When what has been described as “the second most destructive draft riot in the nation” broke out in Troy on July 15, 1863, worried city residents, especially African-Americans, wondered if the Dean of the Roman Catholic churches in Troy, Father Peter Havermans, would, or could, do anything to calm the rioters and curb anticipated violence.
The bulk of the two to three thousand angry protestors in the streets were Catholics who worked in the city’s mills, factories and iron works.
Havermans had been born in the Netherlands in 1816 and ordained in Ghent, Belgium in 1830. After arriving in the U.S. with the hope of doing missionary work with American Indians, he was assigned by Bishop John Hughes to work in Troy with the city’s 1,200 Catholics. On June 3, 1842, Havermans became pastor of St. Peter’s Church. By the time the draft riot flared up 21 years later, he had helped establish five additional parishes in the city and built a hospital, a school, and an orphanage.
As soon as the Civil War broke out in 1861, Father Havermans demonstrated his support for President Lincoln’s war policies by flying the American flag from the steeple of his new church, St. Mary’s. He also held services every Sunday for the Union soldiers at the recruiting camp between Troy and Lansingburgh and celebrated high Mass after every major battle.
The mob marching in Troy on the day of the riot was anti-war, anti-Lincoln, anti-Republican, and anti-black. For many of them, the flash point had occurred six months previously, on January 1, 1863, when President Lincoln emancipated the slaves. The rioters believed that he had changed the purpose of the Civil War from a war to preserve the Union, to a war to free blacks who would then pour North and take their jobs by working for lower pay. The draft law of March 3, 1863 was the final straw. In the minds of many of the demonstrators, the draft which had just begun to be enforced in their congressional district on July 14, would force them to commit economic suicide—that’s why they were protesting in the streets, that’s why there were so many calls for violence, especially against Republicans and most especially against blacks.
Father Havermans and a group of other prominent Trojans which included Congressman John A. Griswold and former mayor Isaac McConihe Jr., shadowed the mob as its mood turned ugly and it sought targets to destroy.
Chills undoubtedly ran up and down Havermans’s spine when he saw the scaffold the rioters had erected on Congress Street on which, according to a newspaper report, they intended to hang every person engaged in carrying out the draft. When they began shouting the names of draft officials and heading for the Arsenal and Provost Marshal’s office, the 47-year-old priest courageously stepped forward and tried to reason with them and calm them down. He said that many of them might be killed or wounded if they continued and he urged them to work to halt the draft in lawful ways.
Havermans convinced some of the rioters to turn back but others broke off from the main group and headed for the offices of the Troy Daily Times, a Republican and pro-war newspaper. Havermans tried to intervene again but was unsuccessful. The mob sacked the building. They also broke into and looted the house of Martin I. Townsend, a Lincoln supporter and outspoken opponent of slavery.
As the rioters swarmed through the city streets, they also hunted any black people they could find. Age or sex made no difference to them. At the time of the riot, there were about 900 African-Americans living in Troy. When the disturbances broke out, most of them fled the city and stayed for days in outlying villages. Those who were found in Troy were stoned. According to one newspaper, the mob caught one black man and “beat him to jelly.”
Not satisfied with the results of their hunt people, the rioters decided to burn down the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, the first black church in Troy and a meeting place for Underground Railroad committees. The church’s first black pastor, Henry Highland Garnet, had won national recognition as a radical abolitionist in 1843 when he gave a speech urging slaves to free themselves by rising up against their owners.
Father Havermans and his assistant, Father McDonough, met the rioters at the door to the church and bravely ordered them to turn around and go home. According to one news story, one rioter ignored the plea and rushed the church door only to be knocked to the ground by McDonough. After additional dialogue between Havermans and the leaders of the mob, the rioters withdrew and the church was saved.
As the day and evening wore on, additional buildings and warehouses were burned but the rioters eventually tired. In time, with the support of four companies of National Guard troops and their six pound howitzer, the arguments made by Havermans and the other city leaders to obey the law and keep the peace began to bear fruit. Slowly the mob calmed down and returned home. The riot was over.
When the draft resumed several months later on September 4, the proceedings were so orderly, the New York Times reported that “the best feeling prevails.”
Father Havermans lived and worked in Troy as a priest for another 34 years. Two more Catholic parishes were organized and by 1896, there were 40,000 Catholic communicants and 30 priests in Troy. Havermans died in 1897 at the age of 91 and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Illustrations: Peter Havermans (above), and the New York City draft riot as it appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.