Draft Riot of 1863

In 1863 the United States was far from united. The country was two years into the Civil War, and the casualties were mounting. With fewer men enlisting and more men deserting duty, the need for soldiers was steadily increasing. The government turned to mandatory military service as a means of boosting their falling numbers and failing morale. On March 3, 1863 President Lincoln signed The Enrollment Act, which required all male citizens between the ages of twenty and forty-five to enroll for possible military service. Across the country, the act was immediately unpopular and sparked many demonstrations in protest of the new law. None of these demonstrations compared to the violent response in New York City.1 Demonstrations in New York City came to a head on July 13, 1863 when the United States put into effect its first effort at enforcing conscription. The government created a Federal Draft Bureau and assigned a Provost Marshal to the task of draft enforcement.2The draft was conducted by random lottery, while police and military stood by to ensure those picked followed through on their civic duty.


However, not all men submitted quietly to this request. Although riots broke out in many major cities in the north, the riots in New York City were arguably the most violent and the most notable, resulting in the burning of buildings and lynching. The New York Riots of 1863 lasted over four days, and by some accounts left over a thousand killed or injured, and left over a million dollars in property damage.

New York City was a center for both Abolitionist and Anti-abolitionist activity. The city also found itself in a unique position at the time of the riots. Because of its strong commercial ties to the South, the city harbored many Confederate sympathizers.3 Aside from those with commercial interests, there were other groups unhappy with the effects of the war. Wartime inflation hit the immigrant and working class communities hard and began to cause tensions over fears that total emancipation would result in less jobs for them. The largely Irish immigrant community felt their jobs and wages were at risk and they feared that they would be lost when they were drafted since African Americans were not conscripted. This panic only furthered the already growing tensions between the two communities.4

In addition to this, the Conscription Act had a clause that allowed wealthy men to pay their way out of being drafted for $300. It was supposed to be aimed at giving men a 'fair chance' to buy out of the draft, but resulted in further heightening tensions between the immigrant and working class communities and the wealthy. Another policy allowed someone to pay for a substitute to take their place.5 As a result of these draft policies, a man who looked wealthy could be an expected target of attack. According to "The New York Draft Riots of 1863: An Irish Civil War?" by Tobey Joyce the mobs would shout things such as "Down with the rich!" or there is a $300 man!"before they would attack.6


These mounting tensions exploded on July 13, 1863 at a New York City draft office. The riot began at the Provost Marshall's office on Third Avenue, where the draft lottery was being held. First the crowd burned the office to the ground. Then they beat any police who attempted to stop their rampage and cut telegraph lines. They set fire to many nearby buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, and looted the houses of the wealthy7. These riots were not merely an outburst by men who did not want to go to war. It was clear the rioters, who were mainly white male Irish immigrants, targeted the wealthy and African Americans because they resented them for their ability to pay their way out of, or avoid the draft entirely. By mid day on July 13 the police had completely lost control of the crowd, which was now reaching numbers in the thousands.8. According to Sanford, matters were made worse by the sympathies of the firefighters, who refused to put out the mob's fires.9. Some speculate that the firefighters acted this way largely because they resented not being exempt from the draft in return for their services.10. The city found itself at a near standstill. With the exception of the rioters, the normally busy town was deserted.In a first hand account, John Torrey explains that in his commute home to protect his servants he could not go near third of sixth avenue because all traffic had stopped and fourth avenue was filled with rioters11 Torrey noted that it was strange that on Broadway there were so few people and shops were closed.12

Despite the fact that the draft had been suspended on June 14 or 15 in New York, things did not quiet down. In fact, the mobs grew more violent and looters and delinquents joined the angry group.On day three the military finally arrived to begin regaining order, but it was not until day four of the riot that things calmed down. Even with military presence the riots remained violent. Mobs injured many militia men, and in return the military had to open fire, killing rioters.

Although the draft sparked the riot, it quickly became a race issue. Because the rioters felt African Americas were responsible for the war, African Americans fell pray to mobs more than any other group. The mobs attacked innocent African Americas chasing them "as a hound would chase a fox."13Abolitionists were also subject to ridicule and attack. One example of this was the burning of the residence of Horace Greeley, a well known Abolitionist along with the attempt to destroy the offices of his Republican newspaper, The New York Tribune.


The mobs felt that the Civil War was a fight against slavery, and if slavery were to end then the black population would move north and cause more job competition.14 So any African American or supporters to the end of slavery were direct enemies to the mob members' livelihood. Lynch mobs strung up any African American man they saw, resulting in 12 deaths. By the second day of the violence many blacks decided simply to go into hiding rather than risk going into public.

While the riots affected much of Manhattan, Greenwich Village and the surrounding area played a major role for several reasons. According to a map in Joyce's article there were instances of violence in the areas of Houston Street, Canal Street, Greenwich Ave, and Broadway (View New York Draft Riots Map).15 One well documented example of this violence is the story of William Jones. Jones, an African American man, was walking home in Greenwich Village when a mob attacked. They hung him and set his feet on fire. Greenwich was also important in the aftermath of the riots, because there was a military encampment in Washington Square. The military remained as a presence for the remainder of the summer in case of more violent outbreaks, but there was little violence after the initial four day riot. Today the riot is remembered as one of the most severe examples of civil unrest in United States history. More recently the events, especially their tie with the Irish immigrant community, has been immortalized in the movie Gangs of New York, so it can be forever remembered as the bloodiest time in New York History.

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