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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 19 July 1863

Dear brother Walt,

We have passed through a wonderful week for our New York. A week that I think will eventually be productive of great good to our country, but had at a fearful cost. From my own personal observations I think that the newspapers would give one the most perverted kind of an idea of the riot. The big type, the general "skeery" look of the articles, was something that did not make its appearance on the public face. I guess the only wonderfully frightened men were Opdike and Seymour, if we perhaps except the Copperhead dem.'s that incited the rioters on and then deserted them.2 Opdike though was awfully frightened. In the flashy, sensation style the papers were all far from the truth, ahead, but when it comes to the killed, they are fa[r]ther from the truth, behind. Undoubtedly we shall never know the full number but I have it from the very best authority—an eye witness of most of the fights, that there are now more than 400 rioters that have paid their lives for their plunder  The papers are not allowed to publish this3  I suppose it is much better not to let it be known, but the lesson was fearful and thorough to these men. Yesterday I saw them taking coffins out of the shanties on 2nd Av. piling them on carts and driving right to the cemetery  I understand they have been doing this ever since Monday night. The police covered themselves with glory. They certainly made a splendid fight. They deserve great credit. God only knows where the city of New York would have been had we had Wood's police.4 They did well also in Brooklyn. The scoundrels thought to commence operations in Brooklyn, and did set fire to a couple of grain elevators, but the thing has gone no further. I think that rioting in these parts has received its quietus mostly from that Reg of Michigan boys that the War Dept. were kind enough to send us. I hear that they made fearful havoc with the irish ranks. Twas better so—they did not have that "citizen feeling" that our militia would have had. The only feeling I have is that I fear that they did not kill enough of 'em Walt. I'm perfectly rabid on an Irishman  I hate them worse than I thought I could hate anything. Their conduct for the past week has made me do it. The papers say that the draft is to go on in a day or two in New York & Brooklyn  this is right, I think, and will be a victory over a certain portion of the rebel army. I want, if possible to make a suggestion to this man Fry or whoever has char[g]e of this thing, of a manner in which, I think, the draft can be enforced in these larger cities without endangering riots. My idea is this, to make a certain portion of the city, say certain wards that make a district, not too large, and make the draft, carry the thing out complete, get the men in the field and every thing done before drafting in any other part of the same city. The advantages, I think, would be these, you could get along with a much smaller police (military) force as their would be no tendency to mob except in the one district, and when (and this I think would be the great point.) you got all through, the men in the field, the remainder of this whole district would be on the side of the draft and would help enforce it in the next, so that in a short time a majority of the city would want it enforced in the parts where it had not yet been done. The same should be done in Brooklyn  Being the first thing of the kind almost that has ever happened in this country I think a little policy would not come amiss. Another thing I think bad is the publishing of the list of names of the drafted men. This should not be done  I have reasons to suppose that had this not been done in New York they would not have had this organized mob headed by a drafted democratic Alderman5 and a lot of drafted irishman. Would it be possible for you to do anything in this matter. I mean suggest these ideas to those having the matter in charge. It strikes me Walt that if they could be carried out twould save a great deal of innocent blood  I go in for enforcing the draft at all hasards, and that too without giving in the least to the mob, but if a little politician thing of this kind would help, I think it ought to be done. Won't you try to do something about the matter. Of course all that can be done would be to bring it to the notice of the right parties. Twould defeat the entire thing by giving it publicity. My theory is that before the people found out the thing drafting would be over, and like the fellow that had the tooth out when he had taken laughing gas they would think it a good joke

Yesterdays Herald stated that the 9th Corps were sent in pursuit of Johnson. To-days Times says that they have arrived back in Kentucky. Tis hard to say which is right, perhaps both—more likely neither.6—We want to hear from George much.—Heard from Han 'tother day. She was getting better. heard through Heyde.—Abt. the $300. I'm a little afraid that I shant be able to raise it through Mr Lane as he has been a little unfortunate lately, but still I keep a bold front7  I lately got a position where I am getting $90 per month. (through Mr Lane, Tis on the Water Works)  This will be permanent (as long as Mr Lane is here, perhaps for years.) and with such a certain prospect of paying it back in a few months, I think that George would lend me the money. I, by sailing very close, think I could pay him in five months. Dont you think he would be willing? Walt will you write me at once  I want to hear from you, often. All well at home, first-rate. Hope you will come home soon.


  • 1. Shortly after the Union victory at Gettysburg, the Northern cause was damaged by terrible riots in New York (July 13–16, 1863). Approximately 50,000 people, mainly Irish immigrants, battled police over the application of the Conscription Act. The Irish, who made up over half of the foreign-born population of New York and served as the main source of cheap labor, feared competition from the newly emancipated slaves. With justification, the Irish felt that the draft laws favored the rich. Many Irishmen earned no more than $500 per year and so could not raise the $300 necessary to buy their way out of the draft. Even the Whitmans were worried about how they would obtain $300 if Jeff were drafted, although in the following year the family did manage to raise $400 "to pay for a substitute" for Jeff (Jerome M. Loving, ed., Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 130).

    A primary cause of the riots was the foolhardy administration of the draft. The War Department ordered it at a time when the city was nearly stripped of defenses: Governor Horatio Seymour had sent 16,000 soldiers from New York City to check Lee's thrust into Pennsylvania. The draft was held on a Saturday, thus giving citizens a work-free Sunday to build up resentment. Names of those selected were published in the papers, and it was clear enough that the poor were disproportionately represented. Finally, the draft was conducted on a citywide basis. As Jeff realized, it should have been handled district-by-district, which was exactly what orders had suggested U.S. Provost Marshal General James Barnet Fry should do.

    The riot caused roughly 500 deaths. Particularly vicious attacks were made against blacks, and one black orphanage was set ablaze. Police were able to protect only the lower half of Manhattan as the mobs attacked banks, newspaper offices, and other symbols of wealth and power. The police, badly outnumbered, were supported by Jeff's friend Julius W. Adams who led the Brooklyn National Guard in defense of the offices of the New York Times and Tribune. Given such violence, Jeff's vindictive comments about the Irish become more understandable.

    The political response to the draft was varied. Fernando Wood, a congresssman whose support came largely from Irish immigrants, denounced the draft. Governor Seymour, who regarded the draft as unconstitutional, was accused of aiding the rioters. George Opdyke, the mayor, had little sympathy for the rioters and vetoed a $2,500,000 Conscription Exemption Bond Bill which would have provided $300 for each drafted man to buy an exemption.

    The riots were stopped only after eleven New York regiments and one from Michigan were rushed to the city at a time when they might have been pursuing Lee. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck ordered General George G. Meade to pursue Lee no further than the Rappahannock because more troops might be needed to enforce the draft. After the riots were over, James R. Gilmore of the Tribune urged Lincoln to investigate the causes of the riot, but the president refused, supposedly saying, "One rebellion at a time is about as much as we can conveniently handle."

  • 2. Walt Whitman enclosed this sentence in parentheses. For months the Copperhead press, especially the Day Book, Express, and Freeman's Journal, had been attacking the draft. [back]
  • 3. Walt Whitman enclosed the words "there are now...this" in parenthesis. [back]
  • 4. Fernando Wood was a former mayor of New York City. [back]
  • 5. Unidentified. [back]
  • 6. Shortly after the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the Ninth Corps (including George) engaged in an eleven-day campaign which pushed the army of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston back through Jackson, Mississippi, which the Union force occupied on July 17, 1863. [back]
  • 7. For Lane, see Jeff's letter to Walt dated 13 January 1863. The $300 Jeff hoped to raise would enable him to buy his way out of the service if he were drafted. Walt Whitman wrote to his mother on July 15: "if it should so happen that Jeff should be drafted—of course he could not go, without its being the downfall almost of our whole family, as you may say, Mat & his young ones, & a sad blow to you too, mother, & to all—I didn't see any other way than to try to raise the $300, mostly by borrowing if possible of Mr Lane—mother, I have no doubt I shall make a few hundred dollars by the lectures I shall certainly commence soon...& I could lend that am't to Jeff to pay it back" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:117–18). [back]
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