In 1846 New York, “Priest” Vallon is watched by his young son as he prepares to lead his gang of Irish immigrants, known as the Dead Rabbits, into battle against a gang of “Nativist” Americans. The Nativists are led by the bloodthirsty Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, who hopes to oust the Irish from the “Five Points” area of New York City, which he believes should remain under the control of native-born Americans. Priest is determined to obtain a peaceful existence for the immigrants, who have been harrassed by the Nativists and live in slum-like conditions. During the battle, which the Nativists win, Bill mortally wounds Priest, and his son rushes to his side. At Priest’s request, Bill delivers the final blow, then orders his men to apprehend the crying child and send him to an orphanage. Sixteen years later, after living at the Hellgate House of Reform, Priest’s son, now a sturdy young man, is released and returns to “Paradise Square” in the Five Points. Although he tries to conceal his identity, he is recognized by Johnny Sirocco, who attempted to help him escape after Priest was killed. Johnny, who now must pay tribute to Bill, along with the other Irish gang members, entices his friend into entering a burning house to loot it, and he saves Johnny’s life by dragging him from the collapsing building. As he is exiting, young Vallon is devastated to see Bill, who is there with Tammany Hall politician William Marcy “Boss” Tweed and other volunteer firefighters. The young Irishman soon learns that New York is a city divided, with rampant political corruption, mostly controlled by Bill and Tweed. Bill despises the immigrants, although Tweed tries to persuade him that they, and their votes, are New York’s future. Later, when Johnny takes young Vallon to meet Bill, the Irishman introduces himself simply as “Amsterdam,” and Bill does not recognize him as Priest’s son. Wanting to test the youths, Bill then sends them to rob a boat quarantined in the harbor. Upon arriving at the boat, Amsterdam and his men discover that a rival gang has stripped the vessel and killed the crew, but the enterprising Amsterdam takes a body and sells it to a medical school. Impressed by Amsterdam’s ingenuity, fighting skills and education, Bill embraces him as his protégé, little suspecting that the younger man intends to kill him during the annual commemoration of his defeat of Priest. As time passes, Amsterdam becomes attached to the charismatic Bill, despite his desire for revenge, and even learns from Bill, who enjoys butchering meat, how to use a knife for the most effective kill or devastating wound. Amsterdam also finds himself attracted to Jenny Everdeane, an independent Irish pickpocket who has an enigmatic connection to Bill. One day, Tweed and Bill decide that in order to stem growing concern on the part of well-to-do reformers, four men should be hanged in the Five Points to prove that law and order still prevails. At the hanging, Amsterdam is deeply moved by the sight of a young boy watching his father die. That night, Jenny chooses Amsterdam to dance at an event sponsored by the Protestant mission. Later, they are outside making love when Amsterdam notices a long scar on Jenny’s belly, which she explains came when a baby was cut out of her. Amsterdam also spots a locket he knows was purchased by Bill, and when Jenny refuses to explain why Bill gave it to her, the young Irishman angrily rejects her. Soon after, Amsterdam and Bill attend a presentation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , and the racist Bill, who loathes Lincoln and the Union cause, leads the audience in throwing vegetables at the actors. Suddenly, someone shoots Bill in the shoulder, but Amsterdam, almost despite himself, saves Bill from serious harm and captures the assailant. That night, after a party celebrating Bill’s survival, Amsterdam finds that he can no longer fight his attraction to Jenny, and the couple give in to their feelings for each other. Amsterdam is awakened by a restless Bill, who relates how he once fought Priest in a ferocious fistfight. Although he was clearly the winner, Priest did not kill Bill, who could not look him in the eye out of shame. Bill then cut out his own left eye and sent it to Priest, whom he calls “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.” After Bill departs, Jenny explains to Amsterdam that Bill took her in when she was a homeless twelve-year-old, but that after she became pregnant by him and her baby was cut out, he was no longer romantically interested in her. Although Jenny emphasizes that Bill never touched her until she asked him to, Amsterdam is still distressed. On the night of the sixteenth anniversary of Bill’s victory over Priest, Johnny, who is jealous that Jenny chose Amsterdam over him, reveals to Bill Amsterdam’s identity and plans for revenge. At the celebration, Bill taunts Amsterdam by almost killing Jenny during a display of knife throwing, then, when the young man attempts to murder him, overcomes him. Bill does not kill Amsterdam, however, preferring to scar his face and force him to live with the shame of his defeat. Undeterred, and spurred on by Walter “Monk” McGinn, who fought with his father, Amsterdam revives the Dead Rabbits. Bill sends Happy Jack Mulranney, once a member of the Dead Rabbits but now a policeman, to murder Amsterdam, but instead Amsterdam kills him and strings him up in the square as a warning to Bill. In return, Bill tortures Johnny, who had confessed his betrayal to Amsterdam, and Amsterdam is forced to kill Johnny to end his suffering. Realizing how influential Amsterdam is becoming, Tweed approaches him, offering to ally with him against Bill if he will rally the Irish to vote for Tammany. Amsterdam agrees to the deal, providing that Tweed backs Monk in the upcoming election for sheriff. With Tweed and Amsterdam’s support, Monk wins, much to the chagrin of Bill. Bill attempts to challenge Monk to a duel, but when Monk publicly declines, embarrassing Bill, Bill murders him in cold blood. As Monk’s body is carried through the Five Points, Amsterdam challenges Bill to a fight to determine control of the territory. Meanwhile, the first draft is instituted by the Union, which desperately needs soldiers. The poorer citizens of New York are outraged by an exemption to the draft, allowing those who can pay three hundred dollars to be released from their obligations. On the day the first draftees are called, a small riot breaks out, but wealthy New Yorkers believe that it will be short-lived. The poor continue to organize the next day, however, while Amsterdam, Bill and their men prepare to fight. Jenny, who has decided to escape the bloodshed by moving to San Francisco, is caught up in the riots as people swarm the streets, attacking blacks, police and the rich. Just as the battle in the Five Points is beginning, Union soldiers enter the city and ships in the harbor begin shelling the area. Many of the gang members are killed by the shelling, although Amsterdam and Bill continue to fight. Finally, Bill is wounded by a shell fragment, and the two men kneel in the blood-covered street. Surveying the damage to the square, Bill states, “Thank God I die a true American,” and the infuriated Amsterdam kills him with the knife Bill used to slay his father. Jenny makes her way back to the Five Points and finds Amsterdam, and the couple survives the next four days and nights, during which the riots are quelled. Eventually, Bill is buried next to Priest, and as New York City continues to grow and change, their graves deteriorate and are forgotten.