Inside a small, crowded lecture hall on Governors Island, an officer from Company H, 119th New York Volunteers Historical Association, gallantly offers me his wooden field chair, setting me up for a fine and thorough introduction to the park’s program on the New York City draft riots. Nearby, two women wearing full-length gowns and bonnets fan themselves against the late summer heat. A photograph of the unmistakable Edmund Ruffin—a Southern agriculturalist and staunch fire eater who is credited with firing the first shot of the Civil War—appears on a screen in the front of the room.
“In 1860, Ruffin published a propagandist novel called Anticipations of the Future,” says Barnet Schecter, author of The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. “The novel proved to be prophetic in many ways.”
In July of 1863, on the hottest day of the year, Schecter explains, New York City erupted in violence. A mostly white, poor, immigrant mob burned and ransacked the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue; they pillaged the homes and businesses of prominent African Americans like Abby Hopper Gibbons, a prison reformer and daughter of famed abolitionist Isaac Hopper; there were lynchings from lampposts. The New York City police force was catastrophically outnumbered and incapable of suppressing the rampage. Before troops could be called back from the front at Gettysburg, the New York City draft riots had become the most violent civil disorder in 19th-century America.
The riots were sparked by an exemption clause in Lincoln’s Conscription Act that allowed healthy, wealthy men to buy their way out of the draft while poor Union soldiers were being mowed down like grass.
“It was a microcosm of Civil War issues,” says Schecter.
For the Eighth Ohio Volunteers, a regiment in the Third Division of the Second Army Corps that had been fighting Robert E. Lee’s army, the draft riots were a vacation.
“They were over by the time we marched back from the front lines,” explains Robert Weber, a member of Company H, 119th New York Volunteers Historical Association, who, for this event, is representing the captain of the Eighth Ohio.
Two rows of canvas tents line the grounds behind Fort Jay, which once housed federal troops and the U.S. Army Field Music School. Weber’s men, dressed in historically accurate wool pants, blue sack coats, and leather boots, sit around in the sparse shade of their tents, smoking pipes, whittling, joking, or writing in their leather-bound journals. Piles of muskets stand in the middle of camp, at the ready. The soldier’s usual accoutrements—a penny whistle, knapsack, government-issue blanket, extra shirt (if he’s lucky), “soldier’s housewife” (or sewing kit), and a photograph of his sweetheart—sit inside in the tent for civilians to see.
“This is fancy living,” says Weber, indicating the spartan tents. “Typically, we sleep in a half-shelter or in the open air on our ground cloth.”
Weber’s men don’t look like they would mind.
“I remember one night in Saylor’s Creek, Virginia,” says Dennis Harrington, a former member of the NYPD. “We slept there overnight, in the snow, in dog tents which are open on either end. It was so cold my boots curled up and froze. I had to hop over to the fire like a ballerina until the leather thawed.”
Between 8,000 and 10,000 devoted Civil War hobbyists showed up that year to re-enact the surrender of General Lee. But even among the devoted, the 119th New York Volunteers stand out.
“We’re not a re-enactment society,” clarifies Guy W. Smith while sitting behind a field desk on the grand porch of Fort Jay, where the women of the 119th Soldiers Aid Society are gathered in the shade. Smith, who has been a volunteer with Company H for more than 26 years, met his wife at a re-enactment and married her in a Civil War–style ceremony to which all of Company H was invited.
Beyond social events, the volunteers suit up for parades, heritage festivals, and battle re-enactments, and present living history to students. Members choose a real soldier from their own home region to represent. During a typical re-enactment, Guy W. Smith portrays George Rudyard, a ship’s carpenter and housewright who was 44 years old when the Civil War broke out.
“I picked him because he was one of the older guys,” says Smith, “and because we’re both carpenters. It probably seems funny, but you get very attached to these people.”
“We know where our AKAs are buried,” confirms association president Marianne Guglieri. Guglieri, who was pulled into the 119th New York Volunteers by her son over a decade ago, now accompanies him every Christmas and Memorial Day to lay flowers at the gravesite of their company’s real-life captain, Benjamin Albertson Willis.
“Some cemeteries have even asked us to pay back expenses for perpetual care on our AKAs’ graves, as if we are family,” chuckles Joanne Riedel, whose daughter, husband, and daughter’s boyfriend are all members of 119th NY Volunteers.
Most volunteers—like 12-year-old Antonio Mistron, 10-year-old Joseph Mistron, and 15-year-old Ryan Zukowski—were drawn to this labor-intensive, fully immersive hobby by an early interest in history. (All three boys discovered the 119th New York Volunteers while visiting Old Bethpage Village Restoration—a 19th-century village on Long Island where Company H congregates every month.) Other members, like Bill Carman, whose forebears came to Long Island in the 1600s and founded Hempstead, are descendants of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. (Since becoming a member of Company H, Bill Carman has camped on every site where his predecessor slept during his five-day march to Gettysburg.)
Robert Weber can name ancestors on both sides of the conflict: Captain Patrick Henry Wood of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Van Ness Boynton of the 35th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. Because of the complexities of the Civil War, most members of the 119th avoid any discussion of politics, but they can give detailed accounts of battles and privations from the viewpoint of either side. “Remembering these gents and what they went through is the most important aspect of this hobby,” states Weber, who sports Civil War–era whiskers.
As the blazing sun climbs into the sky, the company’s first sergeant, portrayed by Neil Yank, leads the men to the parade grounds for firing practice. It’s loud. It’s hot. And it’s thrilling for all the young future volunteers in the crowd. Questions about firing speed, range, accuracy, and fatalities stretch past teatime. No such civility is overlooked at Fort Jay, where the wives of regular army officers serve iced tea and mint juleps while the Fife Drum and Bugle Corps entertains a group of picnickers sprawled out on the shady lawn.
When Weber’s men return to camp, they make do with twice-smoked pork cooked over a campfire.
“There was a big difference between veteran soldiers and ‘spit and polish’ regular army,” says Weber as one of his soldiers crushes coffee beans into a tin cup. “There was bound to be some animosity while they were here during the draft riots.”
But as the shadows grow long, a look of satisfaction falls over the volunteers’ well-tanned faces.
“It’s like a mental vacation,” says Guglieri as the final ferry horn blows. “No cell phones. No meetings. Just good people.”