The New York Draft Riots

On July 13, 1863, the Draft Riots in New York began on the East Side of New York City. Many historians claim that the riots were the second largest civil insurrection in all of American history, the American Civil War itself being the largest.

How did it come to this?

In March of 1863, the Enrollment Act of Conscription dictated that all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35, and all single men between the ages of 35 and 45 would required to register for the draft. The federal law decreed that all of these men would be entered into a lottery and were subject to being drafted into military duty. Black men were exempt, as they were not citizens, and those with money could hire a substitute to fight in their stead or pay the federal government a "commutation fee" of $300 to be exempt. The working class New Yorkers, who by and large could not afford to buy their way out of the draft, found it grossly unfair. The anti-war newspapers published editorials, and the agitation of the white working class began to simmer.

On July 11, as the news about the more than 51,000 men killed at Gettysburg began to filter in, the first lottery was held, and all seemed to be going well. But early in the morning of the 13th, the anger boiled over in New York, and the result was a 5-day spree of violence on the East Side which would be known as the Civil War Draft Riots.

At around 10:00 that morning, a mob of about 500 people led by the firefighters of the Black Joke Engine Company 33 descended upon the place where the lottery was taking place. They threw rocks through the windows and then rushed the door. They set the building on fire.They cut telegraph wires and looted establishments as they moved, collecting weapons and other goodies. The mob, largely Irish laborers whose anger was fueled not just by the draft, but also by the economic conditions which they felt would pit emancipated slaves against them for jobs, started out targeting only military and government buildings, and the only people who were attacked were those who tried to stop the actions of the rioters. They also attacked people and establishments who were wealthy or perceived to be Republican, including Horace Greeley's New York Tribune office and the Brooks Brothers store, which had a contract to provide uniforms to the Union Army.

By the end of the first day, the riots had turned racial in some quarters, with black people and things which symbolized black economic and political power became targets. The mob was made up of a reported 50,000 angry men, women, and children, armed with bats, clubs, and anything else they had grabbed in their fury.

The New York State Militia had been sent to Pennsylvania to assist the Union Army at Gettysburg, and so only a skeleton crew from the police department was left to contend with the riots. Those who responded were beaten bloody, and some were killed. A black street vendor and a black child were the first to be attacked, and then the mob moved to the four-story Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, where 233 children were living. The Mayor's residence, armory, and several police departments had been torched, and police battled rioters in the streets.

At 4:00 that afternoon, the mob broke into the orphanage and looted the food, clothes, and even the bedding before setting fire to the building. The children were led out of the building and were, by some miracle, not attacked as they evacuated, but twenty minutes after the fire had been set, the building had burned to the ground. An Irishman in the crowd shouted out "If there is a man among you with a heart within him, come and help these poor children!" The crowd turned on him, beating him to a pulp. For the duration of the riot, the mob attacked -- and all too often killed -- not just blacks, but the non-blacks who tried to support them.

They attacked more than 200 black men who worked on the docks, as well as some of the men who employed them, and then they broke off into groups who branched out in different directions to cause bedlam and mayhem. They destroyed dance halls, boarding houses, and tenements which did business with blacks, and they stripped and beat the owners of those businesses. They hanged and then burned the body of one black man on the waterfront and threw bodies as well as live victims into the river, and others were killed with knives, stones, and fists, and no one intervened.

By the fifth day, when it was all said and done, eleven men had been hanged and hundreds had fled the city for their lives. Landlords and employers refused to house or employ blacks for fear of more violence.

As a side note, the insurrection was featured in the movie "Gangs of New York," with Leonardo DiCaprio. In that movie, the gangs were about to fight when the riots broke out. The depiction of the cannon fire from Union naval ships is what happened in real life when the military attempted to quell the riots. The cannon was fired into the the crowd and people were indeed killed by it.

Eventually, President Lincoln deployed more than 4,000 federal troops, many of whom had been summoned directly from Gettysburg in that battle's aftermath, to restore order. They remained in the city for several weeks. In the end, the draft raised only about 150,000 troops throughout the North, with three-quarters of them being substitutes. This made up just 20% of the total Union army.

Reports vary, but between 50 and 150 people were killed, eleven of them lynched. At least 2,000 people were injured, and more than $1.5 million dollars of damage were done. Fifty buildings were burned to the ground.

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For more information about the New York Draft Riots:

CUNY: NY Draft Riots

Civil War Home: New York City Draft Riots, including reports from the "Official Records of the War of the Rebellion."

New York Public Library Digital Gallery: Draft Riots