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Edward D. Reuss
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A Story of Courage and Compassion

The West 35th St. Police and the Civil War Draft Riots -  July 1863

Dedicated to: Ptl. Edward Dipple – 25th Pct. (Broadway Squad)
Ptl. Peter McIntyre – 29th Precinct
Ptl. John T. Van Buren – 8th Precinct
Ptl. John Starkey — Central Office

All Fatally Wounded Bravely Discharging Their Duty – New York Draft Riots, July 13 through the 16, 1863

“Among freemen there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet, and they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost.”
Abraham Lincoln, August 26th , 1863

Tuesday, the 14th of July 1863, was one of those hot sweltering days of midsummer when any kind of bodily exertion is an ordeal. For the patrolmen of the West 35th Street Station things were not going well.  With insignificant sleep, most of the 58 men of the
20th Precinct (today’s Midtown South Pct.) had been constantly on the go since Monday morning when the Draft Riots started at 46th Street and 3rd Ave. The men were responding here and there, without rest, to lynchings, looting, arson, and murderous assaults by mobs of rabble south of 57th Street.

 With only one sergeant and a handful of patrolmen left to safeguard the station house, 216 black orphans, none over the age of twelve, had taken refuge at 212 West 35th Street on Monday afternoon, when the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned down.  That number quickly swelled to over 400 blacks by nightfall with the elderly and defenseless seeking the shelter and safety of the station house.  Furthermore, things were now about to go from bad to worse. That afternoon, the Central Office (Police Headquarters) received a telegraph message from the 16th Precinct, “Colored children are now at the Twentieth, and the crowd say they are coming to sack the building.”   A mob of evildoers was now going to attempt to put the torch to the station house, and vent its rage on the defenseless blacks taking refuge on 35th Street along with the handful of defending police. This battle would result in one of the finest moments in the history of the policing of New York City. But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to go back to the beginning and the facts leading to that fateful event. 

It was now the third year of an extremely bloody war and the draft for the most part was opposed by most of New York’s poor Irish, for the wealthy could buy their way out of serving their country for $300.  Moreover, confusion and rumors helped Southern sympathizers to visualize an advantageous insurrection in NYC. In June, most functioning militia units within 150 miles of New York had been summoned to the seat of the war  Gettysburg, Pennsylvania-- to help stop the advancement of the Confederates and Robert E. Lee.  Essentially, this action stripped the city of any backup in case of large civil disorders.   The battle of Gettysburg had just ended in Union victory, but communications and intelligence were poor in July of 1863.

Furthermore, the Metropolitan Police were short patrolmen that July. The department only had a total of 1452 patrolmen to police the City of New York.  The 133rd Infantry, New York Volunteers, better know as the “Metropolitan Police Brigade,” made up entirely of New York and Brooklyn police officers, had assaulted the breastworks and gun emplacements at Port Hudson, resulting in the Confederate surrender of that city.  In their “Union Blues” with Metropolitan Police buttons affixed to their uniforms and fixed bayonets, they had proudly stained the Louisiana Red River clay with their crimson blood and earthy perspiration. (A noteworthy story about great people, better left to another day to give those brave officers their deserving respect and esteem.) 

 The draft started innocently enough on Saturday, with a large number of men randomly selected at the 9th District Provost Marshall Office, 677 3rd Avenue.  But by Monday morning, thousands had assembled in the vicinity of 46th Street and 3rd Avenue. The detail was then increased from one and twelve to 60 patrolmen at the enrollment office. Everything was in good order until about 10 a.m. when “The Black Joke”, Engine Co. 33 of the New York Fire Department arrived on the scene from West 58th Street.  The company was composed exclusively of men known as “roughs” - freehanded, daring, turbulent, volunteer firemen, ready for what they called a “muss”.     Several had been drafted, and they telegraphed the 19th Precinct on East 59th Street, announcing that they were going to burn down the draft office. And burn it down they did, along with half the
block!   At half past ten, somebody fired a pistol shot in front of the building and a storm of stones broke the windows of the draft office and pummeled New York’s Finest.  A scene of furious brutality followed. 

The first serious victim of the riot was the Superintendent John A. Kennedy (today’s rank of Chief of Department). On his way to 3rd Avenue, he was beaten so badly that he was almost unrecognizable.  Covered with blood and mud, he had his clothes ripped from his body.   In fact, when he was removed to Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, Thomas C. Acton, the President of the Police Board (today’s Police Commissioner) didn’t recognize him and ordered him arrested . He remained in critical condition until well after the riots had been put down. Other police officers were hunted down and severely attacked. One was even thrown from the roof of a building . Over the next four days, scores of police officers would be brutally beaten, shot, stabbed and stomped senseless.  Four would die and two station houses, the 18th Precinct on East 22nd Street and 1st Avenue, and the 23rd Precinct on East 86th Street and 5th Avenue  were turned into ashes and rubble.

 The rioters, who had started out as groups of lawful citizens protesting the draft, were now joined by “thieves, burglars, pickpockets, incendiaries and jailbirds of all descriptions in the neighborhood.”

 Two of the first things the rioters did was sack and burn the Armory on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 21st Street, and then repeat the dirty deed around 4 p.m. at the “Orphan Asylum for Colored Children”, 44th Street and 5th Avenue. They gleefully and indiscriminately hunted down blacks and police officers alike. However, the defenseless blacks, by far, would receive the worst of it.  Young, old, male or female – it didn’t matter.  Those that could be found and caught were beaten, set on fire, or hanged from trees or lampposts all over the city.   Later that night the rioters torched the 23rd Precinct’s station house on East 86th Street near 5th Avenue.  It, too, burned to the ground. 

Which now brings us to Tuesday afternoon and one of those marvelous moments that rarely occurs in time.  A moment when true heroes stand tall and perform their duty in the face of over whelming adversity.   To the police officers of the West 35th Street Police Station, this would be that defining moment.

At approximately half past twelve in the afternoon, the West 35th Street Arsenal came under heavy attack by a riotous mob seeking guns.  Other mobs were sacking and burning a hotel on 11th Avenue and a large feed store at 9th Avenue and 29th Street. Then at half past two, the 22nd Precinct (today’s Midtown North) reported that a company of infantry from the 10th Regiment, New York Volunteers, had been overrun at 10th Avenue and 44th Street.   It also reported that this mob was now heading for the West 35th Street station house to burn it down and kill the blacks taking refuge there. 

Ten minutes later the West 35th Street Station telegraphed the Central Office, “We expect to be attacked.  Shall we fight to the bitter end?”    A minute later, they received this potent telegraphic answer from 300 Mulberry Street  – “Fight”

Like many other heroic acts performed day in and day out by New York’s police officers, not much is known of the fight.  The New York Times reported that the few officers inside the station house barricaded the doors and windows.  They also reported the mob made seven charges against the station house and never succeeded.

There was no bitter ending that July afternoon on West 35th Street for either the strong or the weak.  For the police, the duty was arduous and responsible, and it was performed with vigor and fidelity. The officers acted with courage and ability. For this one time, good had prevailed over evil,  and the mostly destitute black refugees were saved to face another day.

New York Times August 14, 1863, pg. 3, col. 4
Stoddard, William O, The Volcano Under the City by a Volunteer Special, New York: Fords, Howard, &
Hulbert, 1887, pg. 178.
Force Figures -  June 1863 - Quarterly Report of the Metropolitan Police. Stoddard, pg. 38
Stoddard, pg. 37
New York Herald, July 15,1863 , pg. 5 – col. 5 Ptl. Edward Mason, 3rd Pct. “Seriously injured – thrown
from roof of house.”
Editorial, New York Herald, July 24, 1863, pg. 4 – col. 2
Stoddard,  quoting telegraph messages, the answer signed by Commissioner Acton pg. 166
New York Police HistoryMichael E. J. Bosak
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Copyright © 1999 Michael E. J. Bosak All Rights Reserved



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