New York, New York
In early July 1863, with New York City stripped of soldiers sent to Pennsylvania to stop Lee’s invasion of the North, a new conscription law took effect. It called for a disproportionately high number of troops to be raised in New York, gave provost marshals new powers to arrest draft evaders and deserters, and allowed men of means to buy substitutes for $300. Opposition to the law smoldered as the names of those who died at Gettysburg appeared in the newspapers; as those names were replaced with the names of the first draftees, anger burst into active resistance.
The draftees’ numbers had been pulled at the headquarters of the army’s provost marshal, at Third Avenue and 47th Street. Before the draft was to resume on Monday, July 13, crowds converged there from the homes and factories of Lower Manhattan. Angered that the new law ended draft exemptions for firefighters, the volunteers of Black Joke Engine Company No. 33 drove off the police protecting the headquarters, smashed the wheel used to pull draft numbers and set the building ablaze. The New York City draft riot—the worst civil disorder in U.S. history—was on.
The damage was widespread, but it targeted primarily rich people, Republicans and African-Americans. Brooks Brothers was sacked, Fifth Avenue mansions were looted, and the New York Tribune was attacked. The New York Times mounted a pair of Gatling guns in its front windows, one manned by its owner, the other by its largest stockholder. But the day’s culminating outrage was the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets. It put more than 200 children—all of whom survived—out on the street. Today no plaque or marker commemorates the fate of the orphanage. on a block now occupied by retail, office and empty spaces.
Before order was re-established that Thursday evening, 119 people had been killed, either by the rioters or in firefights with soldiers fresh from Gettysburg, and the damage came to the modern equivalent of more than $27 million. Conscription didn’t resume until August, after the Lincoln administration cut the city’s quota from 26,000 men to 12,000. Relief agencies were set up to buy substitutes for firefighters, police officers and men who had families to support. A group of wealthy merchants organized relief for indigent African-Americans, and the Union League Club raised two regiments of black troops, the first of which departed for the front on March 5, 1864. “Eight months ago, the African race in this city were literally hunted down like wild beasts,” the Times noted. Now those men “march in solid platoons, with shouldered muskets, slung knapsacks, and buckled cartridge-boxes down through our gayest avenues and our busiest thoroughfares.”