Old Abe and Old Boston: A troubled relationship

By Peter F. Stevens
BIR Staff

In Boston’s Irish North End during the Civil War,
President Lincoln was not a popular figure for all

In the new film Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis brings that towering figure into stunning life on every level. Throughout the maelstrom of the Civil War, the Boston Irish had a tenuous relationship when it came to President Abraham Lincoln.

At the outset of the conflict, 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. In July 1863, however, Boston’s Irish neighborhoods would erupt into massive riots against Lincoln’s Conscription Act – America’s first draft.

By July 1863, 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, staggering away from the fence and 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.”

Proper Bostonian maven 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 sacrifices on the battlefields of the Civil War, 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 battled for “Father Abraham’s cause,” others in the Irish North End rose up in July 1863 against the president’s latest call to arms – the Conscription Act. The Boston Draft Riot was fueled by Irish immigrants’ fury at the class and ethnic unfairness of the nation’s first draft, which allowed “sons of wealth” to buy their way out of the fray for $300. The sum was far beyond the reach of impoverished Irish families.

Early on the steamy afternoon of July 14, 1863, riots broke out when provost marshals tried to serve Union army draft notes in the Irish North End, where husbands, sons and brothers ad march 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 Lincoln’s 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 for two days.

By mid-afternoon, mobs stormed through the North End and soon surrounded the First Division Police Station. Scores of Irishmen joined the siege. Historian Edward Harrington writes, “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 twenty-four 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 Boston Draft Riot, 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 will forever remain a mystery because the rioters dragged away the bodies of slain neighbors and buried them in secret “without any official permit.”

On July 14, 1863, the fury of the Boston Irish at the draft had threatened to erupt with similar violence as the New York Draft 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 local Irishman’s words about the Boston Draft Riot summed up his neighbors’ view: “I’d rather fight here, where I can go home to dinner, than in the Southern swamps.”

What is undeniable is that in the Irish North End, neither President Lincoln nor Mayor Lincoln was a revered figure in July 1863.