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George Washington Walling - Policing A Riot And Earning Respect

police city riots draft

The Metropolitan police district was without a superintendent and communication lines had been cut off throughout the city. Authorities began mobilizing larger units of several hundred police to control troubled areas. By midafternoon the rioters had divided into those who had gathered for antidraft protesting and those who were inclined to looting, arson, and murder. After Monday the crowds turned increasingly violent toward the black community. Some associated blacks with slavery and slavery to the war, somehow making blacks responsible for the draft and the easiest target to lash out at. Blacks bore the brunt of much of the bloody violence.

With the police rising to the occasion, Walling and his patrols protected factories used for the manufacture or storage of weapons. They dispersed gangs of looters and cleared barricades off of city streets in preparation for the anticipated arrival of military help. On Wednesday, Union troops were transported to the city to restore order. The combination of troops and police collapsed the rebellion and the riots were over. Troops remained in the city for several weeks but only pockets of resistance remained.

Illustration of the 1863 draft riots in New York City. (© Bettmann/Corbis)

Walling was regarded as one of the heroes of the West Side forces for his part in the draft riots. He was elevated to the rank of police inspector, and eight years later he drew on his former experiences to contain a labor strike in 1871. The strike showed many of the same elements of the laborers' uprising of 1863, but it lacked the brutal racial assaults of the draft riots. Violence threatened again the following year and it was only the appearance of Inspector Walling that prevented a physical confrontation between the two sides of the strike.

On July 23, 1874, Walling was named chief of police for New York City. His wife, Sarah Bennett Walling, died several months later on November 25. Walling remained in his position as police chief until June 9, 1885. Walling held a dim view of politicians and included these reflections in his 1887 memoirs. He promoted removal of political control from the police. Since formation of the department earlier in the century, patrolmen were generally appointed through political influence.

Walling argued that the failings of the police department could be traced to the democratic process (public election of public officials) where the vote and the dollar kept a cop from honest performance of his duty. Walling died in 1891 and was buried at the family burial ground, known as Miller Avenue Cemetery in New Jersey.

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