July 15, 1863 – Rioting over Federal conscription entered its third day, leaving New York City in the hands of a violent, angry mob.
The first enforced Federal military draft began in accordance with the Enrollment Act passed in March. In major northern cities, the names of men eligible for the draft were placed in wheels and randomly drawn until quotas were met. The notion of being forced into the military added to growing northern resentment of both the war and the Lincoln administration.
That resentment was especially strong in New York, one of the few northern states dominated by anti-administration politicians. Governor Horatio Seymour loudly denounced President Abraham Lincoln’s unconstitutional attacks on civil liberties, and New York City, the largest in the North, was led by an anti-administration mayor. Of the city’s major newspapers, the World and the Journal of Commerce were openly hostile to Lincoln, and the Herald was often critical as well. Only the Times and the Tribune tended to favor Lincoln’s handling of the war.
The governor and the mayor did nothing to allay fears among the city’s massive immigrant population that blacks freed by the Emancipation Proclamation could come north and take their jobs while they were being drafted to fight a war they did not support. Especially repulsive to potential draftees was the provision allowing men to hire substitutes or pay $300 to avoid military service.
For two days, Federal officials drew names in New York’s Ninth District Provost Marshal’s office at Third Avenue and 46th Street. Resentment built as those names appeared in city newspapers. Resentment boiled over on the third day, when a predominantly Irish mob attacked the draft office with stones, bricks, clubs, and bats. Officials were beaten, the lottery wheel was destroyed, and the building was burned. Police tried to stop the violence, but they were quickly overwhelmed.
A rampage through the city ensued, resulting in the burning of businesses, hotels, police stations, and the mayor’s home. Over 1,000 rifles were looted from the Second Avenue armory. Rioters burned the ground floor of the Tribune office; employees of the Times used three Gatling guns to keep the mob from destroying their building.
Protestors targeted wealthy-looking men, screaming, “Down with the rich!” and attacking anyone suspected of being “a $300 man.” The mob also attacked businesses where workers had been replaced by automation, such as grain-loading elevators and street sweepers.
Blacks were beaten, tortured, and killed, with rioters “chasing isolated Negroes as hounds would chase a fox.” Several blacks were hanged on lampposts, including a crippled coachman who was also burned as the mob chanted, “Hurrah for Jeff Davis!”The Colored Orphan Asylum was burned, but police saved most of the orphans. Businesses employing blacks were also burned. A heavy rain helped extinguish the fires, but the riot continued for two more days.
Lincoln received reports of the violence from Tribune managing editor Sydney H. Gay, and they added to the anxiety he already had from the Confederate army escaping to Virginia after the Battle of Gettysburg. Troops were pulled from the Army of the Potomac and directed to help restore order in New York, even though Seymour did not request Federal intervention.
The unrest increased on the 14th as rioters stopped streetcars, cut telegraph wires, and wrecked railroad tracks. They seized blacks from restaurants and other places of employment, including foreign blacks aboard a British ship at port. Some rioters attacked the New York Tribune offices again, shouting, “We’ll hang (managing editor) Horace Greeley to a sour apple tree!”
By the 15th, rioters controlled New York City. A witness stated that “three objects–the badge of a defender of the law, the uniform of the Union army, the skin of a helpless and outraged race–acted upon these madmen as water acts upon a rabid dog.”
The War Department hurried several regiments to help police, along with cadets from West Point and men from the forts in New York Harbor under Major General John E. Wool. All Federal naval vessels in the area were called to provide aid as well; Commander Hiram Paulding soon had a gunboat squadron in the harbor, ready to shell the city if necessary.
Workers joined the rioters in attacking the homes of prominent Republicans, as Seymour unsuccessfully tried to stop the violence. An announcement suspending the draft in New York and Brooklyn eased the riot somewhat, but it did not completely end until Federal troops arrived. Many rioters were killed at Gramercy Park as the Federals used artillery and bayonets to stop their advance.
Civilian resistance against authority ended soon after, and peace was finally restored by the 17th. City merchants quickly organized a relief effort for black victims of the rioting and their families. The Democrat-controlled New York City Council approved a measure authorizing the use of tax revenue to pay commutation fees for those who could not afford to buy their way out of the draft.
This was the worst draft and race riot in American history. An estimated 50,000 people participated in the lawlessness, with 105 killed and at least 2,000 injured. Property damage was assessed at $1.5 million, with 50 buildings destroyed. However, one scholar determined that the death toll was not nearly as high as the sensational newspaper accounts claimed (the New York Tribune claimed that 350 had died); most people had not “died anywhere but in the columns of partisan newspapers.”
Smaller riots occurred in Boston; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Rutland, Vermont; Wooster, Ohio; and Troy, New York. Lincoln rejected calls to create a commission to investigate the cause of the rioting because the findings would “have simply touched a match to a barrel of gunpowder… One rebellion at a time is about as much as we can conveniently handle.”
Some urged an indefinite draft suspension, while Democrats sought to have it declared unconstitutional. However, Lincoln insisted that the draft continue.
Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 133-34; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 62; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 308-09; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9506; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 636; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 328-29, 333; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 536-37; Klein, Maury, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 225-26; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 89; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 384-87, 389; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 609-10; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 244; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363