Most of us have just celebrated the unofficial beginning of summer with the Memorial Day weekend. The first Memorial Day, though, was observed on May 30, 1868, to honor those who died in the Civil War. Flowers were placed on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. In 1873, New York became the first state to recognize Memorial Day as an official holiday.
After World War I, Memorial Day was changed to commemorate those who died in all wars, not just the Civil War. And beginning in 1971, Congress moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May.
But the fact that New York was the first state to recognize the need to honor Civil War soldiers is an indication of the turbulence that New York felt during the Civil War. In fact, there was substantial dissatisfaction with the Union cause in New York. In July 1863 a series of riots broke out here over the Union Army draft policies. These riots demonstrate that not only was the country divided, but New York had some deep divisions of its own.
In the 1860’s many working-class New Yorkers were immigrants from Ireland or Germany. They didn’t feel responsible for slavery and didn’t want to fight in a war that they perceived as being a war about slavery. They resented the fact that, as recent immigrants, they were eligible to be drafted into the Union army, but blacks, who were not considered citizens, were not. When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, they further feared that freed blacks would come to New York and compete with them for jobs.
Rivalries already existed between Irish and African-American laborers who were among the poorest of all New Yorkers. (In March of 1863, a group of white longshoreman attacked a group of black men, whom they refused to work alongside.) Fights between Irish gangs and gangs of other ethnic groups, and hostilities between poor New Yorkers and wealthy New Yorkers (who could buy their way out of the Union Army draft for $300) caused tensions throughout the city. These tensions resulted in a series of violent uprisings commonly referred to as the Draft Riots.
Understanding the social and economic causes of these riots, as well as the effects of the riots on subsequent New York history, helps us appreciate that even here in the North, there was not always unanimous support for the Union cause. New York’s support of the Union Civil War effort was in fact a bitterly contested issue. The Draft Riots illustrate that the nation’s conflicts over race and labor were not on sectional grounds alone.
This year GVSHP marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with a series of public programs on related topics. On Thursday, June 6th we are pleased to present Dr. Durahn Taylor, who will speak about the Draft Riots in Greenwich Village. Dr. Taylor recently received the Pace University Kenan Award for Teaching Excellence for the Academic Year 2012-2013. This award salutes faculty who have consistently challenged and engaged students with innovative teaching methods, and who have helped create a deeper understanding and appreciation among students for their academic discipline and curriculum.
For more information about this and other GVSHP public programs, please visit our website.