My New Book!

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Monday, October 4, 2021

October 4, 2021: AmericanFires: The Armory Fire

[October 8-10 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that tragedy and four other historic fires, leading up to a somber special post on our current crops of horrific wildfires.]

On the tragedy that sheds new light on one of our more complex histories.

In this post on Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (2002), I gave the filmmaker a good bit of grief for the way in which his film builds toward a chaotic but sympathetic depiction of the city’s Irish American community during the 1863 draft riots. As I noted there, the riots were of course part of a complex set of historical and social contexts and factors, but likewise, and even more saliently for Scorcese’s sympathies, was the period’s Irish American community. It’s always challenging for those of us striving for a progressive perspective on history when one oppressed community opposes another, and that’s undoubtedly part of the story of the riots (if not, frankly, the central story of them): a recent, heavily discriminated-against American community (Irish immigrants) reacting to yet another perceived discrimination (the Civil War draft) by enacting violence against an even more discriminated-against community (African Americans).

If we’re going to remember the draft riots more fully and accurately, as I believe we certainly should, it’d be important at the same time to remember the ways in which Irish Americans contributed much more constructively to the Union cause during the war. That would definitely include the nearly 150,000 Federal troops who had been born in Ireland, nearly a third of whom were apparently New Yorkers and all of whom were instrumental to the war’s successful outcome. But it would also include the many Irish American women who worked in the era’s mills, factories, and especially arsenals—the latter especially not only because of their overt contributions to the war effort, but also because of the striking number of tragic arsenal explosions and accidents that claimed many workers’ lives (in the South as well as the North) over the course of the war.

Exemplifying such tragedies, and particularly overtly linked (in its own era and in our collective memories of the event) to the Irish American community, was the June 1864 Washington Arsenal fire. 1,500 men, women, and girls worked in that arsenal, and while it’s impossible to ascertain an exact tally of how many were killed and wounded in the fire, historians estimate that at least twenty women died (the particular area where the fire began was worked almost exclusively by women), and many of the rest were likely injured either in the blaze or during their escape. It’s certainly fair to say that these workers were casualties of war, just as all such workers contributed mightily to the war effort; fair and important to remember them right alongside those Irish American soldiers. And, to reiterate, right alongside the New York draft rioters as well. History’s not reducible to any one moment, and the more we put them in conversation, with each other and all their contexts, the stronger and more valuable those collective memories will be.

Next fire tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Fires or other historic disasters you’d analyze?

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