Nativism

The heroism of Irish, German, and other immigrant soldiers drew admiring comment from many Americans. Immigrant contributions on the battlefield assuaged tensions about the role of immigrant peoples in American national identity, but those tensions remained. There had always been Americans who opposed immigration and who felt that immigrants did not belong on American soil.

In the 1840s and 1850s, the streets of New York City saw many violent confrontations between criminal gangs. Some of these gangs replicated the ties of Ireland, attracting men from a particular county or village. Other gangs gathered men who hated the Irish. These men, who called themselves Native Americans and who are often called Nativists by historians, believed that immigration in general, and Irish immigration specifically, posed a threat to American society.

Nativism was both a social and a political force. It not only underlay gang activity in the streets of American cities, but it also formed the foun-dational political philosophy for political parties such as the Know-Nothings. Thus, as existing political parties competed for office, broke apart, and reformed in new configurations, Nativism and the status of immigrants moved to the center of political debates. The argument over slave

The 1863 draft riots in New York City revealed tensions over conscription and racial politics in the North. Illustration from The New York Illustrated News, July 25, 1863. (Library of Congress)

labor versus free labor, for example, also required Americans to consider the role of the industrial worker, who was often an immigrant.

The Civil War both ameliorated and exacerbated existing tensions. Immigrant units performed well on the battlefield and attracted positive attention, but not all immigrants wanted to fight. In some areas, immigrant opposition to the draft became, in fact, a central part of the argument over the role of immigrants in American society. The eruption of violent riots in New York City in the summer of 1863 cemented the sense, among some Americans, that Irish immigrants were a dangerous element within the body politic.

The riots began with the Conscription Act of 1863. As the war progressed, it became more and more difficult to attract volunteer soldiers. Finally, the federal government assessed each state a quota. Should that state fail to provide the requisite number of soldiers, it would have to institute a draft. In New York, volunteers were hard to come by, and even large bounties failed to secure the necessary numbers. Finally, the governor instituted a draft.

Objections to the draft came not only from the immigrant community, but also from many other poor New Yorkers. The famous statement that the war was ''a rich man's war but a poor man's fight'' reflected the conviction that although wealthy Northerners planned and executed the conflict, it was the poor who fought and died. The ability of wealthy men to buy a substitute only added to the outrage. Race played a role, as well.

Many Irish New Yorkers accepted racist stereotypes about black Americans. For years, conflict in the Irish neighborhoods of New York—especially Five Points—had victimized black New Yorkers.

The proximity of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act, therefore, offered observers a racial explanation for the draft. To free the slaves, many thought, Irish men would be sacrificed. Opposition to the draft, then, was both class based and racialized. It rejected the idea that only the poor should fight, but it also rejected a war for emancipation.

New Yorkers were not the only Americans to oppose the Emancipation Proclamation, nor were Irish immigrants the only immigrants to oppose it. Democratic politicians convinced many working-class white Americans that freed slaves would take industrial jobs in the North. Some immigrant volunteer units, including a German unit from Wisconsin, disbanded rather than fight for emancipation. There was widespread tension over the proclamation and its relationship to the war. In New York, however, that tension joined with existing discontent, the losses sustained by Irish units, and the anxiety over the draft. The combination would prove deadly.

As the date set for a New York City draft approached, tensions in the city ran high. The incredible death toll from the Battle of Gettysburg only reinforced the sense that the war was destroying the nation's young. When, on July 12, 1863, the names of the men who had been drafted the day before appeared in the newspaper, riots broke out almost immediately. Within a day, as many as 50,000 rioters had taken to the streets. Four days of violence ensued, leaving homes and businesses burned, more than 100 citizens dead, and the city government in disarray. Prominent abolitionists were targeted, and some feared not only for property but also for their lives. Black New Yorkers were a special target, and many died at the hands of the mob. In addition, rioters burned the Colored Orphan Asylum, a symbol of benevolent activism on behalf of free black Americans.

Draft riots erupted in cities other than New York. Working-class Americans of a variety of ethnicities objected to both the draft and the Emancipation Proclamation. But the New York City draft riots stuck in the American imagination. The threat of poor, Catholic, unskilled, and whiskey-soaked Irish immigrants, so long enumerated by Nativists, seemed to have come true. The heroic contributions of the Irish Brigade and other units like it were forced to compete against this mental image in the American mind from 1863 forward.

The vision of Irish men as violent thugs persisted long after the war. Chinese labor on the transcontinental railroad attracted Irish opposition from laborers who felt that the Chinese depressed wages. When Irish immigrant laborers attacked Chinese workers, the popular press compared that violence with the Irish attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum. As the century progressed, politicians exploited anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice by referring to the draft riots as proof that even in the nation's greatest crisis, the Irish had been more liability than asset.

For Jews, anti-immigrant feeling combined with widespread American anti-Semitism. In 1862, facing a chaotic trade in black-market Southern cotton, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order Number 11, which expelled Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. In another order, Grant wrote that ''Cotton-Speculators, Jews, and other Vagrants,'' must leave the Department of Tennessee because they were engaged in ''trading on the miseries of their Country'' (Marcus 1996, 198). Protests from Jewish leaders in affected areas, particularly Paducah, Kentucky, elicited a revocation from President Lincoln. Although Grant's motives and personal feelings are the subject of some debate, the connection he drew between speculators and Jews was widespread among military and civilian leaders. Jewish residents of occupied areas, Jewish traders, and Jewish soldiers confronted anti-Jewish sentiment frequently. Because some Jews were native born, and others were immigrants, it is difficult to separate a specifically immigrant experience from that faced by a Jewish-American citizen.

For immigrants as a whole, however, the home front was a place much in step with the rest of the nation. The wives and families of immigrants confronted the same food shortages in the South and the same casualty lists in the North. Patriotic sentiment, too, motivated soldiers and their families, as letters home attest.

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