Jul. 13, 2014


by John Clare

Come we to the summer, to the summer we will come,
For the woods are full of bluebells and the hedges full of bloom,
And the crow is on the oak a-building of her nest,
And love is burning diamonds in my true lover's breast;
She sits beneath the whitethorn a-plaiting of her hair,
And I will to my true lover with a fond request repair;
I will look upon her face, I will in her beauty rest,
And lay my aching weariness upon her lovely breast.

The clock-a-clay is creeping on the open bloom of May,
The merry bee is trampling the pinky threads all day,
And the chaffinch it is brooding on its grey mossy nest
In the whitethorn bush where I will lean upon my lover's breast;
I'll lean upon her breast and I'll whisper in her ear
That I cannot get a wink o'sleep for thinking of my dear;
I hunger at my meat and I daily fade away
Like the hedge rose that is broken in the heat of the day.

"Summer" by John Clare. Public Domain. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1863 that the New York City Draft Riots began, the bloodiest riot in American history. The rioters were working-class white men, mostly Irish-Americans. They were rioting against a new draft law put into place by President Lincoln, but they were angry about much more than that, and the draft law was just the final straw.

It was a terrible summer, hot and muggy, during the height of the Civil War. Rich New Yorkers were making money off the war, but poor people were even poorer than usual. There was huge inflation, and when people did manage to afford staple goods, they were often contaminated — sand mixed into sugar, or sawdust into coffee. Working-class immigrant New Yorkers had signed up in high numbers to serve in the Union Army, and many had died; those who did make it back alive were often wounded and could no longer provide for their families. Unemployment was high. Workers kept going on strike, but the strikes were broken. The sensational newspapers of the day published stories blaming all this misery on Lincoln, black people, and the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation. The newspapers warned working-class white people that black people would be moving up from the South in huge numbers and stealing their jobs. They published hateful pieces claiming that black men were breaking the strikes, and that they were staying home and seducing white women while white men fought.

Lincoln was desperate for more soldiers — men were dying at a faster rate than volunteers were enlisting. So he and Congress authorized the nation's first draft law, and on Saturday, July 11th, the lottery began, with a blindfolded clerk pulling names out of a hat. Unfortunately there was a major exception to this fair process: for $300 you could buy your way out of the draft. It was a fee only the rich could afford — the average New York City worker earned 85 cents per day. On Saturday, a number of firemen from the Black Joke fire company were chosen in the lottery. The next day, the firemen sat around in a tavern talking angrily about the draft, and they decided to protest. On Monday morning, they showed up at the draft office with their fire truck full of rocks they had collected from construction sites. They threw the rocks through the office windows, burned the draft records, and attacked the officers who were administering it.

By the time they were finished, thousands had gathered around them. The original motives of the anti-draft protesters were quickly eclipsed by the angry mob. The mob fashioned makeshift weapons and went on a destructive rampage through the city. They pulled up railroad and streetcar tracks, knocked down telephone poles, cut telegraph lines, lit buildings on fire, and attacked people. They targeted Lincoln supporters, abolitionists, and policemen. They destroyed Protestant churches and charities, and they attacked the newspaper offices of The New York Times and The New York Tribune — the Times' editor and owner Henry Raymond actually defended himself against the rioters with a Gatling gun. Most of all, the mob targeted African-Americans. They destroyed businesses and community spots that were owned by blacks or catered to them, and set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum. The mob attacked countless black people, set their homes on fire, and brutally murdered at least 11 black men. The violence continued to escalate, and there were not enough federal troops in the city to do much about it, since they were all off fighting in Pennsylvania — the Battle of Gettysburg had ended just 10 days before the riots began. On Wednesday, July 15th, troops were hurried from Gettysburg to New York City to fight. By Friday, there were about 6,000 federal troops, and the riot finally died down. The official death toll was listed as 119, but was probably higher. Many African-Americans left New York City because of the riots, leading to a 20 percent decrease in the African-American population in New York City during the Civil War.

It's the birthday of the poet John Clare (books by this author), born in Nottinghamshire, England (1793). He grew up on a farm, writing poems on his mother's sugar bags, but he was only able to attend school for three months a year. He spent the rest of his time tending his father's sheep. When he was twelve, he left school altogether to work as a laborer. In his spare time he continued to write poetry, and in 1820 he published his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), with the byline "John Clare, a Nottinghamshire peasant." He became suddenly famous. That year sightseers visited his cottage, wealthy patrons gave him money, and he went to London to meet other poets such as Coleridge and Charles Lamb. After his initial success, things went downhill for Clare. He continued to publish books of poems, including The Shepherd's Calendar (1827) and The Rural Muse (1835), but they did not sell as well as his first book and he fell out of fashion. He became a tenant farmer to support his seven children. He drank too much, started to lose his mind, and was sent to an insane asylum. In 1841 he escaped and walked 80 miles back to his home, eating grass by the roadside along the way because he was so hungry. Eventually he was sent back to another asylum, where he spent the last 23 years of his life, believing he was Lord Byron or Robert Burns, and writing some of his best work.

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