The Boston Draft Riot
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The Boston Draft Riot William E Hanna During the third week of July 1863, as mobs of draft rioters roamed the streets of New York City, another potentially disastrous confrontation was brewing 250 miles to the north, in Boston. This affair had a less tragic conclusion, perhaps explaining why historians have devoted less attention to it. In Boston, quick, decisive action by city and state authorities, coupled with prompt cooperation from the Catholic community , kept loss of life and destruction of property to a minimum. Likewise a further examination of the Boston riot uncovers other significant differences between the two disturbances. Just as in New York City, the Irish had a prominent part in the Boston riot. With a total population in 1863 of about 182,000, the city's Irish numbered well over fifty thousand,1 and the North End, where the riot occurred, was one of the two largest Irish enclaves. Since coming to the North End in great numbers beginning in the late 1840s, the Irish had lived in a state of poverty and degradation that shocked most Bostonians. Packed into squalid tenements that lined dark and filthy streets, they attempted to scrape out a meager existence as dock hands, construction laborers, or domestic servants. Their poverty, with its attendant crime, disease, and idleness, placed a heavy and unwelcome burden on the city's resources.2 Yet the Boston Irish were proud of the part they had played in defending the Union. The state contributed two entire Irish regiments, and in 1 City of Boston, Report by the Registrar of Births, Marriages, and Deaths in the City ofBostonfor the Year ¡862, City Document No. 34, p. 13; Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Abstract of the Census of Massachusetts ¡860, from the Eighth U.S. Census with Remarks on the Same (Boston: Wright & Potter, State Printers, 1863), table 4, 124. In 1860 the Irish population of Suffolk County was 48,095. 2 For example, in Ward One in the North End, the City of Boston spent nine times more money for the relief of foreigners than for natives. In neighboring Ward Three, the amount was six times greater. City of Boston, Report of the Committee on the Communication of the Overseers of the Poor, 1863, City Document No. 55, p. 10; see also Paula Todisco, Boston's First Neighborhood: The North End (Boston: Boston Public Library, 1976), 19-27. Civil War History, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, c 1990 by the Kent State University Press BOSTON DRAFT RIOT263 both—the 9th and 28th Massachusetts Volunteers—North Enders were heavily represented. Additionally, Company E of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment, previously known as Mahoney's Guards, was composed mainly of Irishmen, and here too there was a large contingent of Bostonians. The tragedy of war found its way quickly to the North End because all three of the Irish outfits suffered heavily throughout 1862 and 1863. On the Peninsula, the 9th Regiment suffered more than two hundred casualties. Similarly the 28th, which had seen almost one-quarter of its members fall at Antietam, was transferred to the famed Irish Brigade and arrived just in time to be slaughtered at Fredericksburg, where almost 40 percent of the regiment were killed or wounded. Finally, Mahoney's Guards, after valiant action and heavy losses on the Peninsula and at Antietam and Fredericksburg, had joined the rest of the 19th Massachusetts in helping to repulse Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, where the regiment saw more than half its members killed or wounded.3 Despite their gallantry on the battlefield, the Boston Irish had immediately opposed the Enrollment Act of March 1863. Army enlistments were declining, they contended, because of Lincoln's "absurd" Emancipation Proclamation, further unfortunate proof of Republican "nigger on the brain" disease. They saw the draft law as "downright Caesarism," a punitive measure directed at the foreign-born. The Irish, unable to pay the commutation fee or hire substitutes, would be called upon to give their lives in support of a policy that they wholeheartedly opposed.4 Thus political alienation and smoldering anger, when added to poverty and despair, made the teeming streets of the North End ripe for civil disorder. The...


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