Blast from the Past: The New York City Draft Riots

By Jacqueline Smith

During the summer of 1863, New York City erupted in violence. July marks the 150th anniversary of the New York City Draft Riots-the largest civil uprising in our nation’s history. From Monday July 13, 1863 until Thursday July 16, 1863 mobs wreaked havoc on the streets of New York, looting stores, attacking police, soldiers, and African American civilians, and setting fire to homes and businesses. Union soldiers had to be called in from Gettysburg to put an end to the chaos.

The riots were sparked by the first federal draft in U.S. history. By 1863 the initial enthusiasm for the Civil War had vanished, and the Union struggled to recruit enough soldiers. Therefore, President Lincoln instituted a draft, which went into effect in New York City on Saturday July 11, 1863. All men between the ages of 20 and 35 (and all unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45) whose names were selected were required by law to serve in the military, unless they paid a three hundred dollar exemption fee. Three hundred dollars might not seem like a lot of money today, but in 1863 it could take the average person an entire year to earn that sum. Many New Yorkers were enraged that the wealthy could buy their way out of military service, while the poor and middle class, and a disproportionate number of immigrants, risked an agonizing death in the war.

Draft Wheel, ca. 1863. Wood, metal. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Frederic C. Wagner, 1865.6

Draft Wheel, ca. 1863. Wood, metal. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Frederic C. Wagner, 1865.6

 This is the only known draft wheel that survived the New York City Draft Riots.  It contained the names of thousands of young men. If a man’s name was selected, he was required to go to war. The draft wheel was a dreaded symbol to many New Yorkers. This object is on view in the Luce center of the New-York Historical Society and is part of the Civil War in 50 Objects exhibition.

On the morning of Monday July 13, rioters unleashed their fury on the Ninth District Draft Office. They stormed the office, and set it aflame. The fire ultimately destroyed an entire city block. The mob also directed its anger at New York’s wealthy population, ransacking and burning mansions along Fifth Avenue. However, the rioters’ primary target was the city’s African American community.

There was a lot of racial tension in New York City during the Civil War. Many poor and immigrant whites, mostly of Irish descent, feared that if slavery ended, more African Americans would move to New York and take their jobs. The draft law brought a lot of simmering racial prejudice against African Americans to the surface. A lot of poor and working class white New Yorkers were afraid that Union victory would put an end to their jobs, so they did not want to fight in the war. They used their fear as an excuse to commit horrific acts of violence against African Americans.

For four days the mob terrorized the city’s African American population, beating and murdering innocent civilians, and destroying their property. The official death toll was 119, and many historians estimate that even more people were killed.

Dr. James McCune Smith, whose life story is featured in the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, was directly impacted by the Draft Riots. Dr. Smith served as the physician at the Colored Orphan Asylum. In one of the most brutal acts of the riots, the mob set the orphan asylum ablaze, with over two hundred children inside. Remarkably, every single child escaped unharmed. However, the building was completely destroyed. Although the orphan asylum was rebuilt, it never regained its prime location on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Street.

 

riot

The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum. Illustrated London News, August 15, 1863, p. 168. New-York Historical Society Library.

The mob prevented the firefighters of Engine Co. No. 18 from extinguishing the fire at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

The Draft Riots took a devastating toll on New York City’s African American community. Many African Americans sought refuge in Brooklyn and New Jersey. As a result of the riots, New York City’s African American population declined by twenty percent.

To learn more about the New York City Draft Riots, visit The Civil War in 50 Objects exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.

 

Sources

Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford

University Press, 1999.

Holzer, Harold and New-York Historical Society. The Civil War in 50 Objects. New York: Penguin

Books, 2013.

Jackson, Kenneth T. ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University

Press, 2010.

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