During the summer of 1863, New York City erupted in violence. July marks the 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.
Draftees were chosen through a lottery. The image above is of the only known “draft wheel” to have survived the mob violence. This wheel contained the names of thousands of potential draftees in the 7th Congressional District, which included the 11th and 17th Wards of New York City (the East Side below 14th Street and above Rivington Street). The wheel was turned and cards with names were pulled out. If a man’s name was selected, he was required to go to war unless he could pay the substitution fee. The draft wheel was a dreaded symbol to many New Yorkers. This one wheel was saved with hundreds of draft cards still inside it. It is currently on view in the Luce Center of the New-York Historical Society.
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. Rioters also stole much of the furniture and belongings of the children who lived in the asylum. In the image below, you can see rioters walking away from the burning orphanage with beds, mattresses and trunks. Though the Asylum’s inhabitants all thankfully survived, one can only imagine the trauma they felt and the hardship of rebuilding their lives when most of their few possessions had been taken.
One object did make it through the blaze at the Colored Orphan Asylum: a singed but intact bible. This precious artifact is also on view in the Museum’s Luce Center right near the Draft Wheel.
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 Luce Center on the 4th floor of the Museum. You can also read another blog post to learn more about the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum from our Behind the Stacks blog, here.
Written by Jacqueline Smith
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.