I don’t usually watch crime dramas, but, seeing as this one’s set in Civil War-era America – which I started reading up on when I was 11 – I thought I’d give it a go; and I’m quite enjoying it. It’s set in New York City, in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, and it’s not so much about the war or about crime as about the interactions between the Irish community, the black community and the wealthy WASP community. The three main characters, an Irish policeman, a black doctor and the son of a wealthy WASP industrialist, all served in the Union Army, and saw action together at the Battle of Chancellorsville … the site of which I dragged my long-suffering family round when I was a teenager. It also features Prussian prostitutes, political corruption and a lot of dead bodies.
It was shown in the US, by BBC America, in 2012-2013, but has only now appeared on British TV. And, sadly, there are only two series. I’m so sick of this happening! OK, some things do get past their sell-by date, but there’ve been so many good programmes which have been pulled after only one or two series.
Anyway. Our main guy is Kevin Corcoran, an Irish policeman based in the working-class, multi-ethnic Five Points area of New York City. At the start of the series, his daughter has just been murdered, and his wife is missing … although he doesn’t actually seem that bothered about his missing wife, and is quite happy with his mistress, the Prussian madam of a brothel.
There’d long been a substantial black community in Five Points, and, especially during and after the Potato Famine, large numbers of Irish immigrants, fleeing hunger and poverty, moved into the area. The other big group of immigrants in New York City at this time were the Germans, but they don’t really feature in this (apart from running brothels!). Racial tensions grew due to competition for jobs, and increased considerably after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, with many white working-class people believing that black people from the South would flood into the city, looking for employment.
The (in)famous “Tammany Hall” Democratic Party political machine had encouraged Irish immigrants to register as US citizens so that they could vote. When the draft for the Union Army took place in July 1863, black men were generally excluded as they weren’t regarded as citizens, and wealthy white men could buy their way out of it by paying for a substitute. This left white working-class men, many of whom, in New York City, were Irish. Violence broke out, and the rioters targeted black people – who were hardly to blame for the grossly unfair draft system. Tragically, over 100 people were killed, and considerable damage was done to homes and businesses. Many black people then moved away from the area, into Upper Manhattan – the violence changed the area for ever.
Going back to the draft system itself, talk about a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. And it was the same on both sides. OK, plenty of rich men did fight, most of them volunteering, but the draft system was appalling. The list of draft-dodgers who paid for working-class men to take their places includes Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.
The series starts the following year, but the shadow of the Draft Riots hangs over it. The wife of Matthew Freeman, the black doctor, lost her brother in the riots. There’s been some criticism over the character of Freeman, with people saying that there wouldn’t have been any black doctors in the US at this time, but he’s actually based on a real person – James McCune Smith, who was born into slavery, freed when New York state finally emancipated its slaves in 1827, qualified as a doctor in Glasgow, and then returned to New York – moving out to Upper Manhattan after his apothecary’s shop was destroyed during the Draft Riots. However, Freeman, unlike Smith, wasn’t freed: he ran away. He does a lot of forensics work for his pal Corcoran, and it’s interesting to see what forensics were like in the 1860s.
Then there’s Robert Morehouse, who’s from a wealthy WASP family, and whose life Freeman, his one-time valet, saved. Quite a bit of the action is set in the Morehouse home, and most of it involves his British wife, who’s very supportive of the black community – the white elite in New York City provided a lot of aid to black people affected by the Draft Riots – and her circle.
It is intended as a crime drama, and people do keep being murdered! But the murders always take us into the complexities of these different communities, and the interactions between them. Sadly, not much is said about the actual war and its causes and effects, although there’s been one interesting argument between Corcoran and Freeman about whether the war was to free slaves or force the seceded states back into the Union. I’m with Freeman on this one: no-one is telling me that the war was fought to free slaves.
It’s not exactly deep and meaningful, but I think it works quite well even so. This isn’t some silly little spoilt snowflake saying that all pictures of white men should be ripped off university walls just purely because they’re of white men, and thinking that that shows how “woke” she is. This is an accurate portrayal of a time and a place, and of how things were in that place at that time. We see that, whilst some of the Morehouses’ friends are of the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” country club sort, the tensions between different groups are arising mainly because of socio-economic conditions. One thing that hasn’t really been gone into is how it’s unscrupulous employers who benefit from this – when the working-classes are divided, it’s far easier to keep wages low and working conditions poor.
There’s a lot of violence. There’s a lot of swearing – the language used is of the time, so it includes the use of words that are now seen as highly offensive but are historically accurate. The N-word is used to describe black people, and Jews are referred to as “Hymies”. It’s not for the faint-hearted. And it’s not the best series ever, but it’s not bad. I’m just sorry that there’s so little of it. Why do TV companies keep scrapping things so quickly?! Mercy Street, The Crimson Field, Home Fires … bring them back, please!!