Posts Tagged ‘New York in the Civil War’

The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began

July 13, 2020

It’s the worst riot in New York City history, and it kicked off 157 years ago today.

On July 13, 1863, with the Civil War raging, the New York Draft Riots began: four days of mostly working-class Irish men marauded across the city—burning homes and buildings and targeting police, abolitionists, pro-war newspaper offices, and black residents, among others.

“By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality,” states An estimated 119 people were killed, and countless buildings destroyed.

Though the riots spread to parts of Brooklyn on the third day, most of the violence took place in Manhattan. The atrocities kicked off on this unassuming East Midtown corner at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Why here? This is where the Ninth District provost marshal’s office was located. A new federal conscription law had been passed, and the names of all men in the district who were deemed eligible for military duty were entered into a lottery here. Those selected would be called up to serve.

The draft law was unpopular among working men. “The complaints—and the violence that followed—focused mainly on two exempted groups: the rich, who could pay $300 to escape the draft, and blacks, who were not considered citizens,” wrote the New York Times in 2017.

The first day of the lottery, Saturday, July 11, was peaceful. The second drawing, two days later on Monday morning, took a dark turn.

“Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops, and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work,” stated Stephen D. Lut in an 2000 article in America’s Civil War, via historynet. “By 8 o’clock, the workers were streaming up Eighth and Ninth avenues, closing shops, factories, and construction sites and urging their workers to join them.”

“The procession congregated in Central Park for a brief meeting, then formed into two columns that marched to the Ninth District provost marshal’s office. They carried ‘NO DRAFT’ placards.”

As the lottery got underway, the crowd of about 500 outside threw stones and bricks at the windows, terrifying families who lived on the upper floors of the building, according to a Times article written the next day.

The crowd battled their way inside, destroyed paperwork, beat the deputy provost marshal, and fought off policemen who tried to quell the disorder.

A fire was lit—possibly by firemen who joined in the rioting—and the entire block was consumed, touching off bloodshed and destruction all across Manhattan. A month after the riots were finally stopped by 4,000 federal troops, the draft lottery process resumed.

[Second image: Digital Library of America; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: House Divided/Dickenson College]

The beautiful fortress near Gramercy Park

September 15, 2014

When plans were being drawn up for the new armory for New York’s fabled 69th Regiment in 1901, architects Richard and Joseph Hunt (sons of Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) rejected the Medieval style of most city armories of the era.

Instead, they created something new, commanding, and beautiful.

69th armory postcard

This Beaux-Arts fortress, spanning Park and Lexington Avenues at 25th Street, still had a military feel, with its massive drill hall and gun bays along the Lexington Avenue side.

Twin plaques on the facade list the Civil War battlegrounds where the “fighting 69th” earned their nickname from Robert E. Lee.

It’s a solid, beautiful armory, one of a small group in Manhattan that still remains—used for shows, fairs, and of course, the famous 1913 Armory Show, where modern art made its startling New York City debut.

A deadly fire rages through Barnum’s Museum

December 21, 2013

If you wanted to see exotic animals in mid-19th century New York, there was one option: P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (below, in 1858).

Barnumsmuseum1858Located on Broadway and Ann Street, the museum was famous for its freaks: Anna the Giantess, the Feejee Mermaid, and Siamese twins Chang and Eng, among others.

But Barnum wasn’t all about human oddities.

He displayed an incredible menagerie of exotic creatures New Yorkers would not have been able to see otherwise.

For 25 cents, up to 15,000 visitors a day observed live beluga whales, monkeys, birds, and snakes—until July 13, 1865.

On that post-Civil War day, a terrible fire tore through the museum building. Firefighters arrived quickly to aid the human exhibits, but the flames spelled doom for many of the animals.


“The whales were, of course, burned alive, wrote The New York Times the next day. “At an early stage of the conflagration, the large panes of glass in the great ‘whale tank’ were broken to allow the heavy mass of water to flow upon the floor of the main saloon, and the leviathan natives of Labrador, when last seen, were floundering in mortal agony. . . .”

BarnumsmuseumfiretigerThe snakes tried to slither away, but “their mortal coils heated quickly,” as the florid Times article stated, and they were not saved.

A kangaroo, alligator, and monkeys also perished.  A report of an escaped lion terrified crowds, but that apparently turned out to be a hoax. (Perpetuated by Barnum maybe? He certainly knew how to attract attention. )

BarnummuseumfiregiantessNed “the learned seal,” a popular exhibit, was one of the few live animals that escaped unharmed.

As for the human attractions, Anna the Giantess was too big for firemen to carry out of the burning building, so she was hoisted down via a crane.

The museum was destroyed, but Barnum rebuilt. That new museum also burned three years later. Barnum turned to circus exhibits, where his name lives on.

[Third photo: NYPL Digital Collection]

The Lincoln assassination victim from New York

October 27, 2011

It’s hard not to notice the imposing bronze statue of a cross-legged, Lincoln-like man looming over the southwest corner of Madison Square Park on 23rd Street.

That man is William H. Seward, 19th century abolitionist governor and senator from New York State who served as secretary of state under President Lincoln.

Seward never lived in the city. But his name lives on here (think Seward Park and Seward Avenue in the Bronx) because he was recognized as a great statesman . . . and maybe also thanks to his miraculous luck surviving the Lincoln assassination conspiracy in 1865.

On the night of April 14, as John Wilkes Booth aimed a gun at President Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, Booth conspirator Lewis Powell conned his way into Seward’s D.C. home, repeatedly stabbing him (below).

Incredibly, Seward didn’t succumb to his wounds; supposedly a splint on his jaw protected his jugular vein.

He recovered and stayed on as secretary of state until 1869, then died in 1872.

Oh, and don’t believe the myth that the Madison Square statue is merely Seward’s head attached to a preexisting mold of Lincoln’s body. The New York Parks Department assures us that it is not.

Who was General Slocum?

June 5, 2010

June 15th marks the 106th anniversary of the General Slocum disaster, when a paddle steamer packed with mothers and children on a church trip caught fire in the East River. 

More than 1,000 people, mainly residents of the East Village’s huge German community, perished.

Most New Yorkers know of the S.S. General Slocum. But who was General Slocum the man, and why did his name land on excursion boat associated with the greatest loss of life in city history, aside from  9/11?

Henry Warner Slocum was a Union general during the Civil War who fought in Gettysburg. Prospect Park is home to a heroic bronze statue of Slocum on horseback in battle.

After the war, he became a congressman from New York, then served as commissioner of public works for the city of Brooklyn.

When he died in 1894, thousands of Brooklynites paid their respects by lining the streets to watch his funeral procession go from his home on Clinton Avenue to Lafayette Street, South Oxford, Hanson Place, and then Fourth Avenue.

He was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery unaware of the horror that occurred aboard his namesake ship.