During the summer of 1863, things were quite tense in New York City. Poor Irish immigrants competed with free blacks for working-class jobs. At the beginning of the year, Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This inflamed passions, as many working-class whites feared even more competition for jobs.
Congress made the situation even worse, passing the first draft in American history. But wealthy men could pay a commutation fee of $300 (about $5,500 in today’s money) to hire a substitute to take their place. And because blacks were not citizens, they, too did hot have to register. This left many newly-naturalized men, especially Irish men, to be drafted with no escape.
The second drawing of draft numbers occurred on Monday, July 13, 1863, just days after the Battle of Gettysburg. A riot broke out at the drawing. Because the New York Militia had been sent to Pennsylvania, the small city police department was left alone to quell the riots that it was understaffed and ill-prepared to deal with. For three days, the city experienced the worst rioting in the nation’s history. One of the first casualties was the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and 5th Avenue. Hundreds of children were left without shelter when it was burned to the ground. Over the course of the riots, 11 blacks were lynched, and more than 100 others were killed.
Recently, however, graduate student Virginia Ferris published an interesting piece in the American Journal of Irish Studies. She researched a number of families in New York after the riots. In 1870, less than a decade after the riots, she found 80 couples living in Manhattan’s eighth ward (an area which today includes SoHo and parts of Greenwich Village). What was so unique about these couples was that they were interracial couples.
What she discovered was that for many, their shared experiences as poor, marginalized people in the city overcame racial prejudices. Most of the couples were black men who had married Irish immigrant women. They built families and community all the while surrounded by negativity. What is very interesting is that while the riots raged in New York, they never reached the eighth ward. This area remained calm and peaceful, despite what was going on elsewhere. The families they had built helped to insulate them against the violence.
Stories like this show us how important it is to challenge our assumptions when we are researching. We often think that things like interracial marriage or illegitimate children are modern concepts. The truth is that there is very little new under the sun, and following the evidence can help you find the stories of your family.
Columnist Rachel L. Swarns recently wrote about Ferris and her work. You can read her piece, After Deadly Draft Riots, a Shared Experience Reshaped Families in Manhattan, in the New York Times.