Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Wheel of Misfortune

Draft Wheel from the Lower East Side of New York City, c.1863. This wheel was
donated to the New York Historical Society in 1865. Image Source:
Today on the blog I unveil a new weekly series - Material Culture Thursdays. As many of you know, my background is in museums and in museum education, and I believe that powerful artifacts can help us convey stories about the past in ways that many historians often overlook. If you've ever been to a museum and seen an artifact perfectly chosen by a curator and aptly displayed by an exhibit designer, you know what I mean. Each Thursday here on the Backstories Blog I will do my best to highlight an artifact that helps us understand the story of the Civil War. I am not a collector myself, so I will rely on combing through the catalogs of digitized collections that various historical institutions have placed online.

Back in 2007 I visited the New York Historical Society for the first time, and took in the wonderful show, New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. That exhibit contained what I still believe to be the best use of a powerful artifact to tell a story that I have ever seen in a museum exhibit. As such, I thought I would kick off my Material Culture Thursday series with that artifact - a draft wheel associated with the New York City Draft Riots.

I remember quite clearly that this draft wheel sat in a central location in the New York Divided exhibit, in a square display case. The curators had strewn a number of draft cards all about the case around the wheel, cards that remained inside the wheel when it was donated to the institution in 1865.

When I approached the wheel, I discovered that it had been designated for use in the 7th Congressional District - the Lower East Side. An engraved plaque on the wheel read as follows:
USED JULY 13, 1863
JUNE 20TH, 1865
This wheel had a direct connection to the worst civil disorder in American history - the New York City Draft Riots. Around the square case that contained the wheel and the draft cards - listing the names, addresses and occupations of potential draftees - the Historical Society's curators placed a timeline of the riots. The draft lottery had begun on July 11th, 1863, a Saturday. On Monday morning, July 13th, building anger boiled over into violence that would last for four days. Irate mobs destroyed buildings and, fueled by intense racial hatred, targeted African American communities especially. By the end of the riots, at least 119 people had been killed. More than 100 soldiers and police had been injured, along with hundreds of civilians. The government in the end had to send soldiers from the Army of the Potomac fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg to restore order.

From the Library of Congress: "The Rioters burning the Orphan Asylum...
5th Avenue and 46th Street.
Something spoke to me about the draft wheel and the manner in which it had been displayed. As I walked around the case reading about the riots, I couldn't help but stare at the names on the draft cards. Those tiny slips of paper, I understood, represented the fate of many young men in New York City. Hence, the wheel earned the nickname "The Wheel of Misfortune." One need only take a look at Civil War casualty lists to understand the staunch resistance to the draft. Viewing the wheel and the cards up-close made the fate of a draftee more real to me. And yet, it remains hard to sympathize with the rioters given the ugly racial violence that resulted.

I still have some unanswered questions about the draft wheel. In researching the artifact for this post, I visited the New York Historical Society's website, where I found some conflicting information. The information for the wheel provided on the Society's digital collections page indicates that the wheel was used on July 13th, 1863, as I remember the label in New York Divided also claimed. However, if you look up the wheel on the virtual New York Divided exhibit, a slightly different description appears:
The "wheel of misfortune," as it was called by the anti-Lincoln Daily News, was designated for use in the 7th Congressional District (the Lower East Side). Very few men were actually drafted from New York after the draft riots, however, and this wheel was never used. The only known draft wheel to survive the riots, it still contained 3,500 cards when it was donated to the New-York Historical Society in 1865. The names of black men were included in the lottery pool, since the second conscription act of  1864 made black males eligible for the draft.
This second description would seem to indicate that the draft wheel was prepared for use, but never went into action. The names contained within then - from a later draft it would seem - never had their number come up.

So - Civil War or otherwise - can you think of a museum artifact that you've seen displayed in a powerful manner?

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