Irish-Americans and the Boston Draft Riot, 150 Years Ago

A block on Prince Street, Boston. Near here, the Boston Draft Riot ignited.

A block on Prince Street, Boston. Near here, the Boston Draft Riot ignited.

“Foggy and unpleasantly warm, sort of a dog-day.”[1]

This is how Major Stephen Cabot of the 1st Battalion Massachusetts Heavy Artillery described the weather on the day of the Boston Draft Riot, July 14, 1863…just over 150 years ago. Familiar sort of weather to many of us right now. Major Cabot would find himself at the center of the riot, a tragic event wrapped up in some complex social and political issues of the era.

Nearly everyone who writes about the Boston riot prefaces the story by acknowledging the fact that the concurrent New York Draft Riots, a far more severe and prolonged period of violence (July 13-16), has overshadowed the comparatively minor day of upheaval in Boston. The events in New York were indeed more significant, terrible and dramatic…I often think of the soldiers, still weary from having fought in the Battle of Gettysburg, arriving by rail in New York and preparing to fire not upon Confederates, but upon northern civilians.

Another common theme in recent accounts of the Boston Draft Riot: writers are quick to point out the fact that the primary sources on the matter are entirely from the perspective of the authorities.[2] And the period newspaper reports fall very much in line with the views of the officials, vilifying the rioters and sympathetic to those trying to enforce law and order.

This is not a completely inappropriate point of view…the rioters were, after all, breaking the law and trying to cause harm to people and property. However, it is very much a one-sided point of view and we do not, unfortunately, have good primary sources explaining the motives of those who were provoked to violence. It is almost as though we only had accounts of the Boston Massacre from the viewpoint of the British Regulars and officials. How different that story would read in the history books if that were the case!

Around 12:30 on the afternoon of July 14, 1863, two federal draft agents, David Howe and Wesley Hill, were making their way through the sweltering streets in Boston’s North End, then an overwhelmingly Irish neighborhood. That day, the first of the conscription notices were being delivered in Boston. The first federal draft in American history, the Enrollment Act, had been passed on March 3, 1863 to fill up the Union ranks. There was a convenient loophole for those who could afford it. Draftees could purchase a substitute for $300. Poor immigrants and laborers could not manage this. And indeed, many poor Irish in Boston, desperate to feed their families, stepped up to serve as a substitute, accepting the $300.[3] This led to the oft-repeated saying that the Civil War was becoming, “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” Anger and bitterness began to exacerbate an already wide class rift in northern cities, including Boston.

Shortly after Howe and Hill delivered a draft notice at 146 Prince Street, near the Boston Gas Light Company plant (the largest industrial establishment in the North End at the time) they were accosted by an Irish immigrant woman.[4] She screamed at them, railing against the draft and cursing the federal agents. Her shouts soon attracted the attention of laborers at the nearby gas works, mostly Irish immigrants, who happened to be on mid-day break. Soon a crowd of men were closing in on Hill and Howe.

Hill managed to flee, but Howe was cornered. The crowd of laborers beat him mercilessly. Boston police officer R.H. Wilkins, apparently the first official on the scene, bravely rescued Howe, swinging his club and beating back the attackers. He managed to get Howe inside a store at the corner of Prince and Commercial Streets. Wilkins eventually tried to escort Howe out of the store, but the crowd had grown, Howe was apprehended and severely beaten again. It is a wonder he survived.[5]

By this time the police arrived in force. A general melee ensued during which individuals on both sides were badly injured. The police succeeded in dispersing the mob on Prince Street but the unrest had spread throughout the North End and was extending to Haymarket Square and Faneuil Hall.

The federal draft officer in Boston, expecting an attack on his office, wisely gathered up the important papers and books and left the city.[6] Boston Mayor Frederick Walker Lincoln, perceiving the scope of the riot and certainly aware of the terrible violence that had begun in New York the previous day, sent a request to Governor John Andrew for state militia to put a stop to the mobs.

Ironically, Governor Andrew was in Cambridge at the Harvard commencement ceremonies (a major event among those representing the opposite pole of Boston’s social spectrum) when he got the news of the unrest. The largest infantry unit he had at his immediate disposal was the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the Bay State’s two African American units, which was then training at Camp Meigs at Readville. Andrew realized that deploying black troops to put down an uprising of Irish-Americans would simply be adding fuel to the fire. Irish immigrants, by and large, resented the notion of a war to end slavery and feared that free blacks from the South would take away their jobs.[7]

Andrew therefore turned to Colonel Justin Dimick, commanding the forces at Fort Warren on George’s Island in Boston Harbor. He sent an order for Dimick to send troops immediately. Andrew also sent word to other units around Boston, placing them on alert.

Mayor Frederick Walker Lincoln (1817-1898), in office 1858-1860 and 1863-1866.

Mayor Frederick Walker Lincoln (1817-1898), in office 1858-1860 and 1863-1866.

Dimick selected three companies of the 1st Battalion Massachusetts Heavy Artillery totaling 166 men, placing Major Stephen Cabot in command, and dispatched them to Boston. Cabot had just come off duty as officer of the day. Hot and tired, he had laid down for a nap when awakened by the news. He and his troops disembarked in Boston at about 6:15. They marched directly to the State House, each man having been issued 20 rounds, and reported to the Governor. Andrew instructed Cabot that he was to serve at the disposal of Mayor Lincoln. The Mayor’s primary concern was that rioters would break into one or more of the arsenals in the city and heavily arm themselves with stolen weapons. Cabot therefore sent one of his companies to the Marshall Street Armory in Dock Square and he marched with the other two companies to the Cooper Street Armory in the North End.[8]

Along the way, Major Cabot’s detachment was followed by a large crowd. There was much hollering and shouting, some stone throwing, but the soldiers reached the Cooper Street Armory unharmed. They closed themselves inside and prepared to make a stand. Cabot issued orders to Captain Jones who had charge of the armory, instructing him to place a cannon, double loaded with canister, facing the main door of the armory. Jones urged Cabot to load with powder only, dreading the notion of firing live ammunition on civilians. Cabot repeated the order to load with canister and insisted that he alone would take responsibility for any casualties.

As the sun began to set, the crowds only increased. Around 7:30, Cabot got word that a militiaman had been isolated and was being beaten by the crowd. He sent out 20 men to save him. The soldiers moved out into Cooper street with bayonets fixed, drove back the crowd and rescued the man. But the mob soon counterattacked with stones. Cabot was forced to send out additional men. It was at this point, with a significant number of soldiers under attack in Cooper Street, that shots were fired. Cabot was inside the armory at the time and was not able to determine who gave the order to fire, if an order had been given at all. The shots were fired over the crowd’s heads. No one was harmed, but the crowd was further enraged by the gunfire.

Cabot went out himself to help his men to safety. Once the soldiers were back in the armory, the attack, Cabot recalled, “began in earnest.” Bricks were torn up from the street and hurled at the windows. The crowd took axes and sledge hammers to the armory doors and before long they began to give way.[9]

When the armory doors began to give, Cabot gave the order that all dreaded. He ordered the cannon primed and fired. The canister shot all but blew apart the closed doors, tearing into the crowd outside. Cabot had posted riflemen who fired through what remained of the doors while the cannon was reloaded. Once this was done, he ordered the firing to cease.[10]

The dead included men, women and children of all ages. Their numbers were never definitively reported. One man had been hit by canister shot in eleven places. Major Cabot emerged from the armory and found the mob had retreated, leaving behind only the dead and wounded. Although a group of men later attempted to break into a gun shop in Dock Square, they were stopped by the police. Artillery was posted at various places across the city. Additional troops arrived in the night, including cavalry who patrolled the streets. The Boston Draft Riot was over.

A remarkable factor in this riot was the significant presence and prominent role of women. The Boston Herald later described “one Amazonian woman, shouting and screaming, and urging the assailants on in their desperate work…with hair streaming, arms swinging, and her face the picture of phrenzy, she rushed again and again to the assault.” Other reports told of women carrying their infant children into the fray, holding them up and daring the soldiers to shoot them.[11]

In her essay, “Lawless and Unprincipled: Women in Boston’s Civil War Draft Riot,” Judith Ann Geisberg cites many accounts of women involved in the violence, of policemen who recalled being brutally accosted by groups of women and even children.[12] And the entire upheaval was sparked by one woman who could no longer contain her anger. The Boston Draft Riot was clearly an intense reaction that broadly spanned the Irish immigrant community. For women it represented a desperate attempt to defend husbands, sons and protect their families. And for the Irish community as a whole it represented an explosion of frustration with the perceived oppressive practices of the Boston elite.

[1] Stephen Cabot, Report of the Draft Riot in Boston, July 14, 1863, [1863], p. 1
[2] Brett M. Palfreyman, “The Boston Draft Riots,” New York Times, July 16, 2013
[3] Peter F. Stevens, Hidden History of the Boston Irish: Little-Known Stories from Ireland’s “Next Parish Over”, [2008], p. 92
[4] William P. Marchione, Boston Miscellany: An Essential History of the Hub, [2008], p. 110
[5] Ibid.
[6] Palfreyman, “The Boston Draft Riots”
[7] Thomas H. O’Connor, Civil War Boston: Home Front & Battlefield, [1997], p. 140
[8] Cabot, p. 2
[9] Cabot, p. 4
[10] Cabot, p. 5
[11] Palfreyman, “The Boston Draft Riots”
[12] Judith Ann Geisberg, “Lawless and Unprincipled: Women in Boston’s Civil War Draft Riot,” Boston’s Histories: Essay in Honor of Thomas H. O’Connor

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

3 responses to “Irish-Americans and the Boston Draft Riot, 150 Years Ago

  • James Thaddeus

    Excellent detail. I would have added a paragraph that subsequent riots in Boston were immediately prevented by the leadership of Diocesan Chancellor, Fr. James Healy, and of Patrick Donahoe, owner of the Boston Catholic newspaper, The Pilot. (Healy was the protege of Bishop John Fitzpatrick, who was then in Europe, lobbying Catholics in Italy, France, and Belgium for the Union cause.) Healy sent out a letter to his parish priests telling them to be active in preventing “fractious assemblies.” So parish priests thereupon walked the streets of the North End and East Boston in order to keep their Irish parishoners from unlawfully assembling.

    • Patrick Browne

      I was absolutely just thinking that this morning and considered adding it. But you’ve summed it up nicely and are absolutely correct. The violence probably would have continued if not for Healy and other priests who calmed the fury.

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