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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The New York City Draft Riots, July 13, 1863

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Today in 1863, a mob of people attacked and burned the assistant provost marshal’s office in New York City. This was one of the first acts of violence in what would be called the New York City Draft Riots. While draft riots were not uncommon in the United States at that time, the riots in New York were by far the most costly in terms of human life and property loss.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War had been raging for 2 years. To many people living in both the north and the south, it seemed as if the war would continue forever. That March, Congress passed the Conscription Act, which gave the President the power to recruit an army whenever necessary from the ranks of the able-bodied male population between 20 and 45 years of age. While the draft would remain a common practice in the United States until 1973, the Conscription Act was different in that it allowed men to avoid service by paying a $300 commutation fee. $300 was a small fortune in 1860’s America, which meant that only wealthy men were able to opt out of serving. Working-class people and recent immigrants had little choice in the matter.

Thousands of immigrants lived in New York City; many of them had only been citizens for a short time. When news of the upcoming draft reached them, some reacted with fury while others rose to defend the new nation they now called home. Many of those who opposed the draft, including many born in the United States, were self-professed Copperheads, Democrats who opposed the war. Some of the New York papers helped fan the flames by claiming that the war was only being fought to free slaves who would soon move to New York and take jobs away from the men who had help to liberate them. By July, the city was dry kindling waiting for a match.

The first draft drawing was held in New York City on Saturday, July 11, 1863. The newspapers were still carrying stories of the carnage that took place at the Battle of Gettysburg earlier in the month, reminding all who read them of what the future held in store for those who were chosen. Another drawing was to be held on Monday, but, as mentioned before, the assistant provost marshal’s office was attacked and burned. At first, the rioters seemed to be only attacking military and government buildings and those people who were brave or foolhardy enough to stand in their way. As the day wore on, their anger turned towards the city’s black population.

In several parts of the city, black citizens caught on the street were attacked, beaten and sometimes stabbed or hanged. The violence was indiscriminate but the crowd was particularly harsh on black men, who some of the immigrants saw as a direct threat to their livelihoods. The rioters also attacked some targets of political interest, such as the offices of the New York Tribune, the city’s foremost Republican newspaper and a staunch supporter of both the war and President Lincoln.

New York City had grown exponentially in the 30 years leading up to the Civil War; as a result, many of her public services had not kept pace with the city’s expansion. The police force was no exception. By Monday afternoon, it was clear that the New York Police Department stood little chance of quelling the violence without outside assistance. Help came in the form of Federal troops including the 7th Regiment New York State militia, the 26th Michigan volunteers and the 27th Indiana Volunteers and two non-federalized New York state militia regiments.

By late on the 15th, more than 4,000 Federal troops were on patrol in the city. While rioters still controlled some neighborhoods, by the 16th the large groups began to disband and go back home. Although exact figures are unknown, it is believed that up to 100 people were killed in the riots and hundreds were injured. Property damage came to just under $2 million, an incredible sum in 1863. Biographer Stephen B. Oates wrote that when President Lincoln learned of the death toll and damage in New York, he “was sickened.”

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