A Riot To Remember

In July 1863, the war was not going very well for the northern Union forces as they tried to defeat the Southern Confederacy. Recruitment was slipping in a sign of war weariness and casualties were staggering. To try to replenish ranks and encourage more volunteers, the Republican Government under President Lincoln took the step of establishing a draft, a serious extension of national power. Opposed to the war, the Democratic Party denounced the move as a threat to civil liberties.

Those likely to be drafted then took action. They were mostly Irish American immigrants with few means, living in cramped often fetid quarters in New York City. They had low paying jobs without the benefits available today. They were indifferent to slavery and feared that if they went off to war, freed blacks would replace them. Adding to their anger was the fact that those with money could buy their way out of the draft or find substitutes. It was a rich man’s war, they complained, and a poor man’s fight.

“Charge of the Police on the Rioters at the ‘Tribune’ Office.” Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863.

Unimpeded, they took to the streets. There were no statues to be tumbled but plenty of damage to be done otherwise. They attacked, looted and burned stores, often owned by blacks, and police stations and Protestant churches. They lynched several blacks with genuine nooses. They particularly targeted known abolitionists and their newspapers like the New York Tribune. At a time of more assertive journalism, editors armed their staffers to confront the rioters. New York Times editor Henry Raymond, a top Republican, wielded a newly invented Gatling gun to defend his paper.

But there was no stopping the riot with available forces. Police tried but were undermanned. Federal troops normally nearby had gone off to war. In desperation, Washington rushed several regiments from the war in Pennsylvania to the city where they fired on rioters the way they had on Confederates. That did it. Twenty thousand troops maintained the draft and kept the peace for the remainder of the war. More than one hundred people had been killed, most of them rioters.

As it turned out, the draftees were not needed very much. There were about 46 thousand of them compared to 800 thousand volunteers who did most of the fighting and dying. The riot was an indication of seriously divided opinion in a war that cost more lives than any other in U.S. history, and it should be noted that Irish Americans, removed from the slums, fought willingly and gallantly in subsequent wars.

Black Lives 1860

In the year 1860 American blacks were locked into slavery. Then the Civil War began which liberated the slaves at the cost of 360 thousand Union lives, mostly whites with ten per cent blacks who had been freed. They died, yes, but usually with the battlefield agony that preceded death. It was not a pleasant thing.

Lt. Colonel Richard Irwin, who participated in the Union capture of Port Hudson in 1863, describes the battlefield: “Our loss in the two assaults was nearly 4000, including many of our best and bravest officers. The heat, especially in the trenches, became almost unsupportable, the stenches quite so, the springs gave out, the creek lost itself in the pestilential swamp and the river fell exposing to the tropical sun a wide margin of festering ooze. The illness and mortality were enormous. The labor of the siege, extending over a front of seven miles, pressed so severely upon our numbers, far too weak for such an undertaking, that the men were almost incessantly on duty. And as the numbers diminished, the work fell more heavily on those that remained. From the first we had nearly 20 thousand men of all arms engaged before Port Hudson and at the last hardly 9000, while every other man might well have gone on sick report if pride and duty had not held him to his post.”

Battle of Port Hudson / J.O. Davidson – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

This of course was just one of innumerable battles in the four year war. It was sustained by a cause that was both clear and uplifting – the abolition of slavery, which distinguishes it from current U.S. wars that seem to have no particular purpose and unlike the Civil War don’t end in victory. To be sure, not all who fought necessarily opposed slavery. They reflected northern opinion which was divided. But they fought nonetheless and thereby contributed to the cause that prevailed.

There were other reasons for the war: a need to prevent southern secession and preserve the union and an increasing hostility between north and south. As always, hotheads on both sides yearned for a violence they would not be able to control. But at the heart of the conflict was the issue of slavery. Without that there would have been no war.

The war did not solve all the problems between the races. Years of brutality and discrimination against blacks continued on the long road to equality. But the Civil War set the precedent. There was no going back. The enormous bloodshed – far beyond any other U.S. war – settled the matter. Standards for justice are very high today. No shirking allowed. But what more could be asked of the Union soldiers who gave all they had?

Freud Up To Date

In a somewhat controversial piece celebrating Jewish genius, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens makes a surprising omission. Absent from his list of Jewish notables over the years is famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. This may have been a lapse on his part, but it does reflect current opinion. Freud has little to say to present times, rooted as he is in outmoded concepts of the role of sex in human life and unconscious drives over which we have no control.

For Freud sex was unforgiving. Infancy wasn’t spared. That’s where it all began in confusion over mother and father, leading by stages to sexual fulfillment or repression and neurosis of which psychoanalysis held the cure. No such thing, said later analysts. Free will still exists and accidents even happen that are not dictated by fate.

Sigmund Freud – By Max Halberstadt – [ Christie’s]

What’s more, Freud is definitely out of place today, very politically incorrect. He was condescending to women and considered all departures from normal sexuality a matter of arrested development. Politically, he was a conservative who favored strong man rule, though not, to be sure, Hitler who drove him from Vienna. He detested America with all its talk of equality while enjoying chats with that teller of tall tales Mark Twain. Today he would probably be closer to Trump voters than to the elite of Manhattan who once adored him. So goodbye to Freud.

But not so fast. His probing of the unconscious has ties to world affairs. Like everyone, he was appalled by the barbaric eruption of World War One after a century of general peace and prosperity. He rejected the common explanations – too much nationalism, too little love, not enough communism and a dozen other ideological cures. The reason he concluded in his book “Civilization and Its Discontents” lay in the permanent drive of aggression in every human that surpasses even the sexual drive. “The inclination to aggression is an original self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man that constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization… All life essentially consists of the struggle between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species.” Which wins depends on the determination of humans who recognize what they face and are not misled by the spurious reasons that lead to wars, including U.S. wars since 9/11. It’s the Freudian cure of self-recognition – Freud up to date.

Beauty of the Plague

For ten days in 1820 the English poet John Keats was forced to remain at sea in the bay of Naples. It couldn’t have been a nicer place to be quarantined from the typhus – the epidemic of the time – that was ravaging Italy. “One of the most sublime locations in the world,” writes Frances Mayes in the New York Times in an appreciation of the poet whose work was a culmination of the romantic era that  found beauty in almost everything.

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Prison with a View

Amid the soaring luxury high rises in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, stands a great hulk of a building that seems out of place. It definitely is. It’s the county jail with room for 1500 prisoners with very narrow windows to keep them from falling or jumping out. The exterior is concrete flat with nothing to catch the eye. In the pardonably outraged words of Sun Sentinel reporter Steve Bouquet, it’s “a soulless monstrosity incongruously plopped down there, of all places, with sleek yachts cruising by.”

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Canary’s Controversial Song

Amid the polarization of America today is a growing split in the Jewish community with many youngsters critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians while their elders say such protests are harmful to Israel. In response some have joined a “Canary Mission” that maintains profiles of especially troublesome critics and, like the bird song in the coal mine, warns of the danger ahead if present trends continue. A few have even donned a canary suit to make their point. Continue reading “Canary’s Controversial Song”

The Other America

While the nation’s capital seems bogged down in rancor, inaction, spying and war making, the rest of America presents a different picture. There democracy apparently thrives, local communities are on the rebound thanks to bipartisan practicality, and there’s an enlargement of hope in contrast to the bleak national outlook. Such are the findings of a book “Our Towns,” by James and Deborah Fallows (pictured below), who spent four years hopping from one locale to the next in a small, two-seat airplane undeterred by terrain or weather. Continue reading “The Other America”