Scorcese, in an interview, candidly described his new film, "Gangs
of New York," as an "opera." He had been asked whether the events
portrayed were true to history. I took his reply to mean that the
events of the movie were selected and organized for dramatic emphasis
and were not to be taken as literal factual record.
And, indeed, as a historical record of 19th-century New York, the
film has many failings. Nevertheless, it has provoked some useful
discussion of the historical context specifically for the light
it sheds on the Lincolnite mythology of the Civil War era. It seems
that the accepted idea of the gloriously united North trampling
out the wrathful grapes of slavery and treason is not so sound a
picture of the real thing after all.
For one thing, the film gives a glimpse of the rather nasty nativism
among Northerners, a great many of whom hated Catholics and immigrants
as much or more than they hated Southerners. None of the above fit
into the Yankee ideal of true Americanism. Nativist gangs burned
down convents in Philadelphia and Boston when such things were never
dreamed of in the South. This window into the real history of the
antebellum North becomes even more significant for three reasons.
1) Nativists of the American Party went en masse into Lincoln's
Republican Party and made up a strong element of his support. Though,
of course, Lincoln cared nothing about religion and he and other
leading Republicans were too savvy politicians to embrace overt
nativism. Republicans did not generally like immigrants, but they
loved the militaristic German centralizers who flooded into the
Midwest after the failed revolutions of 1848. Confederate General
Richard Taylor recorded in his memoirs that when he surrendered
at the end of the war, a German Union general lectured him on how
Southerners were now to be taught true Americanism. Taylor was the
grandson of a Revolutionary officer and the son of a President.
(Does this maybe give you a little hint of where Straussians and
Neocons are coming from?) These Germans made the most solid core
of Lincoln's support, with the possible exception of tariff-protected
manufacturers and New England "intellectuals."
2) The film can open the door on another dirty little secret. We
have heard a lot about immigrant criminal gangs. The fact that vigilante
law prevailed over much of the North during the war has been conveniently
forgotten. Besides the thousands of his critics Lincoln jailed without
due process, thousands more were killed, injured, intimidated, and
run out of town by proto-fascist gangs of Republican bully boys
called "Wide Awakes." They played a major role in making sure Northern
elections turned out right, i.e., Republicans won. And you thought
ugly mob violence was something that only happened in the South!
3) Although the film does not give a satisfactory view of the New
York City draft riots, it lets us in on at least part of the secret
when the draft rioters point out the $300 men who had bought exemption
from conscription. The fact is that no affluent Northerner fought
in the war if he didn't want to certainly not Rockefeller, Morgan,
Gould, Swift, Armour, Goodyear, and the others who were making fortunes
out of government contracts. Nor most of the patricians only one
of five military age Adamses served and Teddy Roosevelt's father
bought an exemption. Lincoln's worthless son Robert spent most of
the war at Harvard. Sherman once complained that men of wealth were
found in the ranks of the Southern army and lamented that Northerners
were not like that.
But that is not all the story. The "riots" did not start out as
race pogroms, though they degenerated into that. They started out
as organized civic resistance to the draft, encouraged by the Democratic
state government. Everyone knew very well that the Lincolnites enforced
the draft at a much higher rate in areas that opposed them than
they did in friendly areas according to forthcoming studies by
the New York playwright and historian John Chodes, the draft was
imposed in New York City at four times the rate for Massachusetts.
And the conscripts were well aware that they stood a good chance
of being used up as cannon fodder by Republicans who knew if they
lost four men for every Southerner killed they would still end up
on top, as long as the immigrant flow kept up. About a fourth of
the total enrollment of Lincoln's armies were immigrants, many of
whom were brought over and paid bounties for enlisting. The situation
was so bad that the Pope sent one of his most persuasive priestly
orators to Ireland to warn the people about being used up for Union
Perhaps we can begin to recognize the historical fact that millions
of Northern citizens did not willingly go along with Lincoln's war.
And the opponents were not limited to the New York City draft rioters.
A forthcoming book by Mises Fellow H.A. Scott Trask will enlighten
us about who opposed the war: freetraders who were on to the Republican
tariff game; traditional Jeffersonians and descendants of Revolutionary
families (outside of New England) who understood that killing Southerners
and overthrowing legitimate state governments, as well as suppressing
freedom of speech and press, were not exactly what the Founding
Fathers had in mind; Irish and German Catholics, though that history
has been suppressed as one of the fruits of Lincoln's victory.
The truth is that Lincoln's party did not save the Union and the
Constitution. It was a Jacobin party that seized power and revolutionized
the North as well as conquering the South. "Gangs of New York" can
perhaps open a window that will encourage further historical discovery
along these lines.
Alas, the wrong lesson is drawn by one of the usually fine writers
at vdare.com, Steve
Sailer, who sees the movie as Scorcese making points for the
immigrants against the natives. According to Sailer: "When the Civil
War came, many Irish and other immigrants in New York City refused
to fight for the Union that had given them refuge."
Wait a minute. That was a civil war going on here. Can a newcomer
really be faulted for not wanting to take sides in a civil war?
I think rather it shows real patriotism and good sense. And how
about that "refuge." Here is a Dublin paper commenting in 1861:
"We cannot but recollect that in the South our countrymen were safe
from insult and persecution, while 'Nativeism' and 'Know-Nothingism'
assailed them in the North."
How about John Mitchel, the Irish patriot who had been exiled to
Van Diemen's land, from whence he escaped to the land of freedom,
where he joined the Confederate cause of liberty, to which he gave
the lives of two sons? It is not true, by the way, that the Union
General Burnsides's sacrifice of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg
was a great exhibit of Irish devotion to the Union cause. The so-called
enthusiasm was political propaganda drummed up by Republican promotion
of Gen. Meagher as an Irish leader, which he wasn't. Irish recruiting
fell off sharply after Fredericksburg.
Let me recommend to those who want to use conditions in the War
of Southern Independence as a tool for the otherwise worthy cause
of immigration restriction a recent work: Clear
the Confederate Way!: The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia
by Kelly J. O'Grady. The book covers much more than the title suggests.
And while you are at it, take a look also at The
Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen.
Wilson [send him mail]
is professor of history at the University of South Carolina and
editor of The
Papers of John C. Calhoun.
© 2003 LewRockwell.com