Rights of Municipalities

The rights of municipalities have been conceded from the first dawn of constitutional liberty indeed municipal freedom may be said to be the first step in the onward progress of the race toward the full recognition of its rights. To interfere with a great commercial city like New York, except by general laws, is as a rule unwise, impolitic, and, indeed, unjust. Like a separate State, it had better suffer many and great evils, than to admit the right of outward power to regulate its internal affairs. To do so, in any way, is fraught with mischief; but to do so as a political party, is infinitely more pernicious. It leaves a great metropolis, on which the welfare of the commercial business of the nation mainly depends, a foot ball for ambitious or selfish politicians to play with. But as there are exceptions to all rules, so there may be to this still they should always be exceptions, and not claimed as a settled policy.

We mention this, because the interference of the Legislature, or rather the dominant part of it, in the internal policy of New York, about the time the war commenced, was in itself a mischievous and tyrannical act, while, under the circumstances that soon after occurred, it proved of incalculable benefit.

With the city stripped of its military, and the forts in the harbor of their garrisons, the police, under the old regime, during the draft riots, would have been trustless and powerless, even if the city government had attempted to uphold the national authority, which is doubtful. The Republicans established a Board of Police Commissioners, the majority of which were of their own political faith, who had the entire control of the department. Under their hands, an entire different set of men from those formerly selected, composed the force, and a regular system of drills, in fact, a thorough organization, adopted.

But in 1862 the Democrats elected their governor, though they failed to secure the Legislature. Mr. Seymour, immediately on his inauguration, summoned the Commissioners to appear before him, the object of which was to change the character of the board. The latter understood it, and refused to appear. Legal proceedings were then commenced against them, but they were staved off, and in the meantime the Legislature had got to work, and took the matter in hand; and Messrs. Bowen, Acton, and Bergen, were made to constitute the board John A. Kennedy being superintendent of police. Mr. Bowen, the president of the board, having been appointed brigadier general, resigned, and Mr. Acton, under the law, became president. This political character of the board, so diametrically opposed to the feelings and wishes of the vast majority of the citizens, tested by the ordinary rules and principles of a Republican Government, was unjust; a palpable, deliberate encroachment on the right of self government. But as we remarked, just now, it was fortunate for the country that such a state of things existed. In the extraordinary, not anticipated, and perilous condition in which we found ourselves, everything was changed. Neither constitutions nor laws had been framed to meet such an emergency, and both, in many cases, had to be suspended. What was right before, often became wrong now, and vice versa. The article inserted in the Constitution of the State, that the moment a bank refused specie payment, it became bankrupt, was a wise and just provision, but to enforce it now, would be financial ruin, and it was not done.

This usurpation of the government of New York by the Republican party, which seemed so unjust, was, doubtless, under the circumstances, the salvation of the city. It was, moreover, highly important to the whole country, in the anomalous war which threatened our very existence, that the controlling power of the city should be in sympathy with the General Government, but it was especially, vitally so, when the latter put its provost marshals in it to enforce the draft. That this mode of enforcing the draft by provost marshals, was an encroachment on the rights and powers of the separate States, there can be no doubt. It is equally clear that the proper way was to call on the separate governors for their quota, and let them enforce the draft. If they refused to do it, then it was time for the General Government to take the matter in its own hand. This, however, was no encroachment on individual rights. The oppressive nature of the act and the result were the same to the person, whether enforced by the State or General Government. Still it was a total departure from the practice of the General Government since its first organization, and it moreover established a dangerous precedent, which the sooner it is abandoned the better. But this had nothing to do with the opposition to the draft. That was a personal objection.

With the Police Department in sympathy with the rioters, it is not difficult to see what the end would have been. We do not mean by that, that the heads of the department would not have endeavored to do their duty, but it would have been impossible to control the kind of element they would inevitably have to deal with. This even the long tried, trusted leaders of the Democratic party acknowledged. In fact, the police force would not have been in a condition, with ever so good a will, to have acted with the skill and promptness it did.

The draft riots, as they are called, were supposed by some to be the result of a deep laid conspiracy on the part of those opposed to the war, and that the successful issue of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania was to be the signal for open action. Whether this be so or not, it is evident that the outbreak in New York City on the 13th of July, not only from the manner of its commencement, the absence of proper organization, and almost total absence of leadership, was not the result of a general well understood plot. It would seem from the facts that those who started the movement had no idea at the outset of proceeding to the length they did. They simply desired to break up the draft in some of the upper districts of the city, and destroy the registers in which certain names were enrolled.

A general provost marshal had been appointed over the whole city, which was subdivided into various districts, in each of which was an assistant provost marshal. Although there had been no provision for a general assistant provost marshal or aid, yet Colonel Nugent acted in this capacity. The drafting was to take place in the separate districts, under the direction of the assistant provost marshals.

Although there had been some rumors of resistance to it, they received very little credence, and no special provision was made for such an emergency. The city was almost denuded of the military; the regiments having been called to Pennsylvania to repel Lee’s invasion; yet so little fear was entertained, that even the police department was not requested to make any special preparation. The Invalid Corps, as it was called, composed of the maimed and crippled soldiers who could no longer keep the field, were thought to be quite sufficient to preserve the peace.

The draft commenced on Saturday in the Eleventh and Ninth Districts, and passed off quietly; and it was thought the same order would be maintained throughout, and if any force were necessary to repress violence, it would be when the conscripts were required to take their place in the ranks.

Still Superintendent Kennedy of the Police Department feared there might be some difficulty experienced by the officers in charge of the draft, even if no serious resistance should be offered. Some of the enrolling officers, a short time previous, while taking the names of those subject to draft, had been assailed with very abusive language, or their questions received in sullen silence or answered falsely; fictitious names often being given instead of the true ones. In the Ninth District, embracing the lower part of the city, the provost marshal, Captain Joel T. Erhardt, came near losing his life in the performance of this duty. At the corner of Liberty Street and Broadway a building was being torn down, preparatory to the erection of another, and the workmen engaged in it threatened the enrolling officer who came to take down their names, with violence, and drove him off.

Captain Erhardt, on the report being made to him, repaired to head quarters, and requested of Colonel Nugent a force of soldiers to protect the officer in the discharge of his duty. But this the latter declined to do, fearing it would exasperate the men and bring on a collision, and requested the Captain to go himself, saying, if he did, there would be no difficulty. Captain Erhardt declined, on the ground that he was not an enrolling officer. But Colonel Nugent persisting, the Captain finally told him, if he ordered him, as his superior officer, to go, he would. Nugent replied that he might so consider it. Erhardt then said he would go, but only on one condition, that if he got in trouble and asked for help, he would send him troops. To this he agreed, and Captain Erhardt proceeded to the building on the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street, and stepping on a plank that led from the sidewalk to the floor, asked a man on a ladder for his name. The fellow refused to answer, when an altercation ensuing, he stepped down, and seizing an iron bar advanced on the provost marshal. The latter had nothing but a light Malacca cane in his hand, but as he saw the man meant murder he drew a pistol from his pocket, and leveled it full at his breast. This brought him to a halt; and after looking at Erhardt for awhile he dropped his bar. Erhardt then put up his pistol, and went on with his enrolling. The man was dogged and angry, and watching his opportunity, suddenly made a rush at the provost marshal. The latter had only time to deal him, as he sprang forward, one heavy blow with his cane, when they closed. In a moment both reeled from the plank and fell to the cellar beneath, the provost marshal on top. Covered with dirt, he arose and drew his pistol, and mounted to the sidewalk.

The foreman sympathized with the workmen, and Erhardt could do nothing. Determined to arrest them for resisting the draft, he dispatched a messenger to Colonel Nugent for the promised force. None, however, was sent. He, in the meantime, stood with drawn pistol facing the men, who dared not advance on him. Aid not arriving, he sent again, and still later a third time. He stood thus facing the workmen with his pistol for three hours, and finally had to leave without making any arrests. This failure of Colonel Nugent to fulfill his promise and perform his duty came near costing Erhardt his life, and then and there starting the riot. The next day he had the foreman arrested, and completed his work of enrolling.

The time selected for commencing the draft was unfortunate. Saturday, of all days in the week, was the worst. It was a new thing, and one under any circumstances calculated to attract universal attention among the lower classes, and provoke great and angry discussion. Hence, to have the draft commence on Saturday, and allow the names to be published in the papers on Sunday morning, so that all could read them, and spend the day in talking the matter over, and lay plans for future action, was a most unwise, thoughtless procedure. If there had been any choice as to the day, one, if possible, should have been chosen that preceded the busiest day of the week. To have the list of twelve hundred names that had been drawn read over and commented on all day by men who enlivened their discussion with copious draughts of bad whiskey, especially when most of those drawn were laboring men or poor mechanics, who were unable to hire a substitute, was like applying fire to gunpowder. If a well known name, that of a man of wealth, was among the number, it only increased the exasperation, for the law exempted every one drawn who would pay three hundred dollars towards a substitute. This was taking practically the whole number of soldiers called for out of the laboring classes. A great proportion of these being Irish, it naturally became an Irish question, and eventually an Irish riot. It was in their eyes the game of hated England over again oppression of Irishmen. This state of feeling could not be wholly concealed. Kennedy, aware of it, felt it necessary, on Monday morning, to take some precautionary measures. Still, in the main, only small squads of policemen were sent to the various points where the drafting was to take place, and merely to keep back the crowd and maintain order, in case a few disorderly persons should attempt to create disturbance. It was true, a rumor had been put in circulation that a body of men had planned to seize the arsenal, and Kennedy, as a matter of precaution, sent fifty policemen to occupy it. But during the morning, word was brought him that the street contractor’s men in the Nineteenth Ward were not at work. This looked ominous, and he began to fear trouble. Thinking that Provost Marshal Maniere’s office, 1190 Broadway, and that of Marshal Jenkins, corner of Forty-sixth Street and Third Avenue, would be more likely to be the points attacked, he hurried off the following telegrams:

July 13, 8.35 A.M. From Central Office to Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Twenty-first Precincts: Send ten men and a sergeant forthwith to No. 677 Third Avenue, and report to Captain Porter of Nineteenth Precinct for duty. J. A. Kennedy.July 13, 8.50 A.M. To Twenty-ninth Precinct: Place a squad of ten of your men, with a competent sergeant, at No. 1190 Broadway, during the draft if you want more, inform me. J. A. K.

8.55 A.M. To Sixteenth and Twentieth Precincts: Send your reserve to Seventh Avenue Arsenal forthwith.

J. A. K.

Telegrams were now pouring in from different quarters, showing that mischief was afoot, and at nine o’clock he sent the following dispatch:

“To all platoons, New York and Brooklyn: Call in your reserve platoons, and hold them at the stations subject to further orders.”

It should be noted, that ordinarily one-half of the police of the Metropolitan District, which took in Brooklyn, is relieved from both patrol and reserve duty, from six o’clock in the morning till six in the evening. The other half is divided into two sections, which alternately perform patrol and reserve duty during the day. A relief from patrol duty of one of these sections takes place at eight o’clock A.M., when it goes to breakfast. Hence, the orders issued by the Superintendent to call in these could not reach them without a considerable delay.

It now being about ten o’clock, Mr. Kennedy, having dispatched an additional body of men to the Twenty-ninth Precinct, got into his light wagon, to take a drive through the districts reported to be most dangerous. He went up far as the arsenal, and giving such directions as he thought necessary, started across the town to visit Marshal Jenkins’ quarters in the Twenty-ninth Precinct.


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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