Martin Scorcese’s new movie, “The Gangs of New York,” is remarkable in that it accurately portrays the New York City working class’s violent opposition to the Lincoln administration during the War for Southern Independence. At one point in the movie, as the caskets of dead New Yorkers are piled up on the docks, a large crowd chants, “New York should secede!” “New York should secede!”
In another scene Irish immigrants who have been in the U.S. for only a few days are told to sign one piece of paper that grants them citizenship and another one that enrolls them in the Union army. They are completely unaware of their fate: One immigrant asks, “Where are we going?” “Tennessee” is the answer, to which he responds: “Where’s that?” These men were to go down south to ostensibly teach the grandchildren of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry what it really means to be an American. Thousands of them would be slaughtered after being ordered by General Ulysses S. Grant to charge into Robert E. Lee’s well-entrenched army.
The climax of the movie is the New York City draft riots of July 1863. The government began enforcing Lincoln’s conscription law, accurately depicted in a newspaper headline in the film as “The First Federal Conscription Law.” The wealthy Republican industrialists and bankers who were the backbone of the Republican Party saw to it that Lincoln’s conscription law would spare their own male children by allowing one to buy one’s way out of the draft for $300. This led to violent protests against the inequity of “a rich man’s war.” In the film a young draftee confronts one of Lincoln’s conscription enforcers by screaming into his face, “Who the hell has $300?!” “Who the hell has $300?!”
The draftees knew perfectly well who has $300, so that in mid July of 1863 they went on a week-long rampage, targeting the houses and property of the Republican Party elite of New York City. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who had become a Republican Party mouthpiece, is shown running for his life from a dinner party at a palace-like residence in the good part of town as the draft protesters break the windows and loot the house. As Iver Bernstein wrote in The New York City Draft Riots, “Rioters tore through expensive Republican homes on Lexington Avenue and took — or more often destroyed — pictures with gilt frames, elegant pier glasses, sofas, chairs, clocks, furniture of every kind.”
Scorcese and his producers obviously did their homework and must have read Bernstein’s book. All during the scene of the draft riots there is a reading of headlines describing the events. Having read extensively about the draft riots myself, I recognized almost all of this script as being accurate, such as the burning down of a black orphanage and of the offices of Greeley’ newspaper.
Another perfectly accurate portrayal is the hunting down and murdering of any and all black people who were unfortunate enough to be on the streets of New York. Since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had recently declared emancipation to be a purpose of the war, the draft protesters vented their hatred for Lincoln and his war on the hapless black people of New York City. There are scenes in the movie of black men being beaten to death and lynched, which once again is perfectly accurate.
Just as realistic is the scene where thousands of federal troops are called up from the recently concluded Battle of Gettysburg and ordered to fire indiscriminately into the crowds. Hundreds of unarmed draft protesters, including women and children, are gunned down and are shown laying dead in the streets. This really happened, and is well documented in Bernstein’s book and elsewhere, but most Americans have never heard of it (naturally). Gunships are also shown bombarding the parts of the city where the rioting was taking place.
An eyewitness to the riots was Colonel Arthur Fremantle, the British emissary to the Confederate government who happened to be heading back to England at the time from the Port of New York. In his memoirs of his time with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia entitled Three Months in the Southern States, Fremantle wrote of the riots:
The reports of outrages, hangings, and murder, were now most alarming, the terror and anxiety were universal. All shops were shut: all carriages and omnibuses had ceased running. No colored man or woman was visible or safe in the streets, or even in his own dwelling. Telegraphs were cut, and railroad tracks torn up. The draft was suspended, and the mob evidently had the upper hand. The people who can’t pay $300 naturally hate being forced to fight in order to liberate the very race who they are most anxious should be slaves. It is their direct interest not only that all slaves should remain slaves, but that the free Northern Negroes who compete with them for labor should be sent to the South also.
Scorcese and his producers must also have read Fremantle’s book as well as The Fremantle Diary, which also discusses the draft riots.
“The Gangs of New York” is truly remarkable for its accurate portrayal of anti-Lincoln protesters in New York City in 1863, which has to be the most politically incorrect movie segment of the past several decades. This should pique the public’s curiosity about the true history of Lincoln’s war. It is a good prelude to an even more stunning cinematic event about Lincoln’s war, the movie “Gods and Generals,” which is scheduled for release on February 27.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of the LRC #1 bestseller, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House, 2002) and professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.