By PETER F. STEVENS
Early on the steamy afternoon of July 14, 1863, the worst riot in Boston’s annals erupted, a melee was sparked by Irish immigrants’ fury at the class and ethnic unfairness of the nation’s first Conscription Act, which allowed “sons of wealth” to buy their way out of the Civil War draft for $300. The sum was far beyond the reach of impoverished Irish families and fueled the epithet “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.”
Boston’s Irish population rose in savage protest against President Lincoln, as had the New York Irish that same month. In Boston, however, there was a pronounced difference from what occurred throughout New York City. The Boston Irish did not run wild in a mass killing of African Americans, as did the mobs of New York.
On July 14, 1863, Provost Marshals David Howe and Wesley Hill were serving Union army draft notices in Boston’s Irish-dominated North End at a time when many local men were at work. At the lower end of Prince Street, a drafted Irishman answered the door.
When Howe handed him the notice, the man’s wife flung herself at Howe, her fists flailing at him. She, along with her immigrant neighbors, had seen many other fathers, sons, and brothers march away in Federal blue, never to return from battlefields or surgeons’ tables, or else to come back as amputees. Acutely aware that the 28th Massachusetts Regiment of the vaunted Irish Brigade had endured one of the war’s highest casualty rates, many of the North End Irish had had enough of “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” Many immigrants believed that the Emancipation Proclamation would flood Boston and other Northern cities with hordes of ex-slaves looking to take Irish jobs.
The North End Irishwoman’s shouts sent Howe backpedaling onto Prince Street and straight into a crowd of Irish laborers “away from their work this hour…in the narrow, crooked streets” near the Boston Gas-Light Company. According to the Boston Herald, “the cries of the infuriated woman acted like a signal upon the people in the neighborhood.” Hill fled as the mob closed on Howe and beat him.
Police Officer R.H. Wilkins plunged into the crowd with his billy club, cracking heads left and right. Somehow he dragged the dazed Howe to a nearby store and barricaded it until several more policemen arrived. The mob attacked them, and though the officers got Howe safely away, several more were savagely beaten, one of them “trampled upon and maimed for life.”
By mid-afternoon, mobs stormed through the North End and soon surrounded the First Division Police Station. Scores of Irishmen, the historian Edward Harrington has written, “proposed to test the question whether the Government had the right to drag them from their home to fight in a cause in which they did not believe.”
Mayor Frederic W. Lincoln answered by dispatching troops to the North End. A light battery of artillery was holding the Cooper Street Armory, a key point because of the weapons stored there. At 7 p.m., another company of artillery marched from Fort Warren through the jeering mob and into the surrounded armory.
As the reinforcements barred the gate, the throng stormed the bastion. The artillerymen wheeled out a six-pounder cannon loaded with canister shot—bits of metal used to tear apart massed troops—and ordered the crowd to fall back. For several minutes, the massed workmen complied. But just a few minutes later, at 7:30 p.m., hundreds launched another attack at the main door with “brickbats” and hurled rocks and rubble through “every pane of glass.”
A company of soldiers rushed from the armory, snapped off a volley—blanks—and drove the crowd at bayonet point a short way up Cooper Street and toward Charlestown Street. Then the troops wheeled around and marched back into the fortress with the crowd of cursing Irish following warily at a distance.
Again, the mob again attacked. The main gate flew open, and, Harrington writes, a cannon suddenly belched “full in the face of the crowd.” The hissing canister shot left scores of the Irish dead or writhing on the remnants of the cobblestones. The mob fell back again, but still made “riotous demonstrations just out of harm’s way.”
Several infantry platoons pushed against the mob, unleashing 69-caliber musket balls into the Irish crowd. Seventy-one-year-old William Currier was slain by a ball that ripped through his side. An unidentified young Irishwoman lay lifeless on Cooper Street, a ball having pierced her throat. A youth named McLaughlin “thrashed on the streets with wounds in his arms, shoulder, and chest until friends dragged him to a hospital.”
Dragoons and infantry cleared the streets by 10 p.m. No one knows how many Irish were killed or wounded in the Boston Draft Riot. The figure will forever remain a mystery because the rioters dragged away the bodies of slain neighbors and buried them in secret.
“Thick as a Brick”
What is it with Donald Trump and walls? Apparently, he believes that we’re all thick as the bricks of his proposed projects. Lies and hypocrisy are the concrete upon which he seeks to erect them. Along with the “beautiful wall” that will allegedly seal off our southern border from “hordes of Mexicans,” Trump is also bellowing about building a wall at Doonbeg’s Trump International Golf Links & Hotel, in County Clare. As Trump rants and rails against the “Chinese hoax of global warming,” he asserts that climate change is harming his Irish course.
According to RTE, The Donald has “explicitly cited the threat of global warming in its attempt to secure a permit for a two-mile stone wall that would section off the sprawling resort from the Atlantic Ocean, according to the company’s application, first reported on by Politico and filed earlier this month in Ireland.” Fitting that “Fraud” and “Trump” are both five-letter words.
Lose and Hopefully Learn
While it comes as no surprise that the gifted golfer Dustin Johnson finally claimed a major, his feat came in large part because of Irishman Shane Lowry’s final-round stumble at the recent US Open. The 29-year-old from Clara, Co. Offaly, headed into the fourth round with a four-stroke lead, poised to add another major to the Emerald Isle’s collective trophy case. Unfortunately, Lowry staggered through a 6-over 76 to lose to Johnson by three. Still, it’s a solid bet that Lowry is poised to break through and claim a major, given his age and his recent rise through the tour ranks.