant, were cruelly beaten and killed. The spirit of hell seemed to have entered the hearts of these men, and helpless womanhood was no protection against their rage. Sometimes a stalwart Negro would break away from his murderers, and run for his life. With no place of safety to which he could flee, he would be headed off in every direction, and forced towards the river. Driven at last to the end of a pier, he would leap off, preferring to take his chances in the water rather than among these bloody men. If bruised and beaten in his desperate struggle for life, he would soon sink exhausted with his efforts. Sometimes he would strike out for a ship, but more often dive under the piers, and hold on to a timber for safety, until his yelling pursuers had disappeared, when he would crawl stealthily out, and with terrified face peer in every direction to see if they had gone. Two were thus run off together into the East River. It was a strange spectacle to see a hundred Irishmen pour along the streets after a poor Negro. If he could reach a police station he felt safe; but, alas! if the force happened to be away on duty, he could not stay even there. Whenever the police could strike the track of the mad hunt, they stopped it summarily, and the pursuers became the pursued, and received the punishment they had designed for the Negro. All this was in the nineteenth century, and in the metropolis of the freest and most enlightened nation on earth.
The hunt for these poor creatures became so fearful, and the utter impossibility to protect them in their scattered localities so apparent, that they were received into the police stations. But these soon proved inadequate, and they were taken to head-quarters and the arsenal, where they could be protected against the mob. Here the poor creatures were gathered by hundreds, and slept on the floor, and were regularly fed by the authorities.
Great Riots of New York 1712 to 1873, Including a Full and Complete Account of the Four Days’ Draft Riot of 1863