The 1863 New York Draft Riots
The violent draft riots that took place in New York City from July 13 to July 16, 1863 were a direct result of the national conscription laws that were instituted by the United States in 1863. They are the only violent mass protest of conscription laws in the history of the United States, unless one considers the draft-card burning of the 1960s (which were not very violent).
Although a vast majority of the 2,100,000 men who served in the Union Army were volunteers, about 2% were draftees while another 6& were paid substitutes. As the war went on, the Union Army needed greater manpower as their armies captured and held an increasingly larger area of the Confederacy.
The Confederate government instituted their first conscription act in April of 1862. They were followed by the U.S. government, which instituted the Militia Act of 1862. Neither law was as successful as the respective governments intended them to be. The Union law was for a militia draft within a state when it could not meet its quota with volunteers, while the Confederate law was similar.
The following year, the U.S. Congress passed the Enrollment Act, the first genuine national conscription law, setting up under the Union Army an elaborate machinery for enrolling and drafting men between twenty and forty-five years of age. Quotas were assigned in each state, the deficiencies in volunteers required to be met by conscription.
The New York draft riots were caused by a number of circumstances. The Irish and German immigrants were opposed to the draft as they struggled to make new lives in a new country. There was a competition between the immigrants and the freed blacks for jobs. This class and racial conflict was stoked by the extremely hot temperatures in New York City during the month of July 1863.
On July 11th, the first names were selected in the draft. This exercise went off without incident. Simultaneously, the Tammany Hall political machine was attempting to enroll Irish immigrants, who already spoke English, as U.S. citizens so they could vote in local elections. These men soon learned that they were expected to fight for their new country.
The situation, two days later, was the direct opposite. A mob of approximately 500 men, led by Black Joke Engine Company 33, attacked the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street. The draft was taking place at this location and the mob set the office on fire. Many of the rioters were Irish immigrants who neither wanted to join the army or compete with freed blacks for jobs.
The New York State militia had been sent to join the Union Army at Gettysburg, so the police force was mobilized to quell the violence. The police chief was beaten unconscious by the mob and the outnumbered police were unable to stop the rioters. They were, however, able to keep the rioting out of Lower Manhattan, south of Union Square.
The Bull’s Head Hotel was burned, as was the mayor’s residence on Fifth Avenue, the Eighth and Fifth District police stations, and other buildings. Other targets included the office of the leading Republican newspaper, the New York Tribune. The Tribune staff was able to turn back the mob with the aid of two Gatling guns.
The response by volunteer fire companies was mixed, as they too had been subject to the draft on the previous Saturday. The first fatality occurred when police shot a rioter at the Armory at Second Avenue and 21st Street. The rioting turned racial when the mob attacked any blacks that were on the streets. The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, was attacked by the mob but police were able to hold them off long enough for the orphans to escape.
That night a heavy rain fell on the city but the mobs returned the following morning, Tuesday, July 14th. The mobs attacked the homes of prominent Republicans during the day. Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat opponent of Lincoln, arrived at City Hall and proclaimed that the conscription act was unconstitutional.
General John E. Wool, the commander of the Department of the East, brought approximately 800 troops in from forts in the New York Harbor and from West Point. He also ordered the militias to return to New York.
By the following day, the situation began to improve. The draft was temporarily suspended by order of the provost marshal general. Some of the members of the mob stayed in their homes as this news was announced. The returning militias began to use harsher measures against the remaining rioters.
Some federal troops returned to New York, including the 152nd New York Volunteers, the 26th Michigan Volunteers, the 30th Indiana Volunteers and the 7th Regiment New York State Militia from Frederick, Maryland, after a forced march. In addition, the governor sent in the 74th and 65th regiments of the New York state militia, which had not been in federal service, and a section of the 20th Independent Battery, New York Volunteer Artillery from Fort Schuyler in Throgs Neck. The New York State militia units were the first to arrive. By July 16, there were several thousand Federal troops in the city.
A final violence occurred on Thursday evening near Gramercy Park. According to Adrian Cook’s analysis in his Armies of the Streets, twelve people died on the last day of the riots in skirmishes between rioters and the police and the army, including one African-American, two soldiers, a bystander and two women.
The total death toll is unknown but according to historians at least 120 civilians were killed. Herbert Asbury, the author of the 1928 book Gangs of New York, puts the figure much higher, at 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded. At least eleven black men were lynched. The most reliable estimates also indicate that at least 2,000 people were injured. Total property damage was somewhere between $1 and $5 million. Fifty buildings, including two Protestant churches, burned to the ground.
On August 19, the draft was resumed. It was completed within 10 days without further incident, although far fewer men were actually drafted than had been feared: of the 750,000 selected for conscription nationwide, only about 45,000 actually went into service.