This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we take a look at a significant but often overlooked event during the Civil War, the Draft Riots of July 1863. Protests against drafting men into the Union Army broke out in many places, but the worst occurred in New York City. For four days rampaging crowds tore the city apart, destroying property and leading to the deaths of more than 100 people, including 11 African Americans who were lynched. To this day, the Draft Riots remain the largest civil uprising in US history.
Feature Story: The Civil War Draft Riots
On July 13, 1863 – 157 years ago this week – the streets of New York exploded in a violent episode known as the Draft Riots. It lasted four days and claimed the lives of more than one hundred people and destroyed millions of dollars in property – all while the Union struggled to defeat the Confederacy on the battlefield. The event terrified northerners, many of whom were convinced that it was the result of a Confederate plot, and it prompted the Lincoln administration to rush thousands of troops from the battlefield at Gettysburg to NYC. To this day, the Draft Riots remain the greatest civil uprising in American history.
At the outset of the Civil War in 1861, no one in the North or South could have imagined that there would ever be a shortage of volunteers that would necessitate a military draft. Union and Confederate Army recruiting stations were overwhelmed by men eager to join the fight. Few men on either side expected the war to last more than a few weeks.
But subsequent events made clear just how unrealistic these hopes were. Beset by a series of incompetent generals and a host of other problems, the Union’s Army of the Potomac in the east performed poorly in the field. By mid-1862 it was clear that the war would be long and very, very bloody. Later that year, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which effectively announced the abolition of slavery. Lincoln had deemed emancipation necessary to win the war, but it also produced intense opposition among certain groups of northerners. War weariness, not to mention anti-war sentiment rose in the North and soon Union Army recruiting stations were empty. If Lincoln was to make good on his promise to preserve the Union at all costs, a second drastic measure was needed.
In March of 1863 Congress passed the Conscription Act (the first in U.S. history) which declared all male citizens (and immigrants who had applied for citizenship) aged 20-45 eligible to be drafted into the Union Army. If drafted, a man had several options short of serving in the Union Army. He could pay a “commutation fee” of $300 to the government; or he could hire a substitute to serve in his place; or he could disappear – something that more than twenty percent of draftees did.
The draft, like emancipation, proved intensely controversial. Some protesters denounced the draft as an affront to democratic liberty. Others focused on what they termed its “aristocratic” provisions that allowed the wealthy to buy their way out of service (the $300 commutation fee exceeded the annual income of many poor laborers). More and more, they argued, it was becoming “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
The draft also incited anger among those northerners, principally Democrats, who initially had been willing to support a war to preserve the Union, but who now balked at fighting a war for emancipation. Many politicians in the years before the war had used the issue of emancipation and the specter of cheap African American labor flooding northern cities to rally urban workers — especially the Irish — to the Democratic Party. The message to the Irish was clear: if you think it’s tough to earn a living now, just wait until you have to compete with hundreds of thousands of black workers willing to work for less money. It was an opportunistic message of fear that ignored the fact that for the past thirty years it had been Irish immigrants who had taken jobs from free blacks living in northern cities. Nonetheless, it stoked racist animosity among the Irish and other poor white workers.
When the draft began in July 1863, opposition to it turned violent. Violence broke out in Boston, Troy, New York, Wooster, Ohio, Portsmouth, New Hampshire and other cities. The worst incidents of anti-draft violence, of course, occurred in New York City. The first day of the draft, Saturday July 11, resulted in 1,236 names drawn. Despite grumblings and rumors of protest, it ended without incident. The plan was to resume the draft on Monday morning. Discontent among working-class New Yorkers was palpable Saturday night and on Sunday (when no draft was held) as people pored over the lists and found names of men they knew. Conspicuously absent were the names of any wealthy or prominent New Yorker. The mood in the city’s working-class tenement districts grew ugly by Sunday night.
Signs that there would be trouble when the draft resumed emerged early Monday morning when crowds of workers – among them a large percentage of Irish immigrants and Irish Americans – formed and began moving north towards the draft office at East 46th Street and Third Ave. And the weather was hot and humid — prime conditions, sociologists assert, for a riot.
By the time the draft office opened, an angry crowd of five thousand had gathered in the surrounding streets. Moments after the first names were drawn, the crowd stormed the office, destroyed the lottery wheel used to draw names, and set the building on fire. The riot was on.
The violence at the draft office at East 46th Street quickly spread throughout the city. To stymie efforts to restore order, crowds built barricades, tore up streetcar tracks, and cut telegraph lines.
As in most riots, the crowds that coursed through the streets did not engage in purely random acts of violence. Instead, they focused on very carefully chosen targets that symbolized their grievances. Anything associated with the Union Army came under attack, including recruiting stations and draft offices. Rioters also attacked anything associated with the Republican party – which they viewed as the party of war, emancipation, and the draft. Both the New York Times and Tribune, staunchly pro-Republican and pro-war papers (not to mention pro-emancipation), were attacked several times. In addition, rioters attacked the wealthy – people they derided as “three hundred dollar men” — who were able to buy their way out of the draft. Mansions on Fifth Avenue were sacked and burned, as was the Brooks Brothers store. Rioters also took out their anger on local symbols of authority, most especially members of the New York Police Department.
And rioters also assaulted and killed African-Americans. One of the first institutions attacked was the Colored Orphans Asylum, located near the present-day New York Public Library on 42nd Street. Rioters burned it to the ground, but amazingly none of the children or staff inside was killed. Other African Americans, however, were not so fortunate. At least eleven blacks were lynched by rioters. Many of these lynchings included particularly savage acts, including burning and dismemberment.
One of the reasons the rioting escalated and spread so quickly was that New York City had only a minor military presence made up primarily of injured soldiers recovering from their wounds. When they turned out to quell the violence, they were quickly scattered by the much larger mob. Squads of police were likewise attacked and driven away. With the mob in control of the streets of the Union’s largest city, officials sent frantic telegrams to Washington, DC pleading for troops.
Late Monday night the heavens opened up and the city was deluged with a most welcomed downpour. The rain extinguished most of the fires and prevented a much larger conflagration from developing. It also drove the rioters indoors for the night. City officials hoped the relatively peaceful night meant the riot was over.
But Tuesday morning brought more steamy weather and renewed rioting. Again, African Americans, Republicans, soldiers, policemen and the wealthy came under attack. But increasingly the original focus of the rioting — protest against a class-biased draft and a war for emancipation – had expanded to include widespread looting and score settling by the city’s poor and marginalized underclass who seized on the riot as an opportunity to vent their rage at a system they viewed as oppressive and unjust — not unlike the rioting we’ve witnessed in 2020.
On Wednesday, day 3 of the riots, the tide began to turn as the first of several thousand troops arrived fresh from the smoldering fields of Gettysburg. All day Wednesday and Thursday, they stormed the rioters’ strongholds using howitzers loaded with grape shot to mow down the crowd. In some neighborhoods they engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat as they moved building to building. By now the police had also regrouped and began to retake streets and make arrests.
By Thursday night the violence ceased and it appeared the riot might be over. When the sun rose on Friday morning, July 17, New York City awoke wondering if the Draft Riots would resume. But all was quiet, except for a steady procession of people to the midtown residence of Archbishop John Hughes, the leader of the city’s Irish Catholics. In handbills distributed all across the city the day before, he announced that he would address the crowd from the balcony outside his residence. Hughes delivered a message that expressed sympathy with the rioter’s grievances, but urged them to cease the violence. The reputation of the Irish in America, he said, was at stake. When he concluded, the crowd broke up and went home without incident. The Draft Riots were over.
In the aftermath of the riot, city officials tallied up the damage and death toll. One hundred buildings lay in ashes, part of more than five million dollars in property destroyed. Of the hundreds arrested for their role in the riot, only sixty-seven were convicted at trial. None were the primary instigators and rabble-rousers and they received sentences that averaged five years in jail.
As for the number killed, some early estimates ranged from several hundred to several thousand. These exaggerated figures were clearly the result of the shock and horror produced by the riot. As well as anti-Irish sentiment. But the most accurate assessment of the riot’s death toll, one based on a close reading of the press and death certificates, put the total at 119.
Among those killed were at least eleven African Americans. The racial pogrom aspect of the riot led more than half the city’s black residents to flee. It would be years before the city’s black population returned to its pre-war level.
Not surprisingly, the city’s Irish population came in for harsh condemnation in the wake of the riot. A seething voice of indignation emanated from pulpit, meeting hall, and editorial page denounced the Irish for engaging in a treasonous riot against the government as it struggled to win a civil war. These critics ignored the fact that many of the rioters were German immigrants and German Americans, not to mention men of American birth. They also ignored the fact that many Irish soldiers, policemen, and priests helped stop the rioting.
But there still was a war to win, so city and state officials came up with a plan that eliminated the draft as a source of social unrest. They appropriated two million dollars to pay the commutation fee of any man who was drafted who did not want to serve. When the draft resumed on August 19, there was no violence.
Because there was a war that had to be won, New Yorkers and Americans in general did their best to forget about the Draft Riots. This became even easier once the war ended in Union victory. No one wanted to be reminded that the path to victory had been marred by disunity, protest, and violence. But the Draft Riots never quite disappeared from public consciousness, especially among America’s wealthy citizens, who viewed it as a nightmarish spectacle of social unrest that haunted their minds for several generations. For Irish Americans, their widely publicized role in the riots remained a black mark on their collective reputation for decades to come. For African Americans, the Draft Riots endured as a harrowing reminder of the depths of racial animosity in American life. It was not the first incident of massive anti-black violence and it would not be the last.
Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford, 1990).
Barnet Schecter, The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America (Walker, 2005).
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)
Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)
Squire Tuck, “Nuthin’ Without You” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive)
The Rosen Sisters, “Gravel Walk” (Free Music Archive)
Soularflair, “Emotive Beautiful Irish Feel Gala” (Free Music Archive)
Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Breakthrough” (Free Music Archive)
Cuicuitte, “sultan cintr” (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
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