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The Draft Riots


New Federal Draft Law Sparks Unrest

Facing a dire shortage of manpower in early 1863, Lincoln’s government passed a strict new conscription law, which made all male citizens between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 subject to military duty.

Though all eligible men were entered into a lottery, they could buy their way out of harm’s way by hiring a substitute or paying $300 to the government (roughly $5,800 today).

At the time, that sum was the yearly salary for the average American worker, making avoiding the draft impossible for all but the wealthiest of men. Compounding the issue, Black men were exempt from the draft, as they were not considered citizens.

Riots over the draft occurred in other cities, including Detroit and Boston, but nowhere as badly as in New York. Anti-war newspapers published attacks on the new draft law, fueling the mounting anger of white workers leading up to the city’s first draft lottery on July 11, 1863.

Riots Begin

For the first 24 hours after the lottery, the city remained suspiciously quiet, but rioting began early on the morning of Monday, July 13.

Thousands of white workers—mainly Irish and Irish-Americans—started by attacking military and government buildings, and became violent only toward people who tried to stop them, including the insufficient numbers of policemen and soldiers the city’s leaders initially mustered to oppose them.

By that afternoon, however, they had moved on to target Black citizens, homes and businesses.

n one notorious example, a mob of several thousand people, some armed with clubs and bats, stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street, a four-story building housing more than 200 children.

They took bedding, food, clothing and other goods and set fire to the orphanage, but stopped short of assaulting the children, who were forced to go to one of the city’s almshouses.

Riots Cause Violence and Bloodshed

In addition to Black people themselves, rioters turned their rage against white abolitionists and women who were married to Black men.

White dockworkers, long opposed to the Black men working on the docks alongside them—a demonstration against employers hiring Black workers on the docks had turned violent earlier in 1863—took the opportunity to destroy many of the businesses near the docks that catered to Black workers, and attack their owners, as part of their effort to erase the Black working class from the city.

By far the worst violence was reserved for Black men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality. In all, the published death toll of the New York City draft riots was 119 people, though estimates of the actual number of people killed reached as high as 1,200.

How the Draft Riots Ended

New York leaders struggled with the task of containing the draft riots: Governor Horatio Seymour was a Peace Democrat, who had openly opposed the draft law and appeared sympathetic to the riot.

New York City’s Republican mayor, George Opdyke, wired the War Department to send federal troops but hesitated on declaring martial law in response to the rioting.

On July 15, the third day of the protests, rioting spread to Brooklyn and Staten Island. The following day, the first of more than 4,000 federal troops arrived, from New York regiments who had been fighting in the Battle of Gettysburg.

After clashing with rioters in what is now the Murray Hill neighborhood, the troops were finally able to restore order, and by midnight of July 16 the New York City draft riots had come to an end.

Complete text: New York Draft Riots: 1863, Civil War & Causes - HISTORY - HISTORY

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