Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

Los Angeles Times Film Review: 'The Pruitt-Igoe Myth' builds from an implosion: 'The Pruitt-Igoe Myth' documentary is a thoughtful, troubling look at the causes and effects of a public-housing complex's demolition in St. Louis, by Kenneth Turan, on 27 April 2012 -- Forty years ago, an enormous, decrepit, crime-ridden St. Louis public housing project was destroyed with dynamite. Television and still pictures of the imploding buildings went viral, so to speak, though that wasn't a term yet.

The death of the complex known as Pruitt-Igoe was seized on by any number of groups as validation of their viewpoints. Enemies of modern architecture said the soullessness of the design caused the problem. (Minoru Yamasaki, who went on to design the World Trade Center towers in New York, was the architect.) Conservatives said it demonstrated that government-sponsored housing inevitably collapses, or muttered that this was further proof that the poor were their own worst enemies, beyond the reach of state assistance of any kind.

Now, the housing project is the subject of a new documentary, "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth." Director Chad Freidrichs, who co-wrote the film with his wife, Jamie, agrees that there are lessons to be learned from those St. Louis buildings — but not the ones everyone thought.

A well-researched and iconoclastic documentary that is both thoughtful and troubling, "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth" is indeed a cautionary tale, but what it cautions against is the lure of easy judgments derived from prejudices and ignorance of the facts.

There is little argument that by the time it was destroyed, the Pruitt-Igoe complex, which housed 26,000 people in 33 buildings on a 57-acre site, was in horrible shape, a haven for drug dealers and other criminals and a monument to the worst kind of decay and neglect. But it wasn't always this way.

Chad Freidrichs tracked down eye-opening newsreel footage showing how beautiful the complex was when it opened in 1954. He interviewed several former residents whose memories of the early days of the project are at variance with the accepted narrative. "It was like an oasis in the desert," one says, while another remembers a sense of "engaging, electric life."

So what went wrong in 18 short years? The film puts the blame on a combination of factors, some specific to St. Louis, some characteristic of a great deal of 20th century life. Caught by forces beyond their control, the residents of these massive towers were used as scapegoats, blamed for broader urban trends afflicting cities nationwide.

The initial impulse behind the towers was the idea of using the public sector to help people escape from dreadful slums, and the business community had its own reasons for agreeing: Redeveloping the land would surely be a profitable enterprise.

But money to maintain the buildings was something else, and the compromises of politics ensured that public funds would not be used for upkeep. That decision proved to be the first nail in Pruitt-Igoe's coffin.

The same Housing Act of 1949 that made Pruitt-Igoe possible also helped fund the growth in suburbia. That, along with the erosion of St. Louis' industrial base, prompted middle-class whites to move out of the city, and jobs went with them.

So the Pruitt-Igoe buildings that everyone thought would be full were not, and rents that were to be used to pay maintenance costs were not there. Women and children on welfare moved in but, adding to the societal disintegration, draconian welfare rules forbade any men from living in a home where the woman received government assistance.

Once deterioration fed by lack of maintenance began, no one had the wherewithal to halt it, and stopgap measures like installing theoretically vandal-proof fixtures just incited the residents, who felt that the government did not trust them, creating a bitter, angry population.

The personal stories told by former residents add a poignancy to the broad trends the film examines. The tales include positive ones, such as a mother who couldn't afford paper but painted one apartment wall black so her kids would be able to use it like a chalkboard to do homework. Then there was another resident's sadness as he remembered thinking at the time, "Why is it like this? Why do I live here? What did I do wrong?"

As we head into a presidential election in which blame for all manner of ills is going to be freely apportioned, it's good to have this timely reminder that the truth behind the myth is often as compelling as it is hard to find. (source: LA Times)

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth Part 2

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth Part 3

How Modernism has Failed the Modern City

As reported by the New York Times, "Modernist Times," by Kevin Baker, on 3 June 2007 --  The recent death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a sad reminder of how the public intellectual is passing from our midst. That is to say, the individual still bold enough to put his mind and his knowledge to use in analyzing the world around us, in language that most of us can understand, and with an eye toward effecting practical improvements. This is apparently a rarer skill set than most of us might once have imagined.

Fortunately, Nathan Glazer, now approaching his mid-80s, is still alive and, to judge by his latest book, kicking it. “From a Cause to a Style” is a collection of essays written from the early 1990s to the present that traces the diminishment of Modernist architecture from a social revolution — which asserted that traditional architecture “had come to an end” — down to a mere style, and one almost universally resented outside the profession. Many of these pieces have been published separately, but some have been “substantially rewritten” and in the main they hold together well, delivering a coherent critique of how Modernism has failed the modern city.

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture's Encounter with the American City, by Nathan Glazer

The greatest pleasure of “From a Cause to a Style” lies simply in listening to Glazer think as he walks us about his native New York, with occasional diversions to other locales like Boston or the Washington Mall. His intelligence fairly radiates from the page, and his prose is a pleasure to read — clear, supple and frequently droll. His descriptions of the hysteria that engulfed British architects when Prince Charles dared to criticize their work are priceless. So, too, is his skewering of a tragically hip proposal for a new park on the West Side (“a field of upright steel beams, set on grass”); and the attempt by the bombastic sculptor Richard Serra to criticize capitalist society by forcing his “Tilted Arc” — a dreadful, looming wall of steel — on downtown office workers who simply wanted a restful plaza in which to enjoy their lunches. (Serra saw himself, in Glazer’s words, as “attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”)

There are those who will probably view Glazer’s debunking of Modernist architecture as akin to shooting fish in a leaky cement barrel. But he is always cognizant of the demands of the real world. He seems genuinely sympathetic to Modernism’s original goal of providing a better way of life for all; concedes the manner in which that goal has been ambushed by the likes of racism, budget limitations or narrow political agendas; and grants Modernist public housing its triumphs, however accidental, as in the mix of high-rise and low-rise building that has come to pass in East Harlem.

Yet Glazer always returns to his organizing question. How could it be that Modernism, whose “visionary architects and planners were, in their minds, leagued with the people against what they saw as archaic, overblown, extravagant and inefficient architecture and design, the taste of princes,” finds itself losing a public argument ... to a prince? How is it that a self-proclaimed champion of the working class like Serra could be so roundly repudiated by the workers?

Glazer argues that “the architect today ... aims at seeing himself as an artist, as he indeed always did.” But Modernist architects by their very nature refused to be bound by tradition. “They were all too ready to wipe away what existed and start with a clean slate,” and therefore “failed to explore just what it is people find attractive in areas and buildings.” Freed from any past, they give us public monuments that seem meaningless, housing projects that take no account of community, works that constantly favor artistic bravura over any sense of a pleasing, sustainable living environment.

There are a few misfires, digressions and omissions in this collection. Glazer echoes the lament of his friend and collaborator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for the Westway project, supposedly a victim of New York’s “regulatory and litigatory maze.” But the fight to stop Westway was at heart a grass-roots rebellion that funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into what was a floundering mass transit system and prevented yet another superhighway pumping cars into Manhattan; the regulatory and litigatory maze should always work so well. One also would like to hear more from Glazer on the prolonged effort to find something to replace the World Trade Center. This continuing fiasco is not so much one of artistic arrogance, to be sure, but it is another example of elites — architects, developers and politicians — proceeding with little regard for what the people would like to see in a vital public space.

Glazer concludes with some speculations on the future of New York City that will strike many as unduly pessimistic but are a useful antidote to our present atmosphere of runaway triumphalism. Comparing the city’s amenities with those of Paris, London and Berlin, he reminds us that “we have skyscrapers — grand, but hardly contributors to quality of life. In that respect New York is poorer: what it has to offer is very far from the simply human.” “From a Cause to a Style” is a sharp reminder from an old-fashioned public intellectual that we must ask for whom the majestic new city now going up around us is really being built.  (source:  New York Times)

BBC - Why I Hate The Sixties

Why I Hate The Sixties - The myth of the 60s was created before the decade was out. But what we have lived with ever since is a mirage, a mass hallucination, a fantasy. Why I Hate the Sixties examines the truth behind the myth. It suggests that we were living on borrowed time - we partied as Britain lost an empire and slid into unchecked industrial decline. Archive footage and contributors of all political stripes build the case against the decade where dreams turned to nightmares.

Architecture: An obsession with modernity meant out with old and in with the damp-stained concrete, huge tower blocks and anonymous estates of rotting flats.

Transport: Think the trains are bad now? Two thirds of the railway system was dismantled in the 1960s alone.

Women's Liberation: Why did feminism grow in strength during the 1970s? Because women were turned into sex objects during the 60s. And the pill? It was not just to make women more available for men but that was its immediate effect.

Multi-culturalism: Instead of embracing a new wave of immigration, we blew it. If you were black, the 60s were not the decade of peace and love, they were the decade of racism and Powellism.

Music: The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Forget about it. The best-selling single of the 60s was a slice of pungent cheese, Release Me by Englebert Humperdinck.

Sport: England's World Cup victory is still celebrated as the pinnacle of the country's sporting success. But was it deserved? You'll have to watch the programme to find out...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Making Sense of the Sixties

From Entertainment Weekly's TV Review, "Making Sense of the Sixties (1991 - 1991)," reviewed by Ken Tucker, on 18 January 1991 --  In its opening moments, Making Sense of the Sixties seems like a parody of PBS documentaries, dealing with the decade as if it were the ancient history of a foreign country. But then you realize that's exactly what the '60s in America are. So much of this history has been distorted or hidden away over the past 30 years that everything has to be explained slowly, patiently: the Vietnam War and the popular resistance to it; hippies and LSD; rock music as a cultural force, not a marketing tool; Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panthers; the political consequences of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

The six-part series — two parts will be shown each night — offers lots of vintage film clips, period music (Phil Ochs, the Mothers of Invention), and contemporary testimony from '60s witnesses, both famous and obscure. Thus Vietnam vet and film director Oliver Stone asserts that the underlying purpose of the decade was ''to test and enjoy the limits of life.'' Ron Sandes, a % California union leader, comments that '60s protests and the hippie lifestyle were ''totally unrealistic to anyone who was a blue-collar worker.'' Music critic Greil Marcus talks about the way the best pop music of the era ''broke all limits of politeness'' and inspired its listeners to say to themselves, ''Of course. Yes, I've been waiting all my life for this, and I never knew it.''

Making Sense of the Sixties, overseen by executive producers Ricki Green and David Hoffman, does a good job of describing the roots of the decade's upheavals — the unprecedented prosperity of the baby-boom generation and the world conditions that gave rise to the American involvement in Vietnam. The series is also admirably unconcerned about contradicting itself. For example, while the narration describes LSD in harshly negative, melodramatic terms (''the most potent psycho-chemical ever invented,'' and worse), we also hear many comments from a New Mexico roofing contractor named Terry Northway, who describes himself as having been ''a discerning acidhead.'' Northway credits his acid trips with making him what he is today: a ''happy born-again Christian.'' Hey, what do you say to that, Jerry Falwell?

At its best, Making Sense captures the messy, idealistic, anything-can- happen feelings that pervaded the '60s. At its worst, it has a few glaring flaws. The rise of the women's movement is given amazingly little consideration, and few distinctions are made between wildly diverse political efforts such as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, SDS, and the Weather Underground, which are lumped together and pretty much dismissed in one episode.

In its overriding attempt to make sense of the '60s, the series tends to oversimplify. ''Tonight,'' journalist-narrator Carol Rissman says at the start of the third episode, ''we'll deal with two rebellions separately: first the cultural, then the political.'' But the whole point of the decade was that you couldn't separate those two things; a few people interviewed here even mention the then-popular slogan, ''The Personal Is Political.''

Making Sense is also a little sloppy. The Rolling Stones' December 1969 concert at Altamont (the infamous bummer in which one audience member was killed, and others assaulted, by some members of the Hell's Angels) is made to seem as if it happened before Woodstock, which took place four months earlier. And during a brief mention of the gay rights movement and the American Indian Movement, Rissman notes the participants' exhilaration: ''That feeling came to be called empowerment,'' says Rissman. ''It meant taking control of your ownlife.'' Sorry, Carol. No one used ''empowerment'' that way in the '60s — it's strictly a '90s cant word.

By all means, watch Making Sense of the Sixties. But if you really want to try figuring out the decade, go to the library and find all the stuff the show leaves out. Read Emmet Grogan's Ringolevio, the best hippie autobiography; read James Miller's Democracy Is in the Streets, a clear-eyed history of SDS; read Murray Kempton's The Briar Patch, a study of the Black Panthers and the American judicial system of that era. Whether on television or in books, this is ancient history with a lot to tell us about the way we live now. B+  (source: Entertainment Weekly)

Episode 1: Seeds of the Sixties

Episode 2: We Can Change the World -- The Early 1960s - A Time Of Innocence

Episode 2: We Can Change the World -- The Civil Rights Movement was Glorious

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America

From The Boston Globe Book Review, "‘The Eve of Destruction’ by James T. Patterson," by David M. Shribman, on 8 December 2012 -- If the digits 1941 and 2001 signify catastrophe and 1968 summons rebellion and violence, then what does 1965 evoke?

The Great Northeast Blackout? Gemini space travel? Sonny and Cher? The confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini?’’ The Dow hitting record heights (942.5 in October, quaint in today’s perspective)?

This was a year when politics and culture trumped all, for according to the distinguished Brown University historian James T. Patterson, 1965 — roughly the middle year of the seventh decade of the 20th century — was “the inaugural year of the Sixties.’’

Patterson’s “The Eve of Destruction’’ — not quite a reprise nor quite a work of revisionism — is no romantic romp of nostalgia. It is a searching look at a year that spawned Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legacy of legislation on education, civil rights, and health and produced a high tide of American liberalism even as bloody confrontations at Selma, bombings in North Vietnam, and a credibility gap in the capital showed cracks in the American edifice.

This was the pivot of the decade, perhaps of the post-war era at the very least, as Patterson argues “the time when America’s social cohesion began to unravel and when the turbulent phenomenon that would be called ‘the Sixties’ broke into view.’’ But it also spawned a byproduct — backlash, in the argot of the decade — that is perhaps its most enduring legacy, the growth of a new conservatism that viewed the forces unleashed in 1965 as, in the words of Newt Gingrich, “a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit this civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility that is incompatible with American freedoms as we have known them.’’

In a nation of constantly growing expectations the political forces of 1965 were jarring and disorienting. A nation of prosperity experienced economic doubts, a nation that had lived in peace contemplated a difficult war, a nation that believed devoutly in its own good and celebrated its freedoms confronted racial evil and inequality.

This was an unusual time in American history, a time when reform movements, apart from civil rights, flourished because of idealism instead of being fed by despair. “Johnson and his ambitious fellow liberals exuded confidence — even hubris — about the capacity of the nation to prosper and of the government to accomplish wonderful things.’’ LBJ put it succinctly: “[A]ny problem could be solved.’’

So the president and the Congress he so astutely and sometimes cynically maneuvered set out to fix more problems than any president and any Congress ever contemplated, to provide Medicare and Medicaid, a landmark education bill, the Voting Rights Bill, and many more. At the same time, Americans began pouring into Vietnam, and the South (and later Los Angeles) began to erupt in violence.

Most of the year and most of the country were tranquil. Radios played “Eight Days a Week’’; theaters showed ‘’The Sound of Music’’; computers began their inexorable march toward indispensability and ubiquity. But there were faint, disquieting stirrings of a future that wasn’t so tranquil.

There were second thoughts about the war — rumblings that would grow louder in only a few months. And second thoughts about all those social-engineering Great Society bills (and about the notion that poverty could be legislated away) — rumblings that would grow ever louder as a new conservatism began to take form.

It was no coincidence that some of the song titles of the year were “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’’ (Rolling Stones) and “The Times They are A-Changin’ ’’ (Bob Dylan). In some ways it doesn’t matter that “It Was a Very Good Year’’ by Frank Sinatra won the Grammy for best male vocal performance of 1965. “Eve of Destruction,’’ sung by Barry McGuire, which hit No. 1 in top 40 charts on Sept. 25, wasn’t as pretty a song but its theme and lyrics are unforgettable to anyone alive in 1965, and it makes for by far the best book title of the season.

Said Time magazine: “[T]he rallying cry is no longer, ‘I wanna hold your hand,’ but ‘I wanna change the world.’ ”

At the heart of 1965 was the triumph and then the tragedy of Johnson, who misjudged the Viet Cong and the American people, thinking they both would bend to his will. “Lyndon Johnson, master manipulator, was losing his political touch,’’ Patterson writes.

The year, meticulously described and deftly analyzed in this crisp volume, ended with contention over Vietnam, within the black movement, on the campus, at the family dinner table, in the White House, and in the Democratic Party. Ahead in 1966 was the founding of the Black Panthers, nationally broadcast Senate hearings on Vietnam, midterm congressional elections that would take 47 new Republicans, including Representative George H.W. Bush of Texas, to the House and the Broadway debut of “Man of La Mancha.’’ Need I mention that the show’s most, enduring song was called “The Impossible Dream”?  (source: The Boston Globe; David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

From the New York Review of Books, "How They Stopped Slavery: A New Perspective, David Brion Davis, by 6 June 2013 --  While historians have long countered the myth that slavery was not the central cause of the Civil War, they have clung to the view that the Union’s opposition to slavery developed very slowly and almost reluctantly, largely due to the Republicans’ commitment to the constitutional ban on “interference” with slavery that already existed in slaveholding states. Hence Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation often appears as a sudden, radical action, really out of the blue. Though I long accepted most such interpretations, I have always been puzzled by the so-called First and Second Confiscation Acts, passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862, which have received far too little attention. These acts applied, among others, to armies fighting in the South, to whom slaves might surrender. The 1861 act, for example, held that Confederate properties including slaves were the “lawful subject of prize and capture wherever found.”

Fortunately James Oakes’s Freedom National clarifies the aims of the war with a wholly new perspective. I agree with the eminent historians Eric Foner and James M. McPherson that his book (in Foner’s words) is “the best account ever written of the complex historical process known as emancipation,” though for some reason Oakes omits the complex French and British responses to the Civil War, including the close decision not to intervene and formally recognize the Confederacy.1 But Oakes shows how President Lincoln and other Republican leaders experienced “memory lapse[s]” that contributed to myths that obscured the meaning and impact of the two Confiscation Acts, that portrayed Lincoln as a “reluctant emancipator,” and that erased much of the history of emancipation before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861–1865; by James Oakes

The basic theme of Oakes’s long and extremely detailed book is that Lincoln’s new Republican Party was a strong and united antislavery party both before and throughout the war, a party dedicated to the proposition that defining humans as chattel property was a violation of the “freedom principle” embodied in natural and international law. Republicans held that such chattel bondage was unrecognized in the US Constitution, which defined slaves as “persons held in service,” not property, and was thus restricted within the boundaries of specific Southern states whose laws sanctioned true slavery.

This was the meaning of the slogan “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional,” terms used by the abolitionist Charles Sumner not long after he was elected to the Senate in 1851, terms that extended back to the pivotal British Somerset ruling of 1772, which held that “no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever.” The terms also extended back to the natural condition of the populations of Western Europe.

Oakes shows that Republicans had devised well-considered plans for a national assault on slavery, that Southerners were quite right in seeing the Republicans as a threat to their “peculiar institution,” and that secession was not a paranoid act of irrationality. But while Republicans were determined from the first to move toward the ultimate extinction of slavery, they could never imagine that their efforts would result in four years of brutal war, at a cost of 750,000 military lives, in order to free four million slaves and permanently outlaw the institution with a ratified constitutional amendment eight months after the assassination of President Lincoln. Oakes succeeds in dramatizing the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of achieving that objective.

Oakes is so absorbed in the Republican Party’s prosecution of the war that he never takes notice of the actual nature of American slavery as experienced by slaves and never recognizes the economic strength and profitability of the institution, which presented one of the major obstacles to abolition, especially since Republican leaders believed that slavery was weak, vulnerable, and obsolete. (Their party had been founded in 1854 to oppose the extension of slavery into Kansas and Nebraska.)

But Oakes convincingly shows that by 1861 Republicans had drawn on the antislavery arguments of such figures as John Quincy Adams, Salmon Chase, Theodore Weld, Joshua Giddings, and Charles Sumner to formulate plans for undermining and attacking slavery, while still observing the “federal consensus” that the Constitution put slavery in the states beyond the reach of federal power. Republican policymakers found a solution to this conundrum in the conviction that, contrary to the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the legality of defining slaves as property was wholly confined to the existing slaveholding states, and could thus be kept from expanding into American territories or the high seas.

The Republicans’ first conception of their aims was based on a theory of containment: “a cordon of freedom” would stop the spread of slavery, a view that went back to abolitionist proposals of the 1830s and the later Free Soil Party. Actually, as early as 1784 Thomas Jefferson sponsored a narrowly failed provision in a bill in the Continental Congress to prevent “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes” from expanding into any of the western territories, even those west of Georgia and the Carolinas.

Oakes fails to mention this but notes that Jefferson’s words were incorporated into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banning slavery north of the Ohio River (passed when Jefferson was in France), and then into a Republican bill of 1862 banning slavery “in all places whatsoever where the national Government has exclusive jurisdiction,” including the territories taken over by the Union forces. Finally, Jefferson’s words were incorporated into the Thirteenth Amendment.

Apart from advocating the confinement of slavery to the existing slaveholding states, abolitionists had called for constructing a moral wall or cordon around the slave states in order to undermine even the slaveholders’ support of a condemned institution. As the young escaped slave Frederick Douglass put it in a speech to a large audience in London in May 1846:

I want the slave holder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. I want him to feel that he has no sympathy in England, Scotland, or Ireland; that he has none in Canada, none in Mexico, none among the poor wild Indians…. I would have condemnation blaze down upon him in every direction, till, stunned and overwhelmed with shame and confusion, he is compelled to let go the grasp he holds upon the persons of his victims, and restore them to their long-standing rights. (Loud cheers.)2
As Oakes points out, with the Republicans’ political victory in 1860, the cordon became more physical and material. Then the secession of eleven slave states enabled Republicans to abolish slavery in the nation’s capital, ban slavery from the western territories, refuse to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, and withdraw federal protection from slavery on the high seas. No less important, they applied pressure on the “loyal,” slaveholding border states—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, which were soon occupied by many Union troops—to abolish slavery on their own. And by early 1862, they required a new state, West Virginia, to abolish slavery as a condition for admission to the Union. That would become a precedent that would later be applied to all states wanting readmission to the Union.

The second abolitionist plan held that in the event of war or rebellion, the federal government could free slaves by “military necessity,” as finally exemplified by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. Here the Republicans drew heavily on two sources of legal argument. First, the case John Quincy Adams had made against the so-called gag rule—which was passed with the support of Southern congressmen in 1836 and barred discussion of slavery in the House until the rule was repealed in 1844. The second argument recalled Adams’s defense of the right of self-emancipation of the African slaves on board the slave ship Amistad in 1839. Indeed, after the abolitionist Charles Sumner learned of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, he waved copies of Adams’s speeches in President Lincoln’s face, defying him to live up to Adams’s arguments. But Oakes makes it clear that Lincoln did not lag behind the Republicans in Congress with regard to antislavery policy. Rather, while one branch of government would sometimes take the lead, they worked together, as can be seen in the enforcement of the First Confiscation Act, which was above all a response to the expected move toward liberty by many of the slaves themselves.

Even before the war, many Republican leaders predicted that in the event of war slaves would flee their masters or possibly rise in a Haitian-like rebellion. But even after the war began, there were no formulated plans for runaway slaves who arrived at the Union-controlled Fort Pickens, in Florida, and were then returned to their masters, right after Lincoln’s inaugural.

The new policy proclaimed by the Confiscation Acts, based on “military necessity,” began in May 1861 when three slaves fled behind Union lines at Fortress Monroe, Virginia—to be followed by some nine hundred by the end of July. General Benjamin Butler found that the owner of the three fugitives had intended to take them to North Carolina to help secessionists there, and thus sent a report to Washington arguing that slaves should not be returned to aid the rebel cause. The secretary of war and Lincoln’s cabinet approved Butler’s “contraband policy,” allowing able-bodied black men and women to work for wages to support the Union army and to live with their children behind Union lines.

Nevertheless, the Republican leaders agreed that they had to try to balance measures justified by military necessity with the “federal consensus” that the Constitution prohibited direct federal “interference” with slavery in existing states. This goal was reinforced by the crucial need to prevent the slaveholding border states from joining the Confederacy. Thus the War Department’s initial instructions for implementing the First Confiscation Act prohibited Union soldiers from “enticing” slaves away from peaceful farms and plantations. This rule was only overturned by Lincoln, acting as commander in chief of the military, in the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.

The War Department took a far more radical step in its instructions of August 8, 1861, declaring that the slaves, or rather “persons,” who escaped even from masters “loyal” to the Union would be emancipated. Early in this war against so-called Southern “traitors,” Northern leaders greatly overestimated the number of Southerners who it was hoped would turn out to be loyal to the Union. While the distinction between loyal and disloyal with regard to the freeing of slaves was intended to reinforce such loyal support of the Union, it almost immediately proved to be impossible to carry out.

By July the number of slaves escaping from Confederate territory had convinced Republican leaders that the rebellion of slaveholders had made slavery’s destruction inevitable. While the First Confiscation Act was originally intended to apply only to those fugitives “employed in hostility to the United States,” under the War Department’s instructions “military necessity” meant the freeing of all slaves who voluntarily entered Union lines from any Confederate state. In theory, owners who were loyal to the United States might someday be compensated, but no freed people were to be reenslaved. The act even emancipated the large number of slaves, as in coastal South Carolina, whose masters were presumed to be traitors to the Union since they ran inland from advancing Union troops.

Even though there was some inconsistency in the behavior of Union officers, the First Confiscation Act applied to all parts of the Confederacy occupied by Union troops and within a year of passage it had liberated tens of thousands of slaves. As Oakes emphasizes, it is difficult to imagine how emancipation could have begun any sooner. Contrary to the views of many historians, Lincoln had been informed of every step taken and seems to have accepted the War Department’s more radical criteria for enforcing the law. Yet Oakes never explains why an administration so committed to slave emancipation utterly failed to convey this message to Britain, where supporters of the North desperately needed such news to counteract their powerful enemies.

While the two scenarios, “military necessity” and “cordon of freedom,” were pursued simultaneously, the border states presented unexpected problems of combining them, since internal state struggles between unionists and secessionists coincided with Civil War battles and the partial occupation by Union troops. Lincoln’s urgent need and desire to keep the states within the Union conflicted with his efforts to persuade them, beginning with Delaware, to accept a plan for the gradual, compensated abolition of slavery (as it turned out, Delaware and Kentucky resisted abolition until the very end).

The desire to free the thousands of runaway slaves, many of them crossing over from Confederate states, was enhanced by the fact that they often provided Northern troops with important military intelligence regarding the location of rebel forces. In view of the great complexities, Union generals were divided on the issue of slave masters in the border states who were loyal to the Union. As it turned out, in March 1862 Congress passed and Lincoln signed a law prohibiting the military from enforcing the fugitive slave clause, and a few months later the Second Confiscation Act went further in limiting any enforcement to local civil and judicial authorities in the border states. The army was barred from trying to find whether a fugitive had escaped from a master loyal to the Union cause.

In early 1862 Union troops began to occupy extremely prosperous areas of Louisiana and the lower Mississippi Valley that contained hundreds of thousands of slaves, which gave added impetus to the Republicans pushing for a Second Confiscation Act, or “the emancipation bill,” as it was frequently called. Introduced in early December 1861, this complex measure took over seven months to become law—it was signed by Lincoln on July 17, 1862. Greatly expanding “military emancipation” under the war powers clause of the Constitution, the law aimed at completely destroying slavery in the seceded states, thus abandoning hope of encouraging unionist sentiment in the South. Denying the Southerners any property rights in slaves, it directly emancipated rebel-owned slaves within Union lines in the seceded states, including thousands of slaves in the occupied Mississippi Valley. But especially controversial and the subject of much Republican debate was the section of the act that gave the commander in chief latitude in enforcing a radical clause designed to emancipate slaves in all unoccupied areas of the Confederacy by means of a presidential proclamation.

In effect, the Second Confiscation Act authorized and called upon Lincoln to issue a proclamation freeing all rebel-owned slaves in areas not yet occupied by Union forces. Lincoln acknowledged this by quoting verbatim Section 6 of the act in his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862. Lincoln was troubled by the act’s complicated rules governing the confiscation of rebel real estate, but not by the provisions for emancipation and the enlistment of blacks in the Union army. While the act still distinguished masters who were loyal and disloyal to the Union, the distinction broke down almost immediately as Union generals attempted to recruit former slaves to work in a free labor system, which, as General Benjamin Butler later reassured Lincoln, was working admirably. Of course Democratic and border state congressmen were outraged by the success of the act, and proclaimed that Republican fanatics had destroyed all prospects of restoring the Union and were replaying the themes of the French and Haitian revolutions.

Oakes refutes the myth that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 did not free a single slave as well as the myth that it shifted the purpose of the war from the restoration of the Union to the abolition of slavery (the war to restore the Union had always been a conflict over slavery). He also highlights other aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation, such as the importance of recruiting 180,000 black troops to join the Union army, which became indispensable for a Union victory. The Proclamation not only converted the Union army into a true army of liberation but helped lift the ban on the “enticement” of slaves, so that countless Union soldiers coaxed slaves to leave and spread word of the Proclamation. Union troops even delivered talks on plantations, reducing fears of the consequences of flight and adding to the huge numbers of blacks who followed invading Union forces. Above all, the Proclamation gradually helped convince a large number of voters that total slave emancipation was a necessary condition for the restoration of the Union, a prerequisite for passage and ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Yet as Oakes makes clear, military emancipation could never free most of the slaves in the South, and the Union army could hardly deal with the tens of thousands who flocked behind its lines. Of the nearly four million slaves in the South in 1860, no more than 14 percent of those in the eleven Confederate states had been freed by the war’s end (approximately 474,000 in the Confederate states and another 50,000 in the border states). Lincoln and Republican leaders long expressed faith in both military emancipation and the effects of a “cordon of freedom,” especially for border states, but the Union’s major but very costly military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863 showed that the war might end without any assurance that even many of the emancipated blacks would not be reenslaved. How could Lincoln guarantee his proclamation that freed slaves would be “forever free” when Confederate leaders promised they would be reenslaved after the war?

Among the barriers or obstacles to full emancipation, Oakes never gives adequate attention to the deeply rooted national white prejudice and fear of African-Americans. While he briefly discusses colonization, especially with respect to Lincoln, he never deals with the broad white consensus, going back to the eighteenth century, that slavery could never be abolished without some plan for “colonizing” freed blacks outside the United States. In considering the costs of emancipation, Oakes also fails to consider the impact on freed blacks of malnutrition and poverty, to say nothing of the outbreaks of dysentery, smallpox, and fever that decimated both Union and Confederate ranks. The Union government gave little thought to what would happen to blacks—where they would go, what they would eat, in a war zone devastated by disease.3

The obstacle that Oakes does stress was the Confederate leaders’ determination to preserve and expand slavery—including extraordinarily harsh efforts to prevent slaves from escaping. It became increasingly clear that even if defeated, the Southerners would do all they could to reenslave the blacks freed by war. In other words, Republicans began to see that military emancipation, despite its great human costs, could never permanently destroy the slave system. After considering various other proposals, including a postwar reduction of the Confederate states to the status of territories, in 1864 Republicans arrived at a consensus that the full and permanent destruction of slavery would require a thirteenth amendment to the Constitution.

Such a radical step required a revised view of the Founding Fathers, who, while intending to promote the eventual ending of slavery, were now seen as making the serious mistake of giving states control of the institution—“the federal consensus.” This control by the Southern states opened the way for the Southern slave power to sponsor the expansion of slavery and bring on the Civil War. Nevertheless, Republicans were careful to bow down to the Founders by linking the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment, which now reached directly into the states, to Jefferson’s wording in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which had been readopted by the First Congress. Of course the Democrats attacked the measure as an “unconstitutional constitutional amendment” and, branding the Republicans as “traitors,” “Jacobins,” and “negro-worshippers,” accused them of launching a tyrannical assault on limited government and states’ rights.

I was surprised to find from Oakes’s account that the Northern Democrats were making a full-scale defense of slavery as late as June 1864. For one prominent New York Democrat, the Thirteenth Amendment would, by “obliterating” the right of states to have slaves, “alter the whole structure and theory of government by changing the basis upon which it rests.” More concretely, by making abolition a precondition for peace, the fanatical Republicans were supposedly destroying the possibility of a negotiated settlement and thus ensuring “eternal disunion and a continuous war.”

Since the Republicans dominated the Senate in June 1864, they easily approved the Thirteenth Amendment 38–6. But on June 15 Democrats won the necessary one third of votes in the House of Representatives to block the measure, to the dismay of the Republicans. Although Lincoln and Republican leaders continued to count on the amendment’s future passage, its defeat in the House heightened the temporary importance of state abolition, which, like military emancipation, was having limited success. By the end of 1864 Maryland, Louisiana, and Arkansas—a border, southern, and western state—had adopted immediate abolition. But failed efforts in Delaware, Florida, and Kentucky signified the limits of the “cordon” ideal. The true destruction of American slavery, it appeared, would largely depend on the outcome of the election of November 1864.

For a time Lincoln himself seriously doubted whether he could defeat his opponent, the almost proslavery Democrat General George B. McClellan, and even moderate Republicans expressed anxiety over prolonging the war and a wish for negotiated peace. But General William Tecumseh Sherman’s spectacular defeat of the Confederates at Atlanta in September 1864 and his subsequent “march to the sea” heightened the prospects of Union victory. In November the Republicans regained more than enough seats in the House of Representatives to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the Thirty-Ninth Congress the following year. Lincoln announced that if the amendment failed again in the next meeting of the Thirty-Eighth Congress, he would call the Thirty-Ninth Congress into special session in July 1865. But as it turned out, that would be months after Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, and the end of the war. Lincoln and Republican leaders realized that the war itself provided a major justification for the amendment—the suppression of slaveholder rebellion.

As a result, when the congressional debate began in January, and the Democrats seemed unmovable, Lincoln and his associates saw the need for the intense lobbying campaign dramatized in the recent film Lincoln. Secretary of State William Seward helped by twisting arms and promising patronage, especially in his home state of New York. Lincoln and Republican leaders succeeded in converting enough border state and Democratic congressmen to reach the two-thirds goal in the final vote on January 31—119 for, 56 against (a change of three votes would have reversed the outcome). The House erupted in jubilation; spectators wept and danced. In a speech the next day Lincoln stressed that slavery was the only thing that ever threatened to destroy the Union. He acknowledged the limitations of his Emancipation Proclamation, and praised the Thirteenth Amendment for freeing all slaves, everywhere, for all future time, “a King’s cure for all the evils” that had not been cured by the Proclamation.

But of course the measure could not become part of the Constitution until three fourths of the states, twenty-seven of the thirty-six states in the Union, had ratified it. Despite bitter Democratic opposition, by February 3 New York, Illinois, Rhode Island, Michigan, Maryland, and West Virginia had ratified the Amendment, and eleven more state legislatures followed by the end of the month. But then progress slowed considerably.

According to Oakes it is unclear, following Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, whether President Andrew Johnson ever formally required reconstructed Southern states to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment as a condition for readmission to the Union. But as Secretary of State Seward grew bolder, he told South Carolina’s provisional governor that the president “considers the acceptance of the amendment indispensable” to the state’s restoration. On November 14, the South Carolina legislature complied by ratifying the amendment, and in December Seward’s efforts led North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and even Florida to follow suit. It was not until December 18 that Seward officially certified that the requisite twenty-seven states had ratified the amendment—the same day that Delaware and Kentucky finally abolished the institution. This meant that during most of the year 1865, slavery was still legal in most of the Southern states and that more slaves may have been emancipated in December 1865 than in the four preceding years of war. But by year’s end, as Oakes makes clear, freedom was now truly “national.”

By underscoring the early Republican commitment to abolition as well as the success and importance of the First and Second Confiscation Acts, the first part of Oakes’s book implies a certain inevitability to the destruction of slavery in the Civil War. But despite his omission of some of the major barriers to emancipation, Oakes succeeds in conveying the complexity and fortuity of succeeding events, so the reader can well imagine a scenario in which slavery would have persisted for generations to come. Above all, Oakes brilliantly succeeds in distilling from a great mass of facts a series of clear themes and arguments that provide a new perspective on one of the central events in American history.  (source: New York Review of Books)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Abraham Lincoln's Failed Haitian Experiment, The Île à Vache

From  The New York Times Disunion, "The Île à Vache: From Hope to Disaster," by Phillip W. Magness, on 12 April 2013  --  Virginia’s massive Fortress Monroe, operating under Union control from the beginning of the war, played witness to an unusual sight on the morning of April 14, 1863. For some six days prior the Ocean Ranger lay at anchor in sight of the fort’s guns as a steady stream of food and supplies were carried aboard. The brig’s main cargo, however, consisted of passengers — specifically 453 recently freed African-Americans — about to set sail for a new life in Haiti.

Fortress Monroe had been the site of the Civil War’s original emancipating act in 1861, when its commander, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, issued the famous “contrabands order” refusing to return escaped slaves to their Confederate owners on the grounds that they were contrabands of war. In the intervening years, thousands of African-Americans made their way to the Union lines and availed themselves of this newfound pathway to freedom. Emancipation entailed an uncertain future though, and not all whites were willing or ready to accept the newly freed slaves as social or political equals.

The steady stream of “contrabands” to the fort also quickly turned into a flood in the wake of McClellan’s peninsula campaign, resulting in overcrowded and impoverished conditions in the camps that sprang up around the fort. In a December 1862 plea for charity, one Northern newspaper remarked of the destitute condition: “although the Government supplies them with food, they are in want of other necessaries that sustain life. Winter is hard by, and they must have blankets and comfortable clothing, or they will perish and die to our utter shame.” A correspondent to Frederick Douglass’s newspaper similarly deplored “their treatment by the officers of the government,” which “as a rule, has been brutal and cruel in the extreme.” The contrabands, he continued, had “long been promised, but never had [received] protection from the abuses of rebel sympathizers, and reasonable encouragement and opportunity to get a living.”

It was under these circumstances that the Ocean Ranger set sail, and while its associated policy of black colonization provided a source of controversy and distrust within the African-American community, the arrival of the ship was evidently seen by many freedmen as a means to escape poor conditions and an uncertain future in the United States. Throngs of contrabands reportedly amassed in the streets around the fort and on the wharf of nearby Hampton, Va., in hopes of securing passage. The vessel departed on the morning of April 14 to celebratory cheers, with one witness reporting that “seldom has a happier company left our shores.”

The genesis of the Ocean Ranger’s voyage was inextricably linked to the person of Bernard Kock, a cotton exporter who some months prior had secured a lease to the Île à Vache, a small, uninhabited island off the southern coast of Haiti. Bearing papers from the Haitian president, Fabre Geffrard, Kock approached the United States government with a scheme to colonize some 5,000 freed slaves on the island and employ them in agricultural production.

Though one of many similar proposals of varying character and design presented to Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1862, Kock’s project benefited from its backing by the Haitian government and a stroke of good timing as the president searched for a pilot venture for his colonization program. Indeed, Lincoln most likely intended for the government’s agreement with Kock to coincide with his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, fulfilling his longstanding habit of pairing emancipation and colonization together. The project was actually conceived at the White House on New Year’s Eve, 1862, amid late-night negotiations among Lincoln, Kock, Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin and the longtime Washington powerbroker-turned-colonizationist standard-bearer Francis P. Blair Sr. With Blair boasting that the project marked “the beginning of the 2nd great Exodus” for African-Americans, Lincoln evidently affixed his signature to the Haitian colonization contract the following morning only hours before signing the more famous Emancipation Proclamation.

The terms of the contract pledged the United States government to pay $50 in transport per colonist, prompting Kock to assemble a group of New York investors to charter the first ship in early January. Yet the signed contract unexpectedly fell victim to a political rumor, alleging that Kock had struck a secret deal with Captain Raphael Semmes of the famed Confederate raider Alabama to transfer his human “cargo” into Southern hands while at sea. The charges were unfounded, yet sufficient to temporarily derail the project and perhaps an omen of other unexposed faults in Kock’s motives and ability.

While few records attest to the exact reasons for its revival, the suspended contract seems to have attracted presidential attention once again in early March 1863. According to Charles K. Tuckerman, one of the New York-based investors in the project, Lincoln summoned him to Washington and requested that he take on “the matter as a personal favor” to supplant Kock and his rumored personal baggage.

Captain Raphael Semmes

Despite the delay, the president desired that the project “should go on” and shortly thereafter gave his assent to a reconstituted contract with Tuckerman and Paul M. Forbes of the investor’s group. The pair had reportedly already spent a sizable sum on preparations for Kock’s project, suggesting a desire to recoup this investment from government funds played prominently into Tuckerman’s decision. The new contract terms restricted the project to a trial run of only 500 colonists, likely dampening the prospect of long term profitability from the venture. Forbes and Tuckerman jumped on the president’s offer though and quickly readied the Ocean Ranger for departure in just over a week’s time.

Belying the hope and promise exhibited by the contrabands-turned-colonists who departed Fortress Monroe on April 14, the mood of the voyage quickly soured. Though stricken from the contract, Kock had been retained by Forbes and Tuckerman to lead the voyage on account of his possession of the colony’s title from the Haitian government. He began to show autocratic tendencies almost immediately. Kock announced himself as “governor” of the colony, presented the passengers with contracts binding them to labor upon arrival, and either forced or swindled them into exchanging their money and valuables for a bizarre paper currency of his own design. To complicate matters, the ship suffered an outbreak of smallpox only three days out of port. By the day of their arrival at the Île à Vache on May 3, the disease had spread to another 20 passengers.

Though accounts of what happened next vary widely, Kock’s brief reign over the colony exhibited simultaneous signs of incompetence and a proclivity toward despotism. He seems to have viewed the colonists as his personal indentured workers on a sea cotton farming enterprise. The island itself was underprepared — by Kock’s own admission only two small dwellings had been constructed — and chronically undersupplied. A second ship carrying additional lumber and food cargo never sailed. Those afflicted by smallpox were quarantined to a “hospital” zone without supplies and tantamount to their effective abandonment on the beach. In a later defense of his actions, Kock looked upon the African-Americans in his company as a paternalistic charge in need of firm direction; for the Haitians, he had only contempt, deeming them “a lazy people, and inclined to avoid work whenever it is possible to do so.”

Bernard Kock

As the situation unraveled on the island, new tensions emerged between Kock, the New York investors, and their government sponsors. Kock blamed Forbes and Tuckerman for their failure to send a second supply ship. The investors, for their part, had lost faith in Kock’s leadership amid reports that he was misappropriating resources for the construction of his personal living quarters at the expense of the colonists. All the while, divisions emerged between both parties and Interior Secretary John P. Usher, under whose direction all colonization matters fell. Usher showed reluctance to release funds for either the Ocean Ranger’s voyage or a subsequent supply ship, and of equal significance, seems to have personally soured upon the entire colonization enterprise after about June of 1863. Even as the Ocean Ranger sailed, Usher had signaled an aversion to sending more colonists, and later charges of administrative negligence on his part may well have grounding in the revelation that the secretary had a personal financial stake in a competing colonization scheme in Panama.

Usher may have also found affirmation for keeping his distance as reports trickled in from Haiti. A lengthy letter on June 25 by James DeLong, United States Consul in the nearby Haitian port of Aux Cayes, provided forwarded secondhand reports from the island. Though DeLong’s testimony must be read with the potentially biasing knowledge that his son was invested in a competing colonization enterprise, it painted a thoroughly damning picture of Vache’s self-proclaimed “Governor.”

“Everything connected with the affairs on the Island is kept in the dark as much as possible,” wrote DeLong, and “no person is permitted to land on the Island without a passport except parties immediately connected with Mr. Kock in business.” He relayed an account from a witness who saw the colonists in absolute destitution, sleeping on open beaches and ramshackle huts. DeLong also enclosed a specimen of Kock’s self-printed currency — the only tender he offered in wages to the emigrants, which he then took as payment for food and goods “at an enormous profit” to himself in a veritable company shop arrangement.

Within two months of landing, Kock fled the island under threat of open revolt against his brutal labor system, though he also attempted to reinstate his version of “order” with local Haitian officials recruited from the mainland, with varying degrees of success. By early July, reports of the disastrous conditions prompted Forbes and Tuckerman to legally relieve Kock from the enterprise and place it under the direction of A.A. Ripka, a company agent sent ostensibly to place the colony on a sounder agricultural footing.

Ripka’s initial reports concealed still-deteriorating conditions, though Forbes and Tuckerman used them to press the Interior Department again for the release of funding. Paradoxically, the very same objections that Usher likely cited as grounds for denying the request were exacerbated by further inaction for want of capital. By the early fall the investors effectively pulled out, all attempts to plant a crop having failed. While the island reportedly possessed a favorable growing climate, it was “virgin and entangled soil” that required laborious clearing by hand. “Even corn and potatoes failed” in this environment and the surviving colonists began to desert, either to the Haitian mainland or to beach encampments elsewhere on Vache.

While Lincoln made no written response to the colony’s failure, the news eventually reached the White House and, according to one visitor in the late summer of 1863, left the president profoundly upset. “He told me … that the Negroes in the Cow Island settlement on the coast of Hayti were suffering intensely from a pest of ‘jiggers’ from which there seemed to be no escape or protection. His distress was as keen as it was sincere.”

The colony fell into virtual abandonment by early October, although numerous conflicting accounts from the island left Washington uncertain about the fate of the settlers. Likely prodded by the president after months of inattention, Usher appointed his old law partner D.C. Donnohue as special agent to investigate the site for the government. Finding the settlers still clothed in the same ragged surplus Union army uniforms that had been given to them at their departure from Fortress Monroe, Donnohue proceeded to oversee a relief expedition to carry survivors back to the United States. All said, of the initial 453 named colonists some 292 remained on Vache and an additional 73 had fled to the Haitian mainland. The remainder succumbed to disease and starvation.

Blame and finger-pointing for the Île à Vache disaster was well under way when the relief ship Marcia Day steamed up the Potomac and delivered the survivors to Alexandria, Va., on March 20, 1864. Kock alleged betrayal by both the government and the investors for failing to adequately supply his vessel. Forbes and Tuckerman pressed a claim against the government for reimbursement, noting that they received nothing of the contracted amount from Usher and faulting this lack of support for the experiment’s failure. Usher in turn used the disaster to deny the very same claim, and privately urged members of Congress to rescind federal funding for colonization entirely. The New York Times editor Henry Jarvis Raymond — himself one of the financiers backing Forbes and Tuckerman — blamed Usher’s failure to properly oversee the project from the beginning, noting, “How much he has had to do with causing its failure, how carefully he has so managed matters as to secure the defeat of the scheme, which he professed to be aiding, he does not state.”

Lincoln seems to have quietly let the matter drop after the settlers’ return, though his private secretary, John Hay, recorded the president’s dismay at the “thievery of … Kock” in his diary in July of 1864 after Congress, still reeling from the entire Vache incident, rescinded the remaining colonization budget. As for the colonists, the discriminatory challenges of a post-slavery United States awaited upon their return — as did a military recruiter, curiously seen waiting at the dockside as the Marcia Day arrived, ready to enlist its passengers to the Union war cause.  (source: The New York Times)



From Lincoln in Caricature (1903) by Rufus Rockwell Wilson  --  The cartoon, “Rowdy” Notions of Emancipation appeared in London Punch on August 8, 1863, prompted by the Draft Riots which in the previous month dismayed and disgraced America’s chief city.

At the left of the cartoon Mr. Lincoln stands with folded arms gazing gloomily into space while in the foreground white ruffians assail unoffending Negroes and beat or stamp them into insensibility. All of which failed to place where it properly belonged the blame for a wanton and tragic breach of law and order. A federal draft law which went into effect on July 1, 1863, unwisely exempted from its operation all who should pay into the federal treasury the sum of $300. The discontent, thus produced was fomented in New York City by pothouse politicians, who declared the draft unconstitutional, and that it bore with unjust severity on the poor man.

Many vowed resistance and, borrowing courage from the fact that the city, to repel Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, had been practically denuded of troops, made plans to attack the drafting officers. No trouble occurred on the first day of the draft, July 11, but on the second, Monday, July 13, an organized mob attacked and wrecked the provost marshal’s office at the corner of Third Avenue and Forty-sixth Street. Then inspired by animosity towards the Negro race, the rioters raided a colored orphan asylum in Fifth Avenue above Forty-third Street and burned it to the ground.

A cry now went up to kill the police, and soon 500 rioters were marching down Broadway bent upon the destruction of police headquarters in Mulberry Street, but 100 policemen, ably led, barred their advance and a short and decisive fight cleared Broadway, except the rioters who with shattered pates strewed the pavement. Routed at one point, however, the mob rallied at another, and a few hours later, under cover of darkness, a determined attempt was made to sack and burn the office of the Tribune in Park Row. Again the police drove the rioters from the field with a heavy loss in killed and wounded; but it was now clear that the police force was too few in numbers to restore order, and all of the New York regiments were ordered to repair to the city.

During Tuesday and Wednesday, July 14 and 15, the mob continued to fire and loot property, and to maltreat and murder Negroes, but on the evening of the latter day the returning regiments began to arrive in the city. Bullets and bayonets now took the place of policemen’s clubs, and on Friday, July 17, the mayor was able to announce the complete restoration of order. It became clear ere long that a lamentable affair had been mainly due to the timidity and hesitation of Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, who sought to conciliate instead of sternly suppressing the rioters, and so permitted them to get out of bounds. When Seymour sought reelection as governor in 1864 he was beaten by a decisive majority.  (source:  Lincoln in Caricature (1903) by Rufus Rockwell Wilson)

When the Civil War Came to New York

The New York Times, "When the Civil War Came to New York, by Jon Grinspan, on 13 July 2013  --  SGT. ROBERT McCREDIE’s men hustled down 43rd Street, turned onto Third Avenue and stopped dead. Looking north, they beheld a sight no Manhattan police officer ever expected to see. A “ragged, coatless, heterogeneously weaponed army,” in the words of one reporter, filled the boulevard two blocks uptown. The smoke of burning factories framed this rumbling multitude.

Sergeant McCredie’s eyes focused on a handful of soldiers sprinting his way, with the mob on their heels. As the troops neared, he could see the tears in their uniforms, the bruises on their faces, the terror in their eyes.

The Civil War had come to New York.

It was the Union Army draft that touched off the four days of rioting on July 13, 1863. Or was it racism? Or immigration? Or politics? It is fitting that the largest riot in American history should have so many causes. Ever since it ended, Americans have struggled to explain why a draft rebellion, a race riot, a class war and an immigrant uprising all erupted in the middle of a civil war fought in the name of unity.

The draft was the immediate cause of the trouble. As the war went badly for the North in the spring of 1863, Union leaders worried that few of the initially optimistic volunteers would re-enlist when their terms were up in 1864. So Congress established America’s first conscription system (the Confederacy already had one).

Enrolling officers entered all men between 20 and 35 years old, and unmarried men up to 45, in a lottery. Those drafted could join the Army, find a substitute or pay $300. Congress hoped this fee would prevent a bidding war for substitutes, but it was far beyond the means of the average American worker.

Forcing men into combat represented the greatest demand the federal government had ever put on its citizens, and it did not sit well with New York’s immigrant laborers. They were largely against the war and predominantly Democratic, and they chafed under a Republican-controlled White House, Congress, mayor’s office and, perhaps worst of all, local police force.

White supremacists fanned existing hatred, blaming African-Americans for conscription. Street-corner demagogues shouted: “There would have been no draft but for the war — there would have been no war but for slavery, the slaves were black, ergo, all blacks are responsible for the war.” New York’s black community, centered in Greenwich Village, became a scapegoat for growing anger at Washington.

Working conditions provided the riots’ final cause. New York was rapidly maturing into an industrial behemoth. From Lower Manhattan to Midtown, the island was an unbroken cluster of homes and businesses. Farther north the grid was only partly filled. Here and there factories and tenements popped up, like pimples on the forehead of the adolescent city.

Draft Riots 1863 - Group of Rioters

Poorly paid and unprotected laborers built this metropolis. Many were recent immigrants, living in squalid, stinking neighborhoods along the rivers, seething with the belief that while the government fought for emancipation in the South, no one seemed to care about wage slavery in Manhattan.

So it stood on July 13, 1863, the muggy, hushed Monday when the lottery was to begin. Democratic politicians gave ominous warnings that the draft could not be enforced, but no one could predict what the day held.

The morning began with a peaceful strike. Organizers moved through uptown factories and construction sites, recruiting protesters. Artisans, firemen and gangs of boys joined as well, waving banners, hollering slogans and swigging whiskey. Women turned out, too, “stalwart young vixens and withered old hags,” wrote one upper-class observer, “swarming everywhere, all cursing the ‘bloody draft’ and egging on their men to mischief.”

Soon two massive columns were streaming down the East and West Sides. When one reached the lottery offices, at 46th Street and Third Avenue, firemen stormed inside, smashed the selection wheel and set the building on fire. Hooligans began to tear up railroad tracks and telegraph lines. Downtown, rumors spread that someone was disabling Manhattan’s infrastructure; many believed it was the beginning of a Confederate plot.

The police superintendent, John Kennedy, pushed his way through this crowd. Around him he heard masses murmuring his name. Soon they were shouting it. Tough old Kennedy felt a shove from behind. When he turned, a man in a tattered Army coat struck him in the face.

That first blow broke the spell of his authority. The throng pushed in, pummeling him. Mr. Kennedy tried to run, but the swaying crush tripped him, dragged him to a muddy hole and forced his head under the dirty water. Mr. Kennedy broke free, and just as the crowd closed in again, a Democratic ward boss pulled him into a carriage and they fled.

Rioters began to surround African-Americans at random. Frenzied gangs attacked black males, some as young as 9 years old. Victims were beaten, stripped, mutilated and dragged through the streets; several were killed, and some were lynched from lampposts. A swarm set upon the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, burning it to the ground as 200 children scrambled out a back exit.

Surveying the ruins, one diarist later snarled: “This is a nice town to call itself a centre of civilization!” Other gangs attacked the police. If caught, officers faced the same atrocities as African-American victims. The grotesque beating death of Col. Henry O’Brien lasted six hours. The only authorities who could safely move among the crowds were priests, firemen and Democratic politicians.

The city seemed helpless that first terrible night. Ordinary citizens put out their lamps, fearing a brick through the window. Prominent abolitionists sat in the dark with loaded revolvers, watching for rioters’ torches.

Herman Melville wrote his poem “The House-Top” about looking out over an eerily dark Manhattan, listening to store windows shattering. The riot mocked the very idea of progress, he wrote, as “all civil charms ... like a dream dissolve / And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.”

New York’s leadership dithered. Elites milled about the well-defended St. Nicholas Hotel, debating the best course. Manhattan’s upper class was split between Democrats who blamed “insolent Negroes” and cautioned moderation toward the troublemakers, and Republicans who called for an “immediate and terrible” response, hoping to see “war made on Irish scum.”

The police acted while civilians argued. They used the telegraph network (maintained by operators disguised as rioters) to track “plague spots” breaking out around the city. At one point, they sent 200 officers to halt 5,000 rioters pouring down Broadway. The police charged this horde at Bleecker Street, led by a grizzled old sergeant swinging his truncheon; one observer noted that for a while, “nothing was heard but the heavy thud of clubs falling on human skulls.”

Such battles taught the police a valuable lesson. They realized that 50 officers, moving together aggressively, could chase off 500 troublemakers lacking any organization. Once the police understood this, the week became a series of running confrontations, with clumps of rioters pinballing around Manhattan’s grid, colliding with tight units of police officers, scattering and re-forming.

The rioters never really had a chance. They achieved their only goal, pausing the draft lottery, within the first hours of their uprising. After that they had no organization, no leadership, no plan. The only question was how much damage they could do before being crushed.

By the middle of the week soldiers were streaming into the city, fighting a series of house-to-house battles in the East 20s, complete with rooftop snipers, artillery bombardments and cavalry charges. Whenever firearms were used, however, crowds grew more desperate and vicious. Policemen’s clubs did the best work.

As the police gained an upper hand, they were finally able to protect New York’s African-Americans. They evacuated the young survivors of the Colored Orphan Asylum. One witness recorded the searing scene, as “frightened little fugitives, fleeing from they scarce knew what” toddled to the foot of 35th Street under a strong guard.

Rioters retreated to tenement basements, dragging their wounded with them. The nature of the revolt — illegal and violent, fought without plan by illiterate laborers — meant that few left accounts. Their sympathizers spoke for them. Archbishop John J. Hughes refused to acknowledge the mobs’ guilt, referring to them as “the men of New York, who are now called in many of the papers rioters.” Individual priests bravely calmed crowds and protected victims, but the church leadership did nothing.

Meanwhile, native-born New Yorkers blamed all Irish Catholics (about a quarter of the city) for the riot, even though only a tiny fraction was involved. Nativists ignored the fact that many of the policemen battling the uprising had names like Kennedy and O’Brien.

By Friday the riots were over. The fighting left somewhere between 105 and 1,200 dead; even if the smaller number is correct, the draft riots killed twice as many people as the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in a city less than a quarter the size.

The uprising had little effect on conscription. Other states warned that if New York could dodge the draft by rioting, it would be unenforceable nationwide. Conscription resumed soon after, but the draft was smaller than is often believed. The image of a Union Army made up of conscripted foreigners is false; 92 percent of Union soldiers were volunteers, and immigrants were proportionally underrepresented in general.

After the war New Yorkers made a point of forgetting the riots. There are no historic markers at sites associated with the uprising. In a booming city obsessed with progress, no one wanted to linger on this shameful moment. It was easier to imagine Manhattan as an island of glittering shop windows, and ignore the piles of bricks that sat ready for throwing.  (source: The New York Times; Jon Grinspan is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Virginia.)


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