It was 1862 and Andrew G. Curtin, Governor of Pennsylvania, was not having a good year. Still at 45, retaining his tousled hair, powerful eyes, clean-shaven good looks and slightly split chin, he came across as the picture of health and determination. In truth, however, Curtin was frustrated. Trying to organize his state for the massive task of co-ordinating its contribution to the Union cause in that second year of the Civil War, he had, like his friend President Abraham Lincoln, decided that the only way to defeat the South and to save the Union was with total war. Even the replacement as Secretary of War of Curtin’s political rival, Simon Cameron, by Edwin M. Stanton had led to only a momentary respite. And now the new conscription law drafting young men into the army, designed to provide the armed force with what it needed to achieve its aim, was being undermined by the restless Irish population in its own state, mainly in the coalfields of Schuylkill County.
On October 23, hearing that the census takers were being assaulted, Curtin promptly wired Stanton of Harrisburg:
“The usual exaggerations notwithstanding, I think the organization to resist the draft in Schuylkill, Luzerne and Carbon counties is very formidable. They are several thousand up in arms, and those who will not join have been driven from the county. They will not allow enlisted men who wish to leave, and yesterday forced them out of the (railroad) cars. I wish to crush the resistance so effectively that it will not happen again. A thousand regulars would be effective, and I suggest that a regiment be commissioned into the army…Let me hear immediately.
Stanton’s response was quick but not what Curtin wanted to hear. Yes, he had the right to use the federal troops, but alas there were none to give him. General Wood in Baltimore had nothing to spare. Dissatisfied with this response, Curtin, over the next few days, bombarded Washington with telegrams. When Curtin heard from Stanton he promised troops, but they would not amount to 1,000. Cavalry and an extra regiment with some combat experience should suffice. When General Wood came from Baltimore to Harrisburg, he took action by commanding artillery with ammunition. A regiment of volunteers on the North Central Railroad, “would be at his call at all times.”
Looking back today, these events in the Pennsylvania coalfields seem like a very small part of the Civil War. But they reflect social and economic changes in the country that have sometimes led to violent political debates and bloodshed. Historian Grace Palladino’s book on the anthracite coalfields from 1840 to 1868 called it another civil war. The question of Irish immigration was at the heart of the problem. Even before the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s and 50s, Irish labor had to leave its beautiful but overcrowded homeland, which historian Cecil Woodham-Smith has described as more densely populated than China. . In the 1820s, one observer noted that Irish laborers working on the Lehigh Canal were often buried six to a grave.
A combination of the Potato Famine and the practice of British landowners of forcing Irish peasants off the land so they could use it for farming set off a tidal wave of about a million poor Irishmen to America. As there was virtually no one beyond a few Catholic churches willing to help the poorly educated and poorly trained Irish for anything beyond menial work, this brought them into conflict with African Americans for the jobs and housing. Sensing a powerful political problem, emerging big-city political organizations focused resentment on what could only be called a racist vendetta between the two. The Civil War boiled it white. The political bosses recognized it as something that could be reduced to a simple issue to bind the Irish to them: the Republicans are creating a war that will free the slaves who will flood into the cities to take your jobs away from you.
The arrival of the project in 1862-1863 added another problem. The provision of the law that allowed the wealthy to pay $300 to “buy” a surrogate led to the cry, “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” That railroad tycoon Asa Packer in Mauch Chunk could buy a substitute for his son Robert offered a glaring example. Most of the story of the Civil War Draft’s impact centers on the Draft Riots in New York City in the summer of 1863. During what historian Lawrence Lader has called “the bloodiest week of New York”, the black population of the city, of approximately 15,000 people, has been the subject of attacks and violence. often murdered by mobs of largely Irish immigrants who made up about half of the city’s foreign-born population of 400,000. “All the frustrations and prejudices that the Irish had suffered were brought to a boil by the project,” Lader wrote in his article for the June 1959 issue of American Heritage magazine. Black people being lynched from lampposts and a black orphanage being burned down with its occupants inside are just two of the horror incidents sparked by pro-successionist rioters and politicians known as the Copperheads. It took soldiers called from the Gettysburg battlefield to finally quell the riots with artillery and bayonets.
Nothing like this happened in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania. Whatever the area’s feelings about black people, few lived there. This did not prevent the Democratic newspapers from asserting that after the war, “contrabands”, that is to say blacks formerly reduced to slavery, would be brought to take their work. “We can tell the President of the United States and his advisers on abolition that they must keep their Negroes out of our coalfields, unless they wish to usher civil war in the North,” wrote a publication. “President Lincoln must keep his pet lambs out of Schuylkill County.”
“In states like Pennsylvania,” notes Palladino, “where conservative Democrats wielded significant influence, the idea of conscription threatened long-held notions of popular sovereignty and personal autonomy that even the war had failed to achieve. displaced”.
Many people, and not just the Irish, worried about the disruption conscription would cause to their farms and family life. In a letter to Curtin, a man who owned a small mill told the governor that “my daughter-in-law will go mad if my son is conscripted.” Another warned the governor “wherever they (the local men) have supplied themselves with ammunition, guns and guns and they dare any number to come and enlist them before they have finished their work.” It was the recruiters who went to rural areas like Cass Township who faced the greatest public anger. The Northampton County Democratic newspaper, the Easton Argus, noted that most registration officers were “received with respect”, but wondered how it would be in other places.
According to Palladino, most of the draw resistance in the anthracite coal regions was passive. When the recruiters came to town, they went into the woods. It was the women who fiercely confronted them. “Women have the idea that the law does not reach them,” noted the Pittston Gazette, “that whatever assault they commit, they will not be interfered with.” If so, it must have come as a surprise to 25 female Mauch Chunks gathered downtown, stoning the recruits, when four of their ranks were arrested and jailed without bail. A Pittston woman, the Gazette noted, “intimidated the Marshal by shoving in his face a little child who had smallpox in a most loathsome form”.
Some consider September 22, 1862 as the beginning of major unrest around the slave trade in coal country. Three times recruiters have been driven from the town of Archbald. The fourth time, the enlister took two American riders with him. But the women were unimpressed by the presence of the armed men and chased them away when they tried to enter the Irish “slum”. Republican newspapers claimed the women had harassed a pro-Union shopkeeper. Soon the men came out and a huge fight ensued where rocks, bottles and other objects were thrown. The enroller was stuck in the office of the mining company. Republican papers said the crowd numbered 500, Democratic papers said 150. Regardless, the enlister managed to escape through the back door unscathed.
A week later, the recruiter returned with an armed military guard and a Catholic priest. The priest’s presence seemed to calm things down but later it started again, leaving one of the Irish dead. Riots broke out in other parts of the coal region. Finally, authorities in Schuylkill County brought out the heavy artillery and called in the Reverend James Wood, the Catholic Bishop of Philadelphia. With frank words that they were breaking the law and would be excommunicated if they refused to let the enlisters do their job, the bishop calmed the men. He then went to the local priests and informed them that they should use these same themes in their Sunday sermons. Governor Curtin was delighted. “The decision and the speed, but more the presence of Bishop Wood”, he informed Stanton, “relieved us all”.
But while that ended the worst of the violence, it didn’t totally end this one. Various Confederate sympathizers like the Knight of the Golden Circle were poised to shake things up. And the Molly Maguires, seen as agitators, were still stopping trains in 1864 with freshly inducted conscripts.
If complaints against conscription were a low rumbling in the anthracite region, miners’ frustration with poor working conditions erupted at full throat after the war. Palladino argues that conscription and labor unrest were competing but separate issues.
As for Governor Curtin, his strenuous efforts to help returning Union POWs and other military issues earned him the nickname “the soldier’s friend.” After the war, Curtin became so frustrated with the corruption of the Republican Party in the postwar years that he became a Democrat and ran and won three terms in Congress in the 1880s before his death in 1894. .