Civil Disturbance 1860s Style: Two Faces of a People

By Brian McGowan

All immigrant groups are proud of their heritage, few more so than Irish-Americans. It is a heritage to be proud of, with few blemishes.

One that cannot be ignored, however, is the role the Irish played in one of the worst civil disturbances in our country’s history, the New York City draft riots of July 1863. What we see today, motivated in the name of justice, pales in comparison.

Just a couple of weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, Union officials began selecting names for a nationwide draft to replenish the military. Resistance ran high, especially in working class neighborhoods. Nowhere would that match New York City, whose 800,000 inhabitants in 1860 were almost 47 percent foreign-born, with the largest group being the Irish.

Competing for jobs at the bottom of the social ladder, they had no love of the goal the Union had evolved toward in the Civil War, namely the eradication of slavery.  Emancipation promised only to unleash another set of competitors for those very basic, unskilled, menial jobs that were the bread and butter of the common Irish laborer.

They took to the streets of Manhattan on Monday, July 13, 1863, and what began as a “peaceful” demonstration soon degenerated into a full-scale riot. And the target of the rioters became three-fold: the homes of the wealthy, the police and Black Americans, wherever found.

There were hundreds of victims that day, including many people of color. One was a seven-year-old boy named Joseph Reed. Escaping with his widowed mother and others from their East 28th Street home, they were attacked by the mob and he fell into its clutches.

Beaten with cudgels and paving stones, he surely would have died on the spot save for John McNamara, a brave New York City fireman who singlehandedly faced down the mob and carried the boy off to safety. Reed succumbed to his injuries a few days later.

When the riots were finally quelled, 119 New Yorkers lay dead, according to the official accounting. Unofficially, some 1,200 people are thought to have died. Many of these were African-American, killed because of the color of their skin.

Prominent Irish-Americans held key roles in suppressing the riots, including Police Superintendent John Kennedy, who almost lost his life, and Col. Robert Nugent, who had commanded the fabled 69th Infantry Regiment. More than a few Irish offered refuge to fleeing victims, regardless of color. But the damage was done. African-Americans left the city in droves, many never to return.

That same day, outside of Charleston, S.C., the 54th Massachusetts Regiment launched a heroic assault on Confederate stronghold Fort Wagner. What made the 54th unique was that they were comprised almost exclusively of African Americans, led by a white officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw.

In the ranks that day was Bermuda-born Sgt. Robert John Simmons. Wounded and captured, he died a few weeks later following the amputation of an arm. Less than half the 54th returned from the assault. Shaw also died and was buried by the Confederates with his men in a mass grave.

“We buried him with his n——,” they reported, while other white officers of the 54th were buried in separate graves.

How are these two deaths entwined? Young Joseph Reed’s mother, Susan, a widow, was Robert John Simmons’s sister.  Young Joseph was Robert Simmons’s nephew. Simmons was the boy’s uncle.

There is little mention of the riots in the litany of Irish-American accomplishments.  It wasn’t a moment to be proud of. But to paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952), if we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it.

In the current discussion about racial injustice and the impropriety of statues and other honoraria venerating Confederate rebels, wouldn’t it be fitting for a seven-year-old boy and his uncle to be so honored, who both gave their lives, the boy on account of his race, the man for his adopted country?

Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at


Due to an editing error, this Irish Eclectic column incorrectly identified firefighter John McNamara as dying from wounds inflicted by a mob during the July 1863 New York City draft riot. McNamara, a hero that day, survived. The person who died was seven-year-old Joseph Reed, whom McNamara rescued that day from immediate death at the hands of the mob. Reed’s wounds proved fatal, and he died a few days after his rescue by McNamara.