150 Years Ago This Week: The U.S. Navy takes on Japan

July 1863

As Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army finally retreated on July 11 across the Potomac River following three days of waiting for the river to drop, and some skirmishing with the advanced units of Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Federal army, the first names in the new Federal draft law had been drawn in New York City. The names appeared in the newspapers on Sunday, July 12.

Seething unrest had long existed in the city over the draft, particularly the provisions which allowed for paying substitutes to serve in place of those selected, and the purchases of exemptions so that the rich would not have to serve at all. (In the highly acrimonious presidential election of 1884, Republicans made much of Democrat Grover Cleveland’s paying $150 to a Polish immigrant in 1863 to serve in the army in his place; Cleveland’s reason for not serving was that he had a flourishing law practice in Buffalo and that he was looking after his widowed mother.)  

Further aggravating the explosive situation in New York City were the politicians, some of whom were Peace Democrats or “Copperheads” and not in support of the war. On July 13, as the draft stations opened and began drawing names, a mob of mostly foreign laborers gathered and a full-scale riot broke out. The draft headquarters was stormed, residences were raided, businesses were attacked and looted.

The crowds tore through the city streets, overpowering the police, army units and firefighters. There was death and destruction throughout the city. Fires broke out, and a black church and orphanage were burned. Soon the primary targets of the howling mobs were black men, women and children.

The rioting lasted three days, and was stopped only by the arrival of troops on July 16, fresh from fighting at Gettysburg. About 1,000 people were reported to have been killed and injured by the mobs, and some $1.5 million in damages done to private property. Other Northern cities which experienced similar but somewhat less destructive riots were Boston, Portsmouth, N.H., Rutland, Vt., Wooster, Ohio, and Troy, N.Y.

In the Midwest, Gen. John H. Morgan’s Confederate cavalry crossed into Ohio at Harrison and headed towards Cincinnati. Aided by Union gunboats, Federal troops took Yazoo City, Miss., and occupied Natchez without resistance. Gen. Lee’s army moved south up the Shenandoah Valley after crossing into Virginia.

On July 15, thousands of miles from the fighting fronts, one of the strangest battles of the war occurred. Under Capt. David S. McDougal, the U.S.S. Wyoming was one of a number of Union naval vessels searching the Pacific for the Confederate raider C.S.S. Alabama. Putting into Yokohama in Japan, Capt. McDougal found the foreigners there huddled about the dock, terrified by a recent order of Japanese warlords to expel all foreigners and cut off the much-used ship passage in the Straits of Shimonoseki.

The Wyoming moved into the straits and took on the Japanese fleet and shore batteries. Junks and steamers attempted to surround the Wyoming; Capt. McDougal’s men blasted a number of them out of the water and disabled some of the shore artillery. The engagement was fierce but short, and the Wyoming was victorious. Soon an international naval squadron arrived and forced the Japanese warlords to rescind the oppressive measures against foreigners. Wyoming suffered some damage, with five dead and six wounded, but the U.S. had won its first naval battle with Japan.

From Winchester, Va., Gen. Lee wrote to President Davis on July 17 that his men “are in good health and spirits, but want shoes and clothing badly. As soon as these necessary articles are obtained, we shall be prepared to resume operations.” In the meantime, Gen. Meade’s Army of the Potomac was still north of the Potomac River in Maryland, and President Lincoln was none too pleased that Gen. Lee’s army had managed to get back to Virginia.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.