Closing Scenes

This week of horrors a week unparalleled in the history of New York was drawing to a close. It had been one of terror and dismay to the inhabitants, who thought only of the immediate effects on themselves of the triumph of the mob. A great city laid in ashes, given, up to robbers and cut throats, is at any time a terrible spectacle; but New York in ruins at this time was a republic gone a nation, uncrowned and left desolate; but the battle, both for the nation and city, had been nobly fought and won; and Friday, the fifth day of this protracted struggle, dawned bright and tranquil. The storm of the night before had passed away, and the streets, thoroughly washed by the drenching rain, stretched clean and quiet between the long rows of buildings, emblematic of the tranquility that had returned to the city.

The cars were seen once more speeding down to the business center, loaded with passengers. Broadway shook to the rumbling of the heavy omnibuses; shutters were taken down, and the windows again shone with their rich adornments. The anxious look had departed from the pedestrians, for the heavy cloud, so full of present woe and future forebodings, had lifted and passed away.

The following proclamation of Mayor Opdyke will show the true state of things on this morning, and what the people had most to fear:

“The riotous assemblages have been dispersed. Business is running in its usual channels. The various lines of omnibuses, railway, and telegraph have resumed their ordinary operations. Few symptoms of disorder remain, except in a small district in the eastern part of the city, comprising a part of the Eighteenth and Twenty-first Wards. The police is everywhere alert. A sufficient military force is now here to suppress any illegal movement, however formidable.

“Let me exhort you, therefore, to pursue your ordinary business. Avoid especially all crowds. Remain quietly at your homes, except when engaged in business, or assisting the authorities in some organized force. When the military appear in the street, do not gather about it, being sure that it is doing its duty in obedience to orders from superior authority. Your homes and your places of business you have a right to defend, and it is your duty to defend them, at all hazards. Yield to no intimidation, and to no demand for money as the price of your safety. If any person warns you to desist from your accustomed business, give no heed to the warning, but arrest him and bring him to the nearest station house as a conspirator.

“Be assured that the public authorities have the ability and the will to protect you from those who have conspired alike against your peace, against the government of your choice, and against the laws which your representatives have enacted.

“George Opdyke, Mayor.”

Down town there was scarcely anything to show that New York had for nearly a week been swept by one of the most frightful storms that ever desolated a city. Even in the disaffected districts, no crowds were assembled. In the corner groggeries, small groups of men might be seen, discussing the past, and uttering curses and threats; and ruined houses and battered walls and hanging blinds here and there arrested the eye, showing what wild work had been wrought; but it was evident that the struggle was over. The mob was thoroughly subdued, and the law breakers now thought more of escaping future punishment than of further acts of violence. Bruised heads and battered forms were scattered through the low tenement houses in every direction, which friends were anxious to keep concealed from the notice of the authorities. In dirty cellars and squalid apartments were piled away the richest stuffs brocaded silks, cashmere shawls, elegant chairs, vases, bronzes, and articles of virtu, huddled promiscuously together, damning evidences of guilt, which were sure not to escape, in the end, the searching eye of the police, who had already begun to gather up the plunder. Thus the objects mostly coveted but a few hours ago now awakened the greatest solicitude and fear.

Even if the military under General Brown and the police had not shown the mob that they were its masters, the arrival of so many regiments, occupying all the infected districts, was overwhelming evidence that the day of lawless triumph was over, and that of retribution had come. Some acts of individual hostility were witnessed, but nothing more.

Archbishop Hughes had his meeting, and some five thousand assembled to hear him. They were on the whole a peaceable looking crowd, and it was evidently composed chiefly, if not wholly, of those who had taken no part in the riot. None of the bloody heads and gashed faces, of which there were so many at that moment in the city, appeared. The address was well enough, but it came too late to be of any service. It might have saved many lives and much destruction, had it been delivered two days before, but now it was like the bombardment of a fortress after it had surrendered a mere waste of ammunition. The fight was over, and to use his own not very refined illustration, he “spak’ too late.” The reports that came in to Acton from all the precincts convinced him of this, and he began to think of rest.

The strain was off, and overtasked nature made her demand, and he was compelled to yield to it. The tremendous work that had been laid upon him had been right nobly accomplished. Had he been a weak and vacillating man, the rioters would have acquired a headway that could not have been stopped, without a more terrible sacrifice of life and property perhaps even of half the city. Comprehending intuitively the gravity of the situation, and the danger of procrastination or temporizing, he sprang at once for the enemy’s throat, and never ceased his hold until he had strangled him to death. If he had waited to consult authorities about the legality of his action, or listened to the voice of pity, or yielded to the clamors of leading politicians or threats of enemies, both he and the city, in all human probability, would have been swept away in the hurricane of popular fury.

On this day a most remarkable announcement was published: that a sudden change had been made in the military command of the troops of the city and harbor. General Dix superseded General Wool, and Canby, General Brown. That Wool should have been removed at any time, might have been expected; not from incapacity, but on account of his age, and because any one could perform the mere nominal duties that devolved on him. But why General Brown should have been removed at this critical moment, when he and the Police Commissioners were performing their herculean task so faithfully and well, is not so plain; unless it was the result of one of those freaks of passion or despotic impulse, for which the Secretary of War was so ignobly distinguished. But unlike many other blunders which the War Department committed at this time, it did not result in any evil consequences, for the fight was over. But of this fact the Secretary of War was ignorant when he made out the order.

General Brown, in relinquishing his command, spoke warmly of the noble behavior of the troops during the riots, saying: “Engaged night and day in constant conflict with the mob, they have in some fifteen or twenty severe contests in most of them outnumbered more than ten to one, many of the mob being armed whipped and effectually dispersed them, and have been uniformly successful. In not a single instance has assistance been required by the police, when it has not been promptly rendered; and all property, public and private, which has been under their protection, has been perfectly and efficiently protected; and with pride he desires to record, that in this city, surrounded by grog-shops, but one single instance of drunkenness has fallen under his observation.

“To Lieutenant-colonel Frothingham, his able and efficient adjutant-general, he tenders his thanks for his untiring assistance.

“Having during the present insurrection been in immediate and constant co-operation with police department of this city, he desires the privilege of expressing his unbounded admiration of it. Never in civil or military life has he seen such untiring devotion and such efficient service.

“To President Acton and Commissioner Bergen he offers his thanks for their courtesy to him and their kindness to his command.”HARVEY BROWN, Brigadier-general .”

The praise he bestows both on the police and soldiers was richly deserved; and he may well say that “with pride he desires to record that in this city, surrounded with grog-shops, but one single instance of drunkenness has fallen under his observation.” With all a soldier’s tendency to indulge in spirituous liquor, to be thrown right amid drinking-places, which by harboring rioters had lost all claim to protection part of the time suffering from want of food, and often drenched to the skin, and weary from hard fighting and want of sleep not to step away occasionally in the confusion and darkness of night, and solace himself with stimulating drinks, was something marvelous. After hard fighting, and long marching, and short rations, a soldier feels he has a right to indulge in liquor, if he can get it; and their abstinence from it in such lawless times, not only speaks well for their discipline, but their character. A single instance shows under what perfect control the troops were. One day Colonel Ladue, seeing that his men were exhausted and hungry, desired to let them have a little beer to refresh them, and the following telegram was sent from the precinct where they were on duty:

“5.45 P.M. From 9th. Colonel Ladue wishes his men allowed to have beer in station-house.”
Answer . “Mr. Acton says he is opposed to beer, but the colonel can give his men as much as he pleases.”

“Acton is opposed to beer,” but the troops are not under his command, and he has no heart to deny the poor fellows the station-house in which to refresh themselves after their hard day’s work. This incident also shows the strict discipline maintained in the police department.

General Brown had done a noble work. Taking his place beside the Police Commissioners, he bent all his energies to the single task of carrying out their plans, and save the city from the hands of the rioters. He never thought what deference might be due him on the score of etiquette, or on account of his military rank; he thought only of putting down the mob at all hazards. His refusal, at first, to serve under General Sandford was not merely that it was an improper thing to place a general of the regular army under the orders of a mere militia general,B having no rank whatever in the United States army, but he knew it would paralyze his influence, and in all human probability result in the useless sacrifice of his troops. The absurdity of not moving until he received orders from his superior officer, cooped up in the arsenal, where he remained practically in a state of siege, was so apparent that he refused to countenance it. He was willing that President Acton should be his superior officer, and give his orders, and he would carry them out; for thus he could act efficiently and make his disciplined battalion tell in the struggle; but for the sake of his own reputation and that of his troops, he would not consent to hold a position that would only bring disgrace on both. His views are clearly expressed in his reply to a highly complimentary letter addressed to him by the mayor and a large number of prominent citizens, for the signal services he had rendered. He says: “I never for a moment forgot that to the police was confided the conservation of the peace of the city; and that only in conjunction with the city authorities, and on their requisition, could the United States forces be lawfully and properly employed in suppressing the riot, and in restoring that peace and good order which had been so lawlessly broken. Acting in accordance with this principle, and as aids to the gallant city police, the officers and soldiers of my command performed the most unpleasant and arduous duty, with that prompt energy and fearless patriotism which may ever be expected from the soldiers of the Republic.”


Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873.

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