Metropolitan Police Under Siege

Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom explores the hostility the New York Police Department faced during the Civil War.

Keating threatens Annie.

Philemon Keating threatens Annie’s life during his takeover of the Sixth Ward.

The shocking attack upon the Sixth Precinct police takes the murder and blood off the Five Points streets directly into the station house. As the ensuing hostage crisis unfolds, we get a visceral sense of just how violent Civil War New York could be. No one understood better than the police the tight connection between the war on the battlefields and the increasingly brutal reality on city streets.

As the 1865 Annual Report of the Metropolitan Police Board noted, “A state of war is a school of violence and crime…. During the war there has been a marked tendency to crimes of violence towards persons, and other crimes of the graver character…Probably no city in the civilized world is human life so lightly prized and subjected to as great hazards from violence as in New York.” The city swarmed with soldiers on their way to and from battle, along with thousands of men who had been discharged, many of them armed. Police noted more and more criminals carrying concealed weapons. And, as the commissioners put it, “The practice of taking human life on slight or no provocation has fearfully increased.”

1863 Draft Riots

An illustrated portrayal of the 1863 Draft Riots.
Harper’s, ‘Charge of the Police at the Tribune Office, 1894.

The NYPD’s heroic actions fighting rioters during the cataclysmic Draft Riots of 1863, featuring the effective deployment of small groups of cops against large crowds of rioters, laid to rest lingering questions about the force’s discipline, devotion to the job, and its ability to maintain order. But fighting organized gangs of violent criminals presented different challenges. The sense of police under siege helps explain the extremely insular job culture among New York police. Station houses by necessity served as dormitories, where men on reserve slept in spartan quarters and ate bad food, squeezed in among prisoners, homeless lodgers, and the endless bustle of precinct routine. New men learned the job from the accumulated experience and knowledge of veterans, who honored physical courage and loyalty to other cops above all and subjected recruits to extreme forms of hazing. The shared risk of death and injury, the feeling of isolation among hostile citizens and unreliable politicians, the sense that they were forever misunderstood—all these shaped the policeman’s identity and the unique job culture of the force.