The New York Draft Riots

Key Facts & Summary

  • The Draft Riots occurred in July 1863
  • The Riots were over the new draft law which required all men between the ages of 20 to 35 and all unmarried men from 35 – 45 to be drafted into the Union army
  • A fee of 300 dollars was an available substitute for men who did not wish to enlist

City of Activists

During the years leading up to the Civil War, there was a massive gap between the rich and the poor folk of New York State. Towards the end of the industrial revolution, there were New Yorkers who were able to acquire considerable wealth from the growing industries. The wealthy lived in Broadway and Fifth Avenue while the poor squatted in Five Points slum area. Tension arose between the two classes because the while the rich lived sheltered lives, the poor were exposed to crime and gangs.

William Macready and Edwin Forrest were both performing the play Hamlet on the same evening but different venues. William appealed to the upper class while Edwin the poor. On opening night, Forest supporters attended Macready shows at the Astor Place and threw rotten eggs and potatoes at him. The supporters tried to do the same on his William’s second performance but they were dispersed by the militia, and few lost their lives. In protests, Forrest supporters held a protest rally at City Park. The Astor place riots set the scene for activism in the New York and tensions between the wealthy and the poor.


The Draft Riots

The New York and Confederate states had a convergence of business interests in so far as trade and slave trade were concerned. So much so that immediately after the civil war broke out, New York considered seceding from the Union

Cotton from the south was an essential commodity for the New Yorker merchants. It represented 40% of the cargo shipped from the port of New York. Immediately after the slave trade was banned, the port thrived on illicit slave trade, helping the southerners acquire slaves.

Opponents of the war and newspaper started spreading rumours that emancipated slaves would result in fewer jobs for the whites, mostly the German and Irish immigrants. The fears were confirmed when Lincoln in September 1862 gave the emancipation declaration prompting protests.

The tension was heightened when the Union in striving to get more men to enlist for the war, passed the Conscription Act in April 1862. According to the Act, all male between the ages of 25 – 35 and unmarried men between the ages of 35 – 45 were required to enrol in the army.

The law, however, had an exception for those who were able to pay $ 300 which was equivalent to an annual salary of the average worker of the time. This meant that only the rich could substitute their service for pay. Furthermore, African Americans couldn’t enrol because they were not American citizens yet.

In protest, riots ensured in New York, Detroit and Boston, though the New York riots were the most destructive. The anti-war protagonists went about their propaganda, heightening tensions about the Draft law, in the days leading up to the first draft wheel lottery on 11 July 1863.

After the wheel lottery, Irish immigrants and other white violently attacked the cities military, government buildings and anyone who tried to stop them. In the following days, African Americans became targets of their anger. A coloured orphan asylum at Fifth Avenue near 42nd Street was attacked and the orphanage razed to the ground. The attackers stopped short of attacking the kids who were relocated to a safer orphanage awaiting the heat of the riots to pass. The protestors raided the orphanage, taking food, clothing and other valuables.

Women married to black men and abolitionists were also attacked, and their properties destroyed. African American men suffered unbridled brutality from the protesters. Many were beaten to death, and many more were lynched.

Ending the riots

Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, was sympathetic to the riots, and so it was Republican mayor George Opdyke who wired the war department to send troops. He wanted to declare martial law but didn’t.

By 15 July protests had reached Brooklyn and Staten Islands. On 15 July, 4000 troops arrived from the battle of Gettysburg and neutralised the protestors and restored order.

Impact of the riots

New Yorkers suffered millions of dollars’ worth of property destroyed by the rioters. The official death toll from the incident is 119 even though other reports indicate that over 1200 people lost their lives. Furthermore, over 3000 African Americans were rendered homeless.

The Coloured Orphan Asylum attempted to rebuild at Fifth Avenue but relocated north to a sparsely settled area in what came to be known as Harlem due to continued threats of violence.

Abolitionists revived the rigour and a year after the riots, the first all-black volunteer regiment of the Union army marched across the city, to board their ship to the Hudson River.

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