Legal lynchings, anti–civil rights demonstrations, official indifference to acts of violence against African-Americans: welcome to New York, ca. 1865.
The New York draft riots that closely followed the Union victory at Gettysburg, observes Quigley (History/Boston College), marked “the worst incident of civil unrest in American history.” Much of the rioters’ wrath was directed at the government (one of their slogans was “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight”), fueled by pro-Southern “Copperheads” among the city’s Democratic Party operatives, who saw to it that Republicans were targeted. But, writes Quigley, the most sustained and rawest violence was directed at the black community; the largest black neighborhood was besieged for days, while the hospitals filled with hundreds of victims. The singling out of blacks was no accident, and even Republican politicians seemed little troubled by the fact that the city’s victory parade at the end of the Civil War was fully segregated, as a prominent speaker argued that the US “is a government of white men, and should not and shall not be destroyed for the sake of the African.” For many Tammany Hall operators, Quigley writes, Reconstruction meant little more than the opportunity for New Yorkers to benefit from the reopening of Southern ports and the flow of raw materials from the defeated Confederacy. But other New Yorkers took the opportunity to press for civil rights, universal suffrage, labor reforms, and other progressive measures. Their victories would be a long time in coming, as Reconstruction eventually faded and Gilded Age conservatism carried the day; but, Quigley suggests, their efforts amounted to no less than a second American revolution, one that extended democratic rights to even those not blessed with property or connections.
“The unending tragedy of Reconstruction is the utter inability of the American mind to grasp its real significance,” W.E.B. DuBois once remarked. Quigley’s look at Reconstruction history in an unexpected quarter is a welcome addition to the scholarly literature.