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The Civil War Draft Riots Brought Terror to New York’s Streets

This dark event remains the largest civil insurrection—the Civil War itself aside—in American history

An engraving from later in the 1880s shows rioters burning an orphanage for black children. (Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

The first time the United States held a military draft, in 1863, it did not go well for the people of New York.

Fear and racism, whipped up by politicians and journalists, brought thousands of white rioters onto the streets of New York City in the summer of 1863. Those riots remain the largest civil insurrection in American history, aside from the Civil War itself.

The Civil War Military Draft Act was the first of its kind in American history. It set a precedent for future conscription during both world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. But it also revealed a lot about the politics surrounding Northern opposition to the war. In the New York riots that followed the draft, “an entire sector of the white population, with grievances real and imagined, lashed out in a revolt that was a deadly mix of misplaced racial hatred, economic insecurity, and class warfare,” writes John Strausbaugh for The Observer.

The Act required all men between the ages of 20 and 45, whether they were citizens or immigrants looking to become citizens, to register for the draft by April 1, 1863, writes History.com.

People initially cooperated with the draft registration, writes historian Leslie M. Harris. However, as the day of the first draft lottery grew closer, newspapers (and the pro-slavery politicians who backed some of them) began publishing more and more inflammatory stories about the draft, inciting unrest in white working-class New Yorkers, particularly those of Irish descent who feared losing their jobs to blacks. Their precarious economic position was made more clear once they realized they could avoid the draft by paying $300, about $5,500 in today's money, writes Shannon Luders-Manuel for JStor Daily. That sum was far more than a working-class person could afford.

 “On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the conscription law was held,” Harris writes. “For twenty-four hours the city remained quiet.” Then the riots began. Writes Luders-Manuel:

A mob of about 500 armed men subsequently set fire to about 50 buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum which housed over 230 children. Included in this mob were volunteer firemen ... The riots picked up in intensity for four days and wreaked havoc on the black population and on downtown structures, including businesses contributing to wartime production, burning many to the ground.

Eventually, thousands of men were rioting; the official death toll was 119.

This terrifying act of violence was not just a response to the draft, but was also tied to fear of the outcome of the war for working-class whites. The Emancipation Proclamation had come into effect at the beginning of 1863, writes Harris, and carried with it the potential that after the war, free black people might be competing for jobs with working-class whites. 

“Pro-slavery politicians and journalists of the mid-1800s used this fear of economic instability to their advantage and were largely responsible for promoting the rhetoric,” Luders-Manuel writes. Although this moment changed New York, she notes, there are no monuments commemorating it.

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