History Lesson

"Gangs of New York" was a long time in the making for director Martin Scorsese. The maestro behind "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" got the idea to dramatize the violence of mid-19th-century New York City decades ago after reading Herbert Asbury's 1927 book of the same name.

But although the movie has received mainly positive reviews (as well as five Golden Globe nominations), a few critics and historians have taken exception to some of the historical details, especially in the film's section on the draft riots of 1863.

"Gangs of New York" treats many of the city's Irish immigrants (led by a swashbuckling Leonardo DiCaprio) as romantic heroes. In reality, of the more than 100 killed in the Civil War draft riots, at least 12 were African-Americans--many of whom were slaughtered in grotesque fashion. And many more of the city's black population were driven from New York. The poor Irish both revolted against the Civil War draft as well as assaulted their African-American neighbors. NEWSWEEK's Suzanne Smalley talked with historian Iver Bernstein, author of the 1989 book "The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War." Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Martin Scorsese has been criticized by a few critics. David Denby of the New Yorker said it underemphasizing the experience of African-Americans. Is the film historically accurate?

Iver Bernstein:The question of whether Scorsese has slighted the African-American experience is very important. You could argue that the filmmaker has an imaginative license as an artist, but this movie makes claims to having some kind of historical veracity. The framing of the movie with the [U2] song "These Are the Hands That Built America" and the movie's notion that it is telling us another story about the making of the American nation, invites us to take it seriously as history. But the movie does not live up to those claims.

Are you surprised that Scorsese ignored the suffering experienced by black people during the draft riots? They were treated far more unjustly than even the immigrant Irish population. Weren't both groups scapegoats of the wealthy, white establishment, which forced the poor into military service?

Scorsese gives us only a caricature of the black experience during the riots. In New York City before and after the Civil War, both Irish-Americans and African-Americans were desperately poor. The irony is that African-Americans had had a very important role in the economy of the city--at least at the very lowest rungs of the economic ladder--until the Irish of the famine wave elbowed them out of that position. The claim of the Irish draft rioters that black freedmen were going to sweep out of the South after Emancipation and steal their jobs in New York was curious and ironic. The Irish immigrants had earlier pushed the African-Americans out of their positions.

What specifically happened to African-Americans during the draft riots that Scorsese ignored?

Much of the African-American experience during the riots was ignored. There was the attack on black children in the Colored Orphan Asylum. There was the lynch mob in which crippled black coachman Abraham Franklin was dragged from his house and strung up to a tree. His corpse was pulled down by U.S. troops and strung up again in a grisly denouement. A 16-year-old Irish butcher named Patrick Butler took the corpse down, dragging it through the streets by the genitals. Showing this kind of violence would have gotten at the agony of the black community during the draft riots--and Scorsese doesn't get to that at all.

At the end of the film, Union soldiers are shown destroying lower Manhattan in an effort to quash the Irish immigrants as they riot to avoid an unjust draft. Did that really happen?

The image of the Union gunships obliterating the Five Points at the end of the movie never happened. That image does make a viewer think that the Union Army was some powerful and nasty force that was coming in and obliterating a world of masculine honor that the Irish gangs represented. But those Union gunships never existed. The five Union regiments that did put down the draft riots were coming into New York not just to uphold the authority of the government and to put down treason but also to protect black lynch-mob victims.

Was 1860s New York really that violent?

The most arresting fact of the movie is its violence. The ordinary American moviegoer who knows little or nothing about American history is going to be bowled over by the violence of the movie. Pre-Civil War New York--the era of the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits' riots and the fire companies--did have a running history of gangs and street violence.

But that violence did not lead to stacks of casualties as the movie suggests?

In fact, that violence rarely produced death figures that went higher than the 12 who were killed in the gang riot of 1857. The Astor Place riot of 1849--which had 22 deaths--was extreme for that pre-Civil War era. Scorsese far overestimates the ability of the gangs to bathe the city in blood. On the other hand, he underestimates the violence of the draft riots, which are picked up in passing at the end of the movie. The draft riots produced a death toll far greater than any other civil insurrection in American history with the exception of the Civil War itself.

What should Scorsese have done differently?

I would have liked Scorsese to show how pervasive the role and the political pressure of the Southern slave empire was in New York City. It was no mere accident that the draft rioters were cheering for Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.

What do you think about the modern-day parallels to the film?

Rep. Charles Rangel has announced legislation to re-enact the draft because he finds it immoral that the current enlisted ranks are overwhelmingly composed of minorities and the poor. The question of who gets to go to war and who gets to stay home--the lightning rod for the conflict in the 1863 draft riots--is clearly something that Americans have grappled with and will continue to grapple with for years to come.

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