Sunday, July 15, 2012

The 150th Anniversary of The Perfect Powder Keg

Having come down with the "Genealogy Bug", I am enjoying not only discovering my own personal ancestry roots, but I'm also getting into delving deeper into the history of the US.

This week....July 13th-18th.....marks the 150th Anniversary of an important event in American history.
A shameful event that has been mostly ignored since it happened all those many years ago.

Many Americans look down on the racism evident in the pre-war Southern states of this country.  The economy that took root in those states, that required the implementing of the plantation system in the early dates of our country's founding, which ended up driving the slave trade to our shores.

Though Northerners have always been portrayed as morally superior to their Southern counterparts,  racism, as well as hate toward immigrants, existed and thrived in the North up through the end of the Civil War.

1863 marked the date when the 1st National Draft was instituted in the US.  All men were required to register for the draft at this point during the Civil War.  If you were between the ages of 20 and 35, no matter your marital status and if you were single between the ages of 36 and 45, you were part of the Class I list of draftees.
If you were outside of those parameters, you were put onto the Class II list or Reserves.
This Draft was only for whites, as even free Northern dwelling blacks were not considered full citizens of this country.

I have found 1 ancestor so far, on my paternal lines, that was called to register for the Draft in 1863.
His name was Robert Spencer Bowman.  He was born in 1826 in Ireland and self-reported coming to the US in 1852, as a married man, in the 1900 Census.

Here is a shot of a piece of the Class II Book from 1863, for the 11th Congressional District of NY, with his name in it.  His is the last name in the shot.  It lists his "color"(white), his age(36), where he was born(Ireland) and in the remarks section it says "Alien".

Thought the year he actually arrived is split between 1848 and 1855, we do know that he arrived aboard a ship from Liverpool that came into the Port of New York City.
So he came to American right around the time of the opening of the 1st of the 2 great immigration processing centers of the 19th century.

Everyone knows of Ellis Island but the first center was called Castle Garden.
It was located where Fort Clinton stood, a fort constructed for defense purposes during the Revolutionary times to protect the southern part of Manhattan island.  It is where a resort and park had been built in the 1820's.  By mid 1850's the resort was in disuse so it was selected to be the disembarkation/processing point for all immigrants into NY harbor.
Castle Garden saw the first large waves of immigrants, mostly from Ireland and from Germany.
My ancestor was part of this migration from Ireland due to the Great Potato Famine that plagued that isle from 1845-1852.

But I digress......
My ancestor arrived in New York City between 1848 and 1855.  After the arrival of his wife and children who had been born in Ireland in 1856, the family migrated from the city and by 1860 they are found in Montgomery, NY, 60 miles northwest of NY city, with 5 surviving children. 

Lucky for Robert Bowman & family that they weren't still in New York City at the time of the implementation of the War Draft in 1863.

Massive numbers of Irish immigrants flooded New York City, to the tune of 200,000 by 1855.  The problem was that a great many of these new Americans were the poorest of the poor from Ireland and had barely the resources to pay to get on a boat, let alone any monies to support themselves once on this shore.  They likewise, had no monies to transport themselves out of NY City and into the great expanses of the country outside of the harbor town to find a farmer to work for and in time, find their own piece of land to call their home.  The  majority of immigrants were trapped in NY City.  Imagine what it was like.....people everywhere, not enough shelter for everyone, no employment available so no way to earn a wage to feed yourself.  Overcrowding, poverty and an unchecked birth rate, which led to filthy and unsanitary conditions in the city streets that bred disease and death.

Gangs of desperate people sprung up and banded together to take care of their "own kind" and operate outside of the law since they couldn't feed themselves within it's parameters.  The Boss Tweed era of NY politics began during this time as well which added another layer of corruption onto the society.  New ships of immigrants were about as welcomed during this time and in this place as a case of dysentery.
Murder and mayhem were simmering just below the surface in the New York City of 1863.  The film, "The Gangs of New York" did a fairly good job of showing the violence that permeated Manhattan during the mid 1800's.

 The native-born Whites were not happy with these immigrants elbowing into their country.  The rich ran the government in a way to pit the native-born lower class against the newly immigrated, thus keeping the power and riches in their hands and keeping all the citizenry under their thumbs. 
The native-born Whites and the Immigrants took to forming gangs for protection. It was a lawless time and while the government couldn't be counted on, your gang was your last resort for protection.

Though free men, the Blacks in NY City were relegated to holding the jobs on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.  With the influx of this wave of foreign immigration, they saw massive competition for the few jobs available to them, as the Irish were kept out of all desirable employment.  The Irish competed with the native-born Blacks for life sustaining jobs and the labor force already here was none too pleased.  The newly arrived Irish were often not viewed as "white", but as a different race, along with the "blacks".  Both groups were looked down upon.

The immigrants as well weren't very happy once they stepped onto this shore.  Yes, they were glad to be out of Ireland and starvation there, but this new place was full of men ready to swindle you out of your last penny, to perpetrate violence and intimidation onto you at every turn to keep you from finding employment or shelter.  It was tough being a new immigrant in 1850-1860's NY.
Not only did you have to fight for your very life at the hands of your fellow citizen but you had the government making you sign up to fight and probably die in a civil war you had no hand in making!
What must they have thought in the face of all this hostility they stepped into?

For those new immigrants from Ireland it was a choice......a choice between an inevitable death by starvation in Ireland and a scratching to survive hand-to-mouth existence in America.  While not a great alternative, it was better than certain death back home.
My ancestor stepped off a ship from Ireland, after spending weeks in steerage, to be greeted by the sort of conditions I've described above.
Robert Spenser Bowman must have had a strong spirit to make it through all that to get past the New York City of circa 1852.

By the time 1863 rolled around the Civil War was in it's 3rd year of conflict.  Add in to the usual hostilities of one group toward another, the deprivations of goods available for sale to the public at large. Wartime means less food, cloth, lumber for the people.  Inadequate resources become even more limited and the scarcity drives prices out of the reach of all but the richest people.

1863 was also the year of the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation.   The government had been warning the citizenry in the North for 2 years beforehand, that once the legislation for freeing all Southern slaves was law, that they should prepare for an influx of newly-freed blacks.  This meant more people streaming into the North, to compete for the few jobs, housing, food and goods of all kind in a city already busting at the seams with humanity.

And just when conditions couldn't possibly get any worse in NY, they did.
When Abraham Lincoln instituted the Compulsory Northern Draft in 1863, it included a clause that caused the violence to boil over.
The $300 Clause held that any man who was required to register for the Draft could, for the price of $300, pay his way out of having to serve.  Adjusting for inflation, $300 in 1863 is over $5,000 in today's money.

The common man saw this as the last straw, that anyone of the elite class could buy his way out of harm's way and and avoid fulfilling his patriotic duty.  So much for the creed of all men being equal!
Three now famous cowards who bought their way out of service to the North were a young John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carneige and Junius Spencer Morgan(of JP Morgan fame).

This clause smacked of classism and even spawned many an outraged letter to the New York Times in the day before being stuck down in 1864, when it was replaced with a Bounty for Service Clause.

The Draft was physically begun on July 11th and by the morning of July 13th, the violence had begun.  The mobs of angry whites limited their attacks to military and government targets....police, government buildings, soldiers.  As the mobs grew they attacked anyone who was in their way.  Soon the anger turned toward Blacks unlucky enough to be in the streets and "black" businesses.  In the end an orphanage and school for black children was set afire and destroyed along with numerous other homes and businesses.
It is said that some of the fire departments in the city(many of which were formed by gangs of native-born whites), fueled the riots by setting fires themselves rather than putting them out.

When order was finally restored 5 days later, 11 Blacks had been  lynched and those others dead included a child from the destroyed Orphanage/School and areas of the city lay smoldering and destroyed.  Many Blacks were forced to flee or left the city by choice, never to return to Manhattan.

I am thankful my ancestor was clear of NY City and safely living his life in a small town Upstate by 1860 that didn't see this sort of violence take hold.
Looking around at the climate today, it is sad to see that in many ways, things in this country have not changed much 150 years later.



  1. Native born=earlier immigrants

    As a Southerner who has read history, I am still amazed that Northerners stil talk hatefully about Southern racism and slavery. The North had unwritten rules that Blacks knew. The South was not under cover. That does not make the South better.

    My mother's ancestors were Scots-Irish who came from NC in the 1850s and settled in Mississippi after buying 90 acres of land. I have heard no evidence of their being abused. However, contrary to what my mother said, they did own slaves, lots of them. I have copies of the wills to prove it.

    My father's family was Irish/German/Native and lived in Illinois. My father said his uncle had an accent and was tormented by people in the streets, teased unmercifully. My father, even in 1980s felt shame for having an ancestor who was bullied.

    Just after I had gotten my MA, I went to a conference at the university. I went up to speak to the honored guest from Australia who had been the keynote speaker, studying at the university. She immediately launched into me about the shameful treatment in the South of Africans during slavery.

    Knowing some of the background of Australia, I,in retort and not in my nicest manners, told her she had little to say about treatment of others after the way the aborigines were systemically abused by the government into the 20th century, that at least our govt made some sort of effort to make new laws and did not remove Black children from their homes in the present century. This was in 1998 or so.

    I turned and walked away from her, not waiting to see how long her mouth stayed open. Later, when group of women were discussing the conference, I told them what I had said. Most agreed with me and some were tight-lipped, probably wishing I had not insulted her. She had gone back to AU by

    The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was published to expose how immigrants were treated. It resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Read the book to see some of the inhumane treatment of immigrants even 50 years after the time you describe.


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