Union enlistment posters for Irish Americans in New York and coloreds in Pennsylvania
During the antebellum and Civil War eras, free negroes and Irish immigrants often had a strained relationship. Both were subject to racial or ethnic bias by the white Protestant majority (anti-immigrant bigots were called “Nativists”), and were considered the “bottom rungs” of American society. (Blacks were on the very bottom.) Given their lowly status, blacks and Irish often competed for low-wage jobs, and the stress of that competition led to outright hostility… or worse.
Tensions between the two groups were further inflamed by heated and hateful rhetoric from the Copperhead faction of the Democratic Party, to which most Irish Americans were aligned. These Democrats argued that the emancipationist policies of President Lincoln and the Republican Party would cause a “stampede” of freed blacks to the North that would undercut and devalue white labor.
The Democrats also argued that it was unacceptable for whites to fight and die to free black slaves. That argument was echoed even by the Irish religious leader New York Archbishop John Hughes. As noted by historian James McPherson in his book Battle Cry of Freedom, Hughes stated that “we Catholics, and a vast majority of our brave troops in the field, have not the slightest idea of carrying on a war that costs so much blood and treasure just to gratify a clique of Abolitionists.”
The economic, political and social stresses between blacks and Irish erupted in violence as the War continued. Again from McPherson:
With this kind of [racist] rhetoric from their leaders, it was little wonder that some white workingmen took their prejudices into the streets. In a half-dozen or more cities, anti-black riots broke out during the summer of 1862. Some of the worst violence occurred in Cincinnati, where the replacement of striking Irish dockworkers by Negroes set off a wave of attacks on black neighborhoods. In Brooklyn a mob of Irish-Americans tried to burn down a tobacco factory where two dozen black women and children were working.
The nightmare vision of blacks invading the North seemed to be coming true in southern Illinois, where the War Department transported several cars of contrabands to help with the harvest. Despite the desperate need to gather crops, riots forced the government to return most of the blacks to contraband camps south of the Ohio River.
And then things got worse. In March 1863, new conscription (draft) laws were implemented. More men would be eligible for the draft, but service could be avoided by paying a $300 fee or hiring a substitute. Most Irish men could not afford the fee or a substitute. Meanwhile, African Americans, who were not citizens, were exempt from the draft.
That set the stage for the New York City Draft Riots of July 1863.
The draft lottery in New York began on Saturday, July 11, 1863. On Monday, July 13, the Draft Riots began. It was an extended period of mob violence, mostly Irish mobs, against mostly African American victims. The riots lasted five days, and resulted in perhaps 500 deaths, including rioters who were killed, and several thousand injuries; some estimates place the death and injury toll as even higher. Property damage was in a range of $1-5 million, including the destruction of a black orphanage. (The casualty and property damage estimates are from Barry Schecter’s book The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America.)
Even the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who spoke of friendships with Irish Americans, and lived in Ireland for half a year in the 1840s, came to wonder how “a people who so nobly loved and cherished the thought of liberty at home in Ireland [have] become, willingly, the oppressors of another race here.”