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The gangs of Boston

The climax of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Gangs of New York, takes place during the July 1863 New York draft riots. This was the time of the Civil War, when the rich could buy their way out of the draft for $300. While you wouldn’t know it from the movie, which underplays the draft riots’ racial aspect, almost 100 people were killed in the violence, most of them free blacks, who were lynched or beaten to death. And there’s another thing you wouldn’t know from the movie. On July 14, 1863, Boston had its own draft riot, markedly different from what happened in New York.

The violence began when a crowd of Irish immigrants living in the North End — then the city’s Irish-immigrant enclave — attacked a federal marshal trying to distribute draft notices. The mob then turned on the local police, and the clash took on a definite ethnic flavor: " Kill the damned Yankee son of a bitch, " rioters yelled, according to Jack Tager’s Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence (Northeastern University Press, 2000). (See " Boston's Days of Rage, " News and Features, March 2, 2001, for an interview with Tager about his book.) The mob tried to storm an armory on Cooper Street to get weapons. Soldiers fired cannons. Then the crowd stormed Faneuil Market, looting hardware stores and gun shops. Finally, the aptly named mayor, Ferdinand Lincoln, called in federal and militia troops to put down the insurrection. Nobody really knows how many people died, although the official tally counted eight killed. Notably, none of the dead were African-Americans.

" It wasn’t a race riot. It wasn’t an attack on blacks, " says Tager, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. This was for two reasons, he says. First, blacks in Boston didn’t live near the Irish in the North End. Unlike in New York, which was already a much larger and more diverse city, blacks in Boston (mostly servants and artisans) lived in pockets of the South End and Beacon Hill. Second, the ire of the Irish was generally focused on the elite Yankee ruling class, which bitterly subjugated them. Three decades earlier, a crowd of Yankees dressed as Native Americans had burned down the Roman Catholic Ursuline Convent in Charlestown. The riots in New York, by contrast, featured the rare occurrence of the Irish and non-Irish nativists fighting in concert against blacks.

There’s one final difference between the New York and Boston draft riots. While the economic inequity of allowing the rich to avoid military service with $300 obviously fueled the anger in both cities, the Yankee elites in Boston at least didn’t choose this option. New York City was dominated by Copperheads (Northerners whose sympathies lay with the South, often for financial reasons); Boston, on the other hand, was a bastion of anti-slavery feeling. New York was larger and more of a commercial center, while Boston was the intellectual and cultural capital of America at the time. Boston-based thinkers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, were prominent national opponents of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here in 1832. Boston even saw anti-slavery riots in the 1850s. The ultimate sacrifice was for members of the Yankee elite to serve the cause of freedom in the Union Army. That’s why, right across the street from the State House, there is a statue of Robert Gould Shaw, the Boston-born son of one of the city’s wealthiest families, who died commanding the all-African-American 54th regiment.

Gangs of New York is an interesting movie. But it doesn’t provide the full picture of what went on in New York City during that period — or in the nation as a whole. It’s instructive that just a few hundred miles from New York, in another Northeastern city, Civil War history played out very differently.

Issue Date: January 2 - 9, 2003
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