In the mid-19th century, residents of Ireland fled famine, as well as dirty and unhealthy conditions in their homeland, by the millions, only to find similar conditions when they arrived in America. Many of these poor, downtrodden Irish migrated to New York City, where they subsisted in hovels and scratched out a living.
This was the setting for Kevin Baker’s story about riots that erupted during the Civil War in New York when officials attempted to conduct a draft of men for the Union army. Although a novel, this book is faithful to the actual events and players in this powerful drama.
In “Paradise Alley,” New York residents in general, and the Irish in particular, debated the rationale behind the Civil War. Finn McCool, a ward healer and an assistant foreman of a fire company, questioned whether it was being fought for the Union or to free the slaves.
Even the Catholic cardinal of New York, a friend of President Abraham Lincoln and a proponent of the war, believed that the true intent of the fighting was to end slavery. This was the setting that enkindled deadly rampaging throughout the city.
The author describes the living conditions in a Lower Manhattan slum euphemistically known as “Paradise Alley” through the eyes of a young woman named Ruth, who peers down this street past the narrow wood and brick houses “slouching against each other for support. The grey mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats growing higher every day…”
It was slums like these that produced the participants in what Baker described as “the worst civic disturbance America has ever experienced.”
When the draft began on July 13, 1863, a furious crowd numbering in the hundreds attacked the provost marshal’s office at 3rd Avenue and 46th Street. The mainly Irish rioters directed their anger toward the black population, whom they saw as the cause for the ongoing war between North and South in which many thousands of young Irishmen had been killed.
This occurred 10 days after the Union victory at Gettysburg over Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade sent troops from the Army of the Potomac to help quell the disturbance in New York.
“Paradise Alley” provides a comprehensive view of the political and cultural motivations for the riots in a local geographic setting. Baker seamlessly weaves descriptions into the story of the Great Famine in Ireland that fostered largescale immigration to America, along with Civil War battles in which New York soldiers — especially of Irish descent — fought and died.
Baker also depicts the central role of newspaper editors in the tumultuous events during this era — in particular, Horace Greeley, whose New York Tribune considered itself the “Voice of the People.”
In William Harlan Hale’s biography of Greeley, he cites one of his assistants, who summarized Greeley’s philosophy: “This was an atrocious world — that he knew well. It was permeated with Democrats, and free traders, and idle folks given to drink. These were evil men and evil women; but there was no reason for giving it over to the fire. It should be converted!”
Therefore, Greeley set out to make it a better world, and “to give men moderate wages and wholesome food, and to teach women to earn their living.” Nonetheless, his abolitionist views made him and his newspaper offices the target of marauding mobs in mid-town Manhattan.
The riots raged on for days, with thousands of disenchanted New Yorkers joining in the destruction of the city. One character, Herbert Willis Robinson, provided this description: “They sack everything now … Looting hotels and restaurants, groceries and pawnbrokers, tailors, and clothing stores and jewelry shops. The whole order of the City, broken down…”
Entire regiments of the Union army finally arrived to put an end to the death and destruction.
Besides those already mentioned, Kevin Baker tells this story through the eyes of Deirdre and Tom O’Kane, Maddy Boyle, Billy Dove and Dangerous Johnny Dolan. Although not based on this book, the film “Gangs of New York,” starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is a visual depiction of the events Kevin Baker describes in “Paradise Alley.”
Next, we will leave New York and sail down to Havana, Cuba. This was the scene for Robin Lloyd’s thriller about blockade-running to Southern ports on the Gulf of Mexico during the Civil War, titled “Harbor of Spies.”
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point