Martin Scorcese, in an interview, candidly described his new film, “Gangs of New York,” as an “opera.” He had been asked whether the events portrayed were true to history. I took his reply to mean that the events of the movie were selected and organized for dramatic emphasis and were not to be taken as literal factual record.

And, indeed, as a historical record of 19th-century New York, the film has many failings. Nevertheless, it has provoked some useful discussion of the historical context – specifically for the light it sheds on the Lincolnite mythology of the Civil War era. It seems that the accepted idea of the gloriously united North trampling out the wrathful grapes of slavery and treason is not so sound a picture of the real thing after all.

For one thing, the film gives a glimpse of the rather nasty nativism among Northerners, a great many of whom hated Catholics and immigrants as much or more than they hated Southerners. None of the above fit into the Yankee ideal of true Americanism. Nativist gangs burned down convents in Philadelphia and Boston when such things were never dreamed of in the South. This window into the real history of the antebellum North becomes even more significant for three reasons.

1) Nativists of the American Party went en masse into Lincoln’s Republican Party and made up a strong element of his support. Though, of course, Lincoln cared nothing about religion and he and other leading Republicans were too savvy politicians to embrace overt nativism. Republicans did not generally like immigrants, but they loved the militaristic German centralizers who flooded into the Midwest after the failed revolutions of 1848. Confederate General Richard Taylor recorded in his memoirs that when he surrendered at the end of the war, a German Union general lectured him on how Southerners were now to be taught true Americanism. Taylor was the grandson of a Revolutionary officer and the son of a President. (Does this maybe give you a little hint of where Straussians and Neocons are coming from?) These Germans made the most solid core of Lincoln’s support, with the possible exception of tariff-protected manufacturers and New England “intellectuals.”

2) The film can open the door on another dirty little secret. We have heard a lot about immigrant criminal gangs. The fact that vigilante law prevailed over much of the North during the war has been conveniently forgotten. Besides the thousands of his critics Lincoln jailed without due process, thousands more were killed, injured, intimidated, and run out of town by proto-fascist gangs of Republican bully boys called “Wide Awakes.” They played a major role in making sure Northern elections turned out right, i.e., Republicans won. And you thought ugly mob violence was something that only happened in the South!

3) Although the film does not give a satisfactory view of the New York City draft riots, it lets us in on at least part of the secret when the draft rioters point out the $300 men who had bought exemption from conscription. The fact is that no affluent Northerner fought in the war if he didn’t want to – certainly not Rockefeller, Morgan, Gould, Swift, Armour, Goodyear, and the others who were making fortunes out of government contracts. Nor most of the patricians – only one of five military age Adamses served and Teddy Roosevelt’s father bought an exemption. Lincoln’s worthless son Robert spent most of the war at Harvard. Sherman once complained that men of wealth were found in the ranks of the Southern army and lamented that Northerners were not like that.

But that is not all the story. The “riots” did not start out as race pogroms, though they degenerated into that. They started out as organized civic resistance to the draft, encouraged by the Democratic state government. Everyone knew very well that the Lincolnites enforced the draft at a much higher rate in areas that opposed them than they did in friendly areas – according to forthcoming studies by the New York playwright and historian John Chodes, the draft was imposed in New York City at four times the rate for Massachusetts. And the conscripts were well aware that they stood a good chance of being used up as cannon fodder by Republicans who knew if they lost four men for every Southerner killed they would still end up on top, as long as the immigrant flow kept up. About a fourth of the total enrollment of Lincoln’s armies were immigrants, many of whom were brought over and paid bounties for enlisting. The situation was so bad that the Pope sent one of his most persuasive priestly orators to Ireland to warn the people about being used up for Union cannon fodder.

Perhaps we can begin to recognize the historical fact that millions of Northern citizens did not willingly go along with Lincoln’s war. And the opponents were not limited to the New York City draft rioters. A forthcoming book by Mises Fellow H.A. Scott Trask will enlighten us about who opposed the war: freetraders who were on to the Republican tariff game; traditional Jeffersonians and descendants of Revolutionary families (outside of New England) who understood that killing Southerners and overthrowing legitimate state governments, as well as suppressing freedom of speech and press, were not exactly what the Founding Fathers had in mind; Irish and German Catholics, though that history has been suppressed as one of the fruits of Lincoln’s victory.

The truth is that Lincoln’s party did not save the Union and the Constitution. It was a Jacobin party that seized power and revolutionized the North as well as conquering the South. “Gangs of New York” can perhaps open a window that will encourage further historical discovery along these lines.

Alas, the wrong lesson is drawn by one of the usually fine writers at, Steve Sailer, who sees the movie as Scorcese making points for the immigrants against the natives. According to Sailer: “When the Civil War came, many Irish and other immigrants in New York City refused to fight for the Union that had given them refuge.”

Wait a minute. That was a civil war going on here. Can a newcomer really be faulted for not wanting to take sides in a civil war? I think rather it shows real patriotism and good sense. And how about that “refuge.” Here is a Dublin paper commenting in 1861: “We cannot but recollect that in the South our countrymen were safe from insult and persecution, while ‘Nativeism’ and ‘Know-Nothingism’ assailed them in the North.”

How about John Mitchel, the Irish patriot who had been exiled to Van Diemen’s land, from whence he escaped to the land of freedom, where he joined the Confederate cause of liberty, to which he gave the lives of two sons? It is not true, by the way, that the Union General Burnsides’s sacrifice of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg was a great exhibit of Irish devotion to the Union cause. The so-called enthusiasm was political propaganda drummed up by Republican promotion of Gen. Meagher as an Irish leader, which he wasn’t. Irish recruiting fell off sharply after Fredericksburg.

Let me recommend to those who want to use conditions in the War of Southern Independence as a tool for the otherwise worthy cause of immigration restriction a recent work: Clear the Confederate Way!: The Irish in the Army of Northern Virginia by Kelly J. O’Grady. The book covers much more than the title suggests. And while you are at it, take a look also at The Jewish Confederates by Robert N. Rosen.

Clyde Wilson

Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina where he was the editor of the multivolume The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the M.E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute. He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews and is co-publisher of, a source  for unreconstructed Southern books.

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