What Answer?

Author: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson  | Date: 1868

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The Draft Riot (1863)


ON the morning of Monday, the thirteenth of July, began this outbreak, unparalleled in atrocities by anything in American history, and equalled only by the horrors of the worst days of the French Revolution. Gangs of men and boys, composed of railroad employées, workers in machine-shops, and a vast crowd of those who lived by preying upon others, thieves, pimps, professional ruffians,—the scum of the city,—jail-birds, or those who were running with swift feet to enter the prison-doors, began to gather on the corners, and in streets and alleys where they lived; from thence issuing forth they visited the great establishments on the line of their advance, commanding their instant close and the companionship of the workmen,—many of them peaceful and orderly men,—on pain of the destruction of one and a murderous assault upon the other, did not their orders meet with instant compliance.

A body of these, five or six hundred strong, gathered about one of the enrolling-offices in the upper part of the city, where the draft was quietly proceeding, and opened the assault upon it by a shower of clubs, bricks, and paving-stones torn from the streets, following it up by a furious rush into the office. Lists, records, books, the drafting-wheel, every article of furniture or work in the room was rent in pieces, and strewn about the floor or flung into the street; while the law officers, the newspaper reporters,—who are expected to be everywhere,—and the few peaceable spectators, were compelled to make a hasty retreat through an opportune rear exit, accelerated by the curses and blows of the assailants.

. . . And then, finding every portable article destroyed,—their thirst for ruin growing by the little drink it had had,—and believing, or rather hoping, that the officers had taken refuge in the upper rooms, set fire to the house, and stood watching the slow and steady lift of the flames, filling the air with demoniac shrieks and yells, while they waited for the prey to escape from some door or window, from the merciless fire to their merciless hands. One of these, who was on the other side of the street, courageously stepped forward, and, telling them that they had utterly demolished all they came to seek, informed them that helpless women and little children were in the house, and besought them to extinguish the flames and leave the ruined premises; to disperse, or at least to seek some other scene.

By his dress recognizing in him a government official, so far from hearing or heeding his humane appeal, they set upon him with sticks and clubs, and beat him till his eyes were blind with blood, and he—bruised and mangled—succeeded in escaping to the handful of police who stood helpless before this howling crew, now increased to thousands. With difficulty and pain the inoffensive tenants escaped from the rapidly spreading fire, which, having devoured the house originally lighted, swept across the neighboring buildings till the whole block stood a mass of burning flames. . . .

The work thus begun, continued,—gathering in force and fury as the day wore on. Police-stations, enrolling-offices, rooms or buildings used in any way by government authority, or obnoxious as representing the dignity of law, were gutted, destroyed, then left to the mercy of the flames. Newspaper offices, whose issues had been a fire in the rear of the nation’s armies by extenuating and defending treason, and through violent and incendiary appeals stirring up "lewd fellows of the baser sort" to this very carnival of ruin and blood, were cheered as the crowd went by. Those that had been faithful to loyalty and law were hooted, stoned, and even stormed by the army of miscreants who were only driven off by the gallant and determined charge of the police, and in one place by the equally gallant, and certainly unique defence, which came from turning the boiling water from the engines upon the howling wretches, who, unprepared for any such warm reception as this, beat a precipitate and general retreat. Before night fell it was no longer one vast crowd collected in a single section, but great numbers of gatherings, scattered over the whole length and breadth of the city,—some of them engaged in actual work of demolition and ruin; others with clubs and weapons in their hands, prowling round apparently with no definite atrocity to perpetrate, but ready for any iniquity that might offer,—and, by way of pastime, chasing every stray police officer, or solitary soldier, or inoffensive negro, who crossed the line of their vision; these three objects—the badge of a defender of the law,—the uniform of the Union army,—the skin of a helpless and outraged race—acted upon these madmen as water acts upon a rabid dog.

Late in the afternoon a crowd which could have numbered not less than ten thousand, the majority of whom were ragged, frowzy, drunken women, gathered about the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children,—a large and beautiful building, and one of the most admirable and noble charities of the city. When it became evident, from the menacing cries and groans of the multitude, that danger, if not destruction, was meditated to the harmless and inoffensive inmates, a flag of truce appeared, and an appeal was made in their behalf, by the principal, to every sentiment of humanity which these beings might possess,—a vain appeal! Whatever human feeling had ever, if ever, filled these souls was utterly drowned and washed away in the tide of rapine and blood in which they had been steeping themselves. The few officers who stood guard over the doors, and manfully faced these demoniac legions, were beaten down and flung to one side, helpless and stunned, whilst the vast crowd rushed in. All the articles upon which they could seize—beds, bedding, carpets, furniture,—the very garments of the fleeing inmates, some of these torn from their persons as they sped by—were carried into the streets, and hurried off by the women and children who stood ready to receive the goods which their husbands, sons, and fathers flung to their care. The little ones, many of them, assailed and beaten; all,—orphans and care-takers,—exposed to every indignity and every danger, driven on to the street,—the building was fired. . . .

. . . The house was fired in a thousand places, and in less than two hours the walls crashed in,—a mass of smoking, blackened ruins; whilst the children wandered through the streets, a prey to beings who were wild beasts in everything save the superior ingenuity of man to agonize and torture his victims.

Frightful as the day had been, the night was yet more hideous; since to the horrors which were seen was added the greater horror of deeds which might be committed in the darkness; or, if they were seen, it was by the lurid glare of burning buildings,—the red flames of which—flung upon the stained and brutal faces, the torn and tattered garments, of men and women who danced and howled around the scene of ruin they had caused—made the whole aspect of affairs seem more like a gathering of fiends rejoicing in Pandemonium than aught with which creatures of flesh and blood had to do. . . .

The next morning’s sun rose on a city which was ruled by a reign of terror. Had the police possessed the heads of Hydra and the arms of Briareus, and had these heads all seen, these arms all fought, they would have been powerless against the multitude of opposers. Outbreaks were made, crowds gathered, houses burned, streets barricaded, fights enacted, in a score of places at once. Where the officers appeared they were irretrievably beaten and overcome; their stand, were it ever so short, but inflaming the passions of the mob to fresh deeds of violence. Stores were closed; the business portion of the city deserted; the large works and factories emptied of men, who had been sent home by their employers, or were swept into the ranks of the marauding bands. The city cars, omnibuses, hacks, were unable to run, and remained under shelter. Every telegraph wire was cut, the posts torn up, the operators driven from their offices. The mayor, seeing that civil power was helpless to stem this tide, desired to call the military to his aid, and place the city under martial law, but was opposed by the Governor,—a governor, who, but a few days before, had pronounced the war a failure; and not only predicted, but encouraged this mob rule, which was now crushing everything beneath its heavy and ensan-guined feet. This man, through almost two days of these awful scenes, remained at a quiet sea-side retreat but a few miles from the city. Coming to it on the afternoon of the second day,—instead of ordering cannon planted in the streets, giving these creatures opportunity to retire to their homes, and, in the event of refusal, blowing them there by powder and ball,—he first went to the point where was collected the chiefest mob, and proceeded to address them. Before him stood incendiaries, thieves, and murderers, who even then were sacking dwelling-houses, and butchering powerless and inoffensive beings. These wretches he apostrophized as "My friends," repeating the title again and again in the course of his harangue, assuring them that he was there as a proof of his friendship,—which he had demonstrated by "sending his adjutant-general to Washington, to have the draft stopped;" begging them to "wait for his return;" "to separate now as good citizens;" with the promise that they "might assemble again whenever they wished to do so;" meanwhile, he would "take care of their rights." This model speech was incessantly interrupted by tremendous cheering and frantic demonstrations of delight,—one great fellow almost crushing the Governor in his enthusiastic embrace. . . .

His allies in newspaper offices attempted to throw the blame upon the loyal press and portion of the community. This was but a repetition of the cry, raised by traitors in arms, that the government, struggling for life in their deadly hold, was responsible for the war: "If thou wouldst but consent to be murdered peaceably, there could be no strife."

These editors outraged common sense, truth, and decency, by speaking of the riots as an "uprising of the people to defend their liberties,"—"an opposition on the part of the workingmen to an unjust and oppressive law, enacted in favor of the men of wealth and standing." As though the people of the great metropolis were incendiaries, robbers, and assassins; as though the poor were to demonstrate their indignation against the rich by hunting and stoning defenceless women and children; torturing and murdering men whose only offence was the color God gave them, or men wearing the self-same uniform as that which they declared was to be thrust upon them at the behest of the rich and the great.

It was absurd and futile to characterize this new Reign of Terror as anything but an effort on the part of Northern rebels to help Southern ones, at the most critical moment of the war,—with the State militia and available troops absent in a neighboring Commonwealth,—and the loyal people unprepared. These editors and their coadjutors, men of brains and ability, were of that most poisonous growth,—traitors to the Government and the flag of their country,—renegade Americans. Let it, however, be written plainly and graven deeply, that the tribes of savages—the hordes of ruffians—found ready to do their loathsome bidding, were not of native growth, nor American born. . . .

By far the most infamous part of these cruelties was that which wreaked every species of torture and lingering death upon the colored people of the city,—men, women, and children, old and young, strong and feeble alike. Hundreds of these fell victims to the prejudice fostered by public opinion, incorporated in our statute-books, sanctioned by our laws, which here and thus found legitimate outgrowth and action. The horrors which blanched the face of Christendom were but the bloody harvest of fields sown by society, by cultured men and women, by speech, and book, and press, by professions and politics, nay, by the pulpit itself, and the men who there make God’s truth a lie,—garbling or denying the inspired declaration that "He has made of one blood all people to dwell upon the face of the earth;" and that he, the All-Just and Merciful One, "is no respecter of persons."

Anna E. Dickinson, (Boston, 1868), 243–257 passim.

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Chicago: Anna Elizabeth Dickinson, What Answer? in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GPAEF4ZCU4ST82E.

MLA: Dickinson, Anna Elizabeth. What Answer?, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GPAEF4ZCU4ST82E.

Harvard: Dickinson, AE, What Answer?. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=GPAEF4ZCU4ST82E.