New York City Draft Riots
Jul 11, 1863 – Jul 16, 1863
Location: Lower Manhattan, New York City
Before the start of the Civil War, New York City had a strong trade relationship with the South. Cotton which was produced in the South was exported by New York merchants to other parts of the world. As one of the city’s major exports cotton produced a great deal of revenue for traders.
When the Civil War began in 1861, some anti-war politicians such as Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, promoted the idea of New York City seceding from the Union to join its Confederate trade partners. The idea did not gain traction as the majority of New Yorkers and thus the city decided to remain loyal to the Union. Yet, while most Northerners supported the Union and the war effort, they were not all necessarily anti-slavery.
Some factions of the Northern anti-war movement played on the fears of job insecurity and competition within the working-class White population. New York City had already established itself as America’s business capital and one of its most populous cities. Housing and income inequality had also already been firmly established. With a population of about 800,000 almost half of the population were immigrants and half of those were Irish. In comparison, only about 12,000 of the city’s residents were Black.
Over 70% of both the city’s workers and domestic servants were Irish. Some parts of Midtown and Uptown Manhattan were still mostly farmland and undeveloped woods as the development of upper Manhattan would not take place until the late 1880s to early 1900s. Thus about 60% of the city’s population was crammed into Lower Manhattan. Working-class White immigrants such as the Irish, Germans, and Jews lived in the same areas as the city’s Black residents which many resented. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, there were several small-scale riots largely instigated by the Irish where Black residents were attacked.
Contrary to what is often cited, the Union effort in the Civil War was not aimed at freeing the enslaved but rather reunification of America. Yet, abolitionists pushed for emancipation as part of a Union victory. As abolitionist Republicans gained support, it resulted in unease among the Democratic Party, especially the pro-slavery faction. To gain support for their platform, the Democratic Party created a campaign of fearmongering. They promoted the idea that if enslaved Black people in the South received their freedom, they would flood into Northern cities in search of jobs which would lead to labor competition.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862 with plans to take effect the following year, it seemed like the Democrats’ warning was coming true. In response, there were protests by both workers and soldiers to not have slavery abolished. As the war continued into 1863, trouble loomed for the Union as a large number of regiments that had served were due leave in May and June. The Union Army faced a potential shortfall if soldiers did not reenlist and there weren’t enough recruits. To avoid a shortfall, The Conscription Act was written to implement a draft.
Split into a primary and reserve class, the draft primarily affected males between the ages of 20 to 45. Men deemed unfit for mental or physical reasons were exempt as were men who were the sole providers for parents or otherwise orphaned children. As the amendments that would extend citizenship for Black men had yet to be written, Black men could volunteer but could not be drafted.
Up to this point enlistment in America’s wars had been voluntary. Men who did not fit into one of the previously mentioned excluded groups could avoid being drafted by paying a $300 fee. As most laborers earned less than $500 per year paying the fee was unaffordable for most. But relatively wealthy men were able to pay their way out of being drafted.
The draft in New York City began on July 11, 1863, and there was little activity at first. But on July 13th, a volunteer firefighter company lit their firehouse on fire. A group consisting of White workers of Irish descent gathered and with the firefighters leading the way began a riot that would continue down 3rd Avenue. The group’s targets initially only included military and government buildings. Attacks on people were limited to those who attempted to intervene. But later in the day, they began to attack Black people and the list of other targets also expanded.
They attacked Black men, women, and children. The Colored Orphan Asylum, an orphanage for Black children, had been established on Fifth Avenue in the lower 40s. It was a financially stable organization located in a large home with food and other resources for the children. The mob attacked the orphanage, stealing whatever they could carry but stopped short of doing physical harm to the children. The school’s management was able to gather the children and led them to the local police precinct where they remained for the next few days.
A major goal of the mob was removing the perceived threat of Black male workers from the city. They attacked White women who were married to or otherwise sexually involved with Black men. Moving to the docks, Black dockworkers and those who were just in the area were beaten. Some were thrown into the river, hanged, and/or mutilated. Housing and other establishments that catered to or merely served Black customers were destroyed and their owners were stripped of their clothing. The homes of abolitionists and wealthy philanthropists were also attacked. It was felt that they were doing a lot for Black people while ignoring the plight of the White working class and poor.
The riot lasted for four days and spread to Brooklyn and Staten Island before being stopped by the local police and the 7th NY Regiment. In the aftermath of the riot, the death toll was reported as 119 people. But the estimated number is believed to have been several more hundred to around 1,000. A more accurate estimate couldn’t be calculated due to some bodies being thrown into the river, lit on fire, or otherwise destroyed. Almost ¼ of the city’s Black residents were left homeless. The riots would result in some Black residents leaving the city while others began a migration further north to the Tenderloin, Murray Hill, San Juan Hill, and then finally Harlem.
Despite the later riots of the 1960s and even the 1992 LA Riots, the New York Draft Riots is still America’s deadliest riot. John Urhardt Andrews was arrested and jailed as a ringleader of the riot. Others were also arrested but he was the only person to be convicted. With soldiers stationed in the city to keep the peace the drafts were later resumed without further incident. The following March, New York City’s first all-Black volunteer regiment marched the streets where the riots had taken place to board their ship.
- Beard, Rick. 2022. “City under Siege: The New York Draft Riots.” Warfare History Network. October 3, 2022.https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/article/city-under-siege-the-new-york-draft-riots/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2022. “Draft Riot of 1863.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. July 4, 2022.https://www.britannica.com/event/Draft-Riot-of-1863.
- Harris, Leslie M. 2003. “The New York City Draft Riots of 1863.” University of Chicago Press. University of Chicago. 2003.https://press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/317749.html&title=The+New+York+City+Draft+Riots+of+1863&desc=.
- History.com Editors. 2022. “New York Draft Riots.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. September 6, 2022.https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/draft-riots.
- “New York City (NYC) Draft Riots of 1863.” n.d. NYCdata. Weissman Center for International Business, Baruch College. Accessed November 2, 2022.https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/disasters/riots-draft.html.
- Nielsen, Euell A. 2022. “The New York City Draft Riots (1863).” Blackpast.org. July 11, 2022.https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/new-york-city-draft-riots-1863/.
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