‘I’d rather fight here’ In July 1863, the Boston Irish rose up against the nation’s first draft action

This month marks the 155th anniversary of a controversial and violent chapter in Boston’s annals. In July 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, the city’s Irish ignited draft riots when they rose up in rage against the class and ethnic unfairness of the nation’s first Conscription Act, which allowed “sons of wealth” to buy their way out of military service for $300, a sum far beyond the reach of impoverished Irish immigrant families.
At the outset of the war, in 1861, the Boston Pilot had pontificated. “We [Irish] Catholics have only one course to adopt, only one line to follow. Stand by the Union, fight for the Union, die by the Union.” The Boston Irish would do all that, and more, throughout the conflict. Yet in July 1863, the city’s Irish inhabitants stormed into the streets in bloody opposition to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for more Union fighters.
By that time, the 28th and the 9th Massachusetts Irish Regiments – volunteers – had proven their mettle and patriotism on some of the war’s bloodiest battlefields. Below the Confederate cannons and sharpshooters entrenched on St. Mary’s Heights above Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, a green banner with its gilded harp and the Gaelic words for “Clear the Road!” dipped in the morning gusts. Beneath the flag, the 28th Massachusetts formed columns, wheeled into position alongside the three New York regiments of General Thomas Meagher’s Irish Brigade, and charged into battle “as if it were the finest fun in the world.”
Wearing sprigs of evergreen in their caps so “that they might still carry the colors of the Emerald Isle,” shouting “Erin Go Bragh,” they rushed impetuously forward against a storm of grape and canister that…tore great gaps in their ranks.” Six times the 28th and the other men of the Brigade charged, each assault filling the rebels with equal parts of awe and dead. The Irish could not form for a seventh charge; instead, they staggered away from the fence and headed back toward the town. In the first charge alone, 545 of 1,315 Irishmen fell dead or wounded. The 28th Massachusetts lost 158 of 418 in the suicidal charges up the heights.
Thomas Cass, a notable figure in the Boston Irish community, had recruited fellow Irish volunteers in the spring of 1861 into the 9th Massachusetts Regiment, soon to win renown as the “Fighting 9th.” When the regiment’s Irish ranks marched through Boston’s Brahmin streets to the State House, Governor John Andrew lauded the troops and asserted that the nation must view alike “its native-born citizens and those born in other countries.”
A very Proper Bostonian, Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, presented the 9th with a flag adorned with the following words: “As aliens and strangers thou didst befriend us. As sons and true patriots we do thee defend.”
Massachusetts’s Irish regiments served with distinction throughout the war, displaying the same courage and resilience that had made Ireland’s fabled “Wild Geese” the finest mercenaries in European armies. More importantly, the soldiers of the two regiments, through their battlefield sacrifices, had claimed a stake for citizenship in Boston and beyond despite the bigotry of various Brahmins and other Yankees.
The foothold proved one that Irish Americans would never relinquish. A proud Boston Irish veteran proclaimed, “If they’d [the Confederates] known it was us [the Irish], they would have brought coffins with them.”
Even as the 9th and the 28th were battling for “Father Abraham’s cause,” others in the Irish North End were decrying the president’s latest call to arms. The 1863 riots broke out when provost marshals tried to serve Union army draft notes in the Irish North End, where husbands, sons, and brothers had already marched away in Federal blue with the 9th and the 28th. Many of the North End Irish had had enough of “Mr. Lincoln’s War.” Many loathed his Emancipation Proclamation, afraid that hordes of ex-slaves would take even menial jobs from the Irish at lower wages. In New York City’s teeming slums, Irishmen, shouting “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight,” had already unleashed bloody draft riots over two days.
By mid-afternoon on July 14, mobs had stormed through the North End and surrounded the First Division Police Station. Scores of Irishmen joined the siege. As the historian Edward Harrington wrote, “They proposed to test the question whether the Government had the right to drag them from their home to fight in a cause in which they did not believe.”
Mayor Frederic W. Lincoln answered that question by dispatching troops to the North End, with a light battery of artillery. The North Enders launched hit-and-run forays against the troops and the police for more than 24 hours. Throughout the tumult, Father Brady and other priests from nearby St. Mary’s Church persuaded many parishioners to return to their homes, the clerics’ courage winning the plaudits of the mayor and other Boston officials.
No one knows how many Irish were killed or wounded in the draft rioting, but the local newspapers ran the names of scores of wounded men, women, and children of the “ould sod” treated in Boston hospitals. The true tally was undeniably much higher, but it will forever remain a mystery because the rioters dragged away the bodies of slain neighbors and buried them in secret “without any official permit.”
The fury of the Boston Irish at the draft had threatened to erupt with similar violence as the New York riots, but Mayor Lincoln’s speedy and bloody reaction convinced many Irishmen “that it would be less hazardous to fight the Southern rebels than to fight Mayor Lincoln.” One Boston Irishman’s words about the riots summed up his neighbors’ view: “I’d rather fight here, where I can go home to dinner, than in the Southern swamps.”