Battle of the Union Steam Works
1st Sgt Neil K. MacMillan

As the title states, this article concerns the draft riots in the City of New York from July 12th to July 17 th, 1863. To understand why the riots happened, requiring the harbor garrison troops in N.Y. to forcibly restore order, it must be realized there were strong reasons behind what appears to be a senseless riot.

In 1863, when the draft bill was passed, New York was a city that even then was truly a melting pot of immigrants and of free blacks or dislocated former slaves. All of them were looking for a better life.

The poor whites, particularly the Irish immigrants, viewed blacks as competitors for jobs. That July, New York was in the grip of a strike by stevedores pressing for better wages and working conditions. Black laborers were brought in to work the piers and break the strike. In addition, the new draft law made no provision to draft black men. The poor of New York saw the new draft law as unfair for that fact and because the law favored the rich. If you could afford to hire a substitute as Theodore Roosevelt's father did, you were exempt for the war and never mind that the substitute might be killed or desert the very next day. If you had three hundred dollars, you could buy out of that draft. There was no love between the poor whites of New York and the black, all of which were poor.

On the morning of July 11th, 1863, the Provost Marshall's office drew the names of those men who had been drafted to serve in the Army. This in the view of the crowds who opposed the law, was the last straw. The next morning the names were posted in the New York newspapers. Confederate spies anxious to cripple the Union war effort inflamed the boiling passions of the crowds. Drunken and rowdy protesters surrounded the Provost Marshall's office. It must be stated at this point, that the Irish get an unnecessary black eye for causing the draft riot. While a fair portion of the rioters were poor Irish immigrants, it must be stated that the people who instigated and fed the riot, were the dregs of society. The ranks of the rioters were made up of idlers, shirkers, drunks, lay-abouts and criminals. The law abiding found work or were in the army and were the majority of the Irish who came to America and New York.

By the 12th of July, Companies F and H, 2nd battalion, 12th United States Infantry, were populated by half trained recruits and crippled veterans from the regiments past battles. Captain Henry F. Putnam commanded company F. Capt. Putnam had commanded the solitary company of the famed 1st Minnesota that had stayed with Sykes' battalion on Chinn Ridge. He was a descendant of General Israel Putnam, of Revolutionary war fame. Company F had been formed to guard prisoners of state at Fort Lafayette. Across the narrows, Captain Walter S. Franklin, commissioned in the 12th, commanded Company H. The only other regimental officer on hand at New York Harbor, was 1st Lt. May H. Stacey, who was informally attached to Company F.

On July 13th, the Provost Marshall's office resumed drawing names for the draft. The mob that had formed on the 12th, returned and charged into the office destroying the office and records and setting the building on fire. Mobs all over the city sprang up and vented their rage at the government on any hapless Blacks they found. They lynched or beat several blacks or anyone they could lay hands on whom either did not agree with them or were unlucky enough to cross their path. Militia troops were called out to quell the disturbances but proved useless as they were sympathetic to the rioters.

While the militia was unable or unwilling to confront the rioters, and invalid company tried bravely to stem the riot. They were swamped by the rioters leaving one of their numbers dead, and several critically wounded.

City police held up well but state units crumbled. Mayor George Opdike had no choice but to request help from the harbor garrisons. Major General John E. Wool sent a communiqué to Brigadier General Brown. It read: "Sir, it is reported that rioters have already commenced their work of destruction. Today there must be no child's play. Some of the troops under your command should be sent immediately to attack and stop their infernal rascality in Yorkville and Harlem." Harvey Brown conferred with Major General Sanford, the commander of the New York State militia. Sanford wanted to concentrate the troops at the city arsenal. Brown refused and was dismissed at his own request by General Wool. That evening, July 13th, Companies F and H embarked from Forts Hamilton and Lafayette for Manhattan.

Captain Putnam arrived with his troops at police headquarters on Mulberry Street as dawn was breaking just as the mobs were stirring for the day's violence. General Brown was reinstated and given command of the Regulars. The Army was ready to quell the hooliganism of the past two days.

Lieutenant Franklin and his troops were assembled in Mulberry Street and dispatched toward a major battle between Police (Metropolitans) and a mob near 34th Street and 2nd Ave. the mob had armed themselves with rocks, brickbats and an assortment of small arms. At the police mopped up, a company of soldiers from the reformed 11th NY fire Zouaves arrived with two howitzers and covered the crowd. Their colonel, a bombastic man and obviously drunk tried to intimidate the rioters by riding back and forth in front of them. He triggered an assault instead. He retired behind the ranks and ordered the 11th N.Y. Zouaves to fire. The Zouaves did just that with both cannon and musket. Colonel O'Brian scorned Lt. Franklin and Co. H and dismissed them as unnecessary. Colonel O'Brien then reported and General Brown and was told to go home due to sickness. The Colonel stopped at a bar and continued to drink. As he left he was confronted by elements of the same mob he had fired upon and was beaten to death.

A short time later, Captain Putnam arrived with Company F and cleared away the vagrants. He allowed some citizens to remove Colonel O'Brien's body to the morgue. He cleared and secured the area and then returned to headquarters for further orders.

At 10:00 AM, Lt. Thomas Wood leading elements of the 9th U.S. and The Permanent Party encountered a mob at Pitt Street and the Lt. Demanded they disperse. The mob refused. Wood and his men fired a volley at point blank range into the mob and charged into the mob with fixed bayonets. He then routed another mob at the corner of Grant and Division streets with the bayonet.

Captain Putnam and Company F marched at 2:00 PM to 46th Street and 5th Avenue accompanied by a force of Metropolitans from the 20th precinct. With truncheon and bayonet they routed the mob. One of the ringleaders attempted to rally the mob and was shot dead by one of the Regulars. Company F returned to headquarters at 5:00 exhausted from being awake all night and the days exploits.

Meanwhile, rioters were attempting to take over the Union Steam Works to arm themselves with carbines from that facility. They succeeded in gathering some arms. Police units had heard of the plot and managed to seize the works and most of the carbines. The mob returned at 2:00 greatly increased in numbers and was met by Franklin's Company H and 150 Metropolitans. While the police held the works, Franklin marched his men around the block, clearing the street at bayonet point. The crowd closed in on Company H from the rear. Lieutenant Franklin ordered his troops to about face and fire by section. As each section fired they fell to the rear to load. Company H fired with parade ground precision. First Sergeant August Eggmeyer's section fired systematic volleys into the rioters without mercy. The 1st Sgt. was commended for his calm leadership under adverse conditions. Company H retraced its steps clearing out snipers as they went. They faced a mob at the intersection. Franklin ordered the rear section to about face and both sections to fire. They delivered a murderous volley into the face of the crowd and delivered another on its heels. The mob was finished and the battle of the Union Steam Works was over. The intersection of 22nd Street and 2nd Avenue littered with dead and wounded insurrectionists.

On July 15th, Captain Putnam and Company F was sent to relive a beleaguered Militia regiment at 23rd Avenue. Coming upon the scene he put out skirmishers and drove off the rioters. Normal patrols resumed and the day was fairly quiet as both soldiers and rioters caught their breath.

The Mob returned to 22nd Street, July 16th. They drove off the few police there. After 2:00 in the afternoon the mob swelled to several thousand. General Sanford sent Colonel Thaddeus Mott and the 14th New York Cavalry and elements of militia unit to disperse them. The rioter fled before the horse soldiers, but continued the fight with rocks, bottles and small arms, turning every house into a fortified position. They toppled a Cavalry sergeant from his horse and beat him to death.

This news reached General Harvey Brown and the Regulars quickly and he ordered Captain Putnam to take Company F, and elements of the 20th and 28th New York batteries to re-enforce Mott and show no mercy. Putnam came upon fleeing soldiers from Mott's command. While passing Gramercy Hotel, snipers fired on Mott's men. Putnam deployed skirmishers and suppressed the snipers.

He recovered the dead cavalry Sergeant and placed him in a carriage commandeered at gun point as the mob closed for action. Carbine fire erupted from the building and Captain Putnam deployed a battery to clear the crowd. The rioters dispersed in the face of the artillery. Company F charged into the building under covering fire to clear out the snipers.

The Mob reformed intent to fight Putnam and his troops. Putnam ordered the battery to fire canister into the crowd and clears the street with cannon fire. Putnam's soldiers pushed the rioters to 2nd Avenue and the mob made a stand. Determined to charge the soldiers, the mob surged forward. The attack was broken with canister and rapid volleys of musket fire. The rioters broke and fled the buildings. Company F followed and cleared them out building by building in fierce hand to hand combat. As rioters attempted to brain the Regulars with boards of brickbats they were pinned to walls with bayonet or viciously butt-stroked. Systematically, the men of F/2/12 cleaned out the nests of insurrectionists. The riots were broken in this engagement with no soldiers of Putnam's combined force being killed, and only a few wounded.

The 8th United States Infantry relieved Putnam's men the next day. Franklin's Company F would be relieved three days later by the 71st New York. The half-trained recruits and crippled veterans of Companies F and H had acquitted themselves with honor and professionalism. They would be ready to meet any task they were given by the Army in the months to come.

While not lengthy, I have tried for accuracy. If I did not achieve this, it is my sole responsibility. I have taken data from The Oxford History of the American People by Samuel Eliot Morrison and Sykes' Regular Infantry Division, 1861-1864 (Chapter 10) by Timothy J. Reese. Again, if there are any inaccuracies they are mine alone. -NKM

LIBERTY AND UNION, NOW AND FOREVER !!!

 

Last Updated on 3/29/04


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