Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York
reviewed by Deb Houdek Rule for Civil War St. Louis

What, you might well ask, has the movie “Gangs of New York” to do with the Civil War in St. Louis? On the surface, very little, but in the undercurrents and background scenes, a fair bit.

“Gangs of New York” covers the history of the Irish immigrant gangs in New York City starting in the 1840s and culminating with the New York Draft Riots of the summer of 1863. It’s in the Draft Riots that the connection to Civil War St. Louis lies. Many historians place Confederate secret service operatives behind the Draft Riots, and, in our own research, we’ve found the hand of Missouri/St. Louis agents. It would take thousands of words and hundreds of footnotes to document this connection (and this material will be published by and by) as it’s part a puzzle involving Confederate secret service operations focused from Missouri and Kentucky that exists in scattered fragments of information and documentation. For now, bear in mind that the reason we went to see “Gangs of New York” is that a St. Louis Confederate courier en route from Richmond to Canada made a stop in New York shortly before the Draft Riots began. This same agent’s stop in Philadelphia immediately preceded the most violent draft resistance in that city, too. Coupled with this is the participation of Missouri agents (documented by a number of noted historians) in the attempted burning of New York. These stories aren’t told in the movie, but keep them in mind as you watch–Missouri Confederate hands were at work behind the scenes in the events at the climax of the movie. It was in the scenarios and settings shown in the movie that these agents operated.

The movie, itself, is an odd but interesting look at the Irish gangs and their battles with the native Americans. As the movie enters the Civil War years, there are a number of intriguing scenes. A particularly notable one shows the arriving Irish immigrants being enlisted into the U. S. Army right on the docks as they step down from the ship, to be sworn in, handed a gun, and put right back on a troop transport headed south without their ever having actually set foot on American soil. The draft and the payment of substitutes is also dealt with, with the growing anger of the poor who can’t buy their way out of the war.

In its structure, the movie is rather peculiar. In the scenes of this gang-infested area of New York we see a number of African-Americans intertwined with the predominantly white Irish residents. There seems to be a peaceful co-existence between the races. And, too, there’s a young black man who’s a respected member of one of the Irish gangs. Then–whammy–comes the Draft Riots with its mass murders and lynchings of blacks in New York. These horrific events did happen; are historically documented. Yet, in the context of the movie, they come completely out of the blue with no established motivation whatsoever.

The ending, structurally, is extremely odd. The entire movie is building toward the confrontation between the two main adversaries, William Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon–played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio. They reach their moment where their fate, and the fate of the movie’s plot, will be decided and boom, in a weird moment of deus ex machina everything is taken out of their hands and decided by the beginning of the Draft Riots. While the Draft Riots–which were well done–were the part we were actually interested in seeing from the start of the movie, it really had nothing to do with the entire preceding two hours of movie plot.

“Gangs of New York” is certainly a high-quality movie. The acting is very solid. The sets and effects are excellent, creating a strong visual look to every scene. The story, for the most part, held my attention though it was somewhat long and dragged at times despite the continual graphic violence. As entertainment I’d have to give it mixed results–if it’s a subject in which you’re interested, or if you share our historical interest in this point of 1863 history, it’s worth seeing.