The Causes and Effects of the New York Draft Riots of 1863

by Alex Blankfein

 

Early Monday morning on July 13, 1863, waves of Irish and other working-class immigrants and natives swarmed out of the slums of the five points and from various other parts of New York City. Moving west across Broadway, they headed uptown, toward the Draft offices, wasting no time. This was the start of the New York Draft Riots. Armed with iron clubs and bludgeons, the raggedly clothed impromptu army heaved tumultuously uptown as it grew larger by the thousands. At ten past noon, Major E. S. Stanford of the U.S. Military Telegraph Service dispatched this urgent telegram to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “What is represented as a serious riot is now taking place on Third Avenue, at the provost-marshal’s office. The office is said to have burned, and the adjoining block to be on fire.”[1] Only two hours later, authorities and officials lost control of the situation: “the riot has assumed serious proportions, and is entirely beyond the control of the police.”[2] Thus marked the beginning of the bloodiest and most destructive riots in the history of the United States up to that time. It would be four more days until the government would be able to regain control over New York City. Over those four days, at least 119 people would be killed. At least nineteen African-Americans would be beaten and hanged. Millions of dollars in property damage would be lost, and over 3000 people would be left homeless and in complete destitution. And, by the time it was all over, New Yorkers would be forced to ask themselves how and why such a horrible thing could happen.

            The New York Draft Riots were a culmination of the mounting economic, political, and social tensions that existed among New York’s so-called melting pot of cultures. In fact, the Civil War and the Conscription Act were only sparks that ignited the fuse. The main cause of the riots lies in New York’s social and political history. The masses of immigrants—mostly Irish—who came to the United States with the promise of leading a good and better life, found that promise to be false. Instead of finding the “American Dream” they found misery and overcrowded slums. For these immigrants and working class, the riots were a violent protest against the rich and elite’s exploitations of the poor. Finally, in a city founded upon business and capitalist principles, the draft riots were a demonstration of a city’s ambivalence toward war and desire for a return to the prosperous economic advantages of the status quo. The final result of these tensions was an upward directed and downward directed attack against the city’s wealthiest and poorest that became a catalyst for change.

The immigrant experience—the experience of those who immigrated to New York—was a vital factor in causing the Draft Riots. By 1855, over half of New York City’s population hailed from outside the United States, and roughly two of every three adult Manhattanites had been born abroad.[3] In the mid nineteenth-century, the majority of immigrants in New York were either Irish or German. A potato famine, land enclosures, and revolutions had caused a massive wave of immigration to the United States. In general, German immigrants tended to be more skilled and more intellectual than their Irish counterparts, who were mostly poor unskilled peasants. The majority of these Irish immigrants settled in or around the sixth ward of New York, otherwise known as the Five Points. The Five Points district of New York was poor and dangerous. Residents lived in complete squalor with little ventilation and individual space. The Old Brewery—what was effectively the hostel of the Five Points—averaged a murder a night for nearly fifteen years.[4] On a tour of New York, eminent writer Charles Dickens described the Five Points:

...[T]hese narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, [reek] everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here… The coarse bloated faces at the doors…. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays…. hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here.[5]

 

These were the conditions to which the Immigrants came. In their search to find a better life, they found destitution and misery.

The social tensions that were manifested in the Draft Riots resulted from the various ethnic groups represented in New York. New York in the nineteenth century was not a melting pot of cultures and races. Rather, New York was an eclectic stew of races, nationalities, and religions that did not blend and did not get along. Between Irish-Catholics and Native-Protestants there was much distrust and animosity. For example, in a city election in 1839, native New Yorkers awoke to this astonishing poster: “Irishmen, to your posts, or you will lose America. By perseverance, you may become its rulers; by negligence you will become its slaves.”[6] Although the poster was most likely planted by native conspirators against the Irish, the poster took advantage of native New Yorkers’ fears of an immigrant conspiracy to take over the United States. Many Natives believed that the Irish were Catholic spies who took their orders from the Pope in Rome. Despite the abhorrence between Native-Protestants and Irish-Catholics, the mutual color of their skin was a significant detail not overlooked. On the other hand, African-Americans—no longer enslaved—still had relatively few freedoms and were considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy of New York City.

Competition for jobs among New York’s lower classes was fierce and helped add to the frustrations existing in New York. African-Americans, Irish, and Natives all competed for similar menial jobs. Native New Yorkers believed that the Irish immigrants were stealing all the “good” jobs by willing to work for less money than their native-counterparts. In turn the Irish worried that African-Americans (who because of racism and job scarcity were willing to work for lower wages) would steal jobs away from the Irish.[7] Both the natives and Irish believed that African-Americans represented a threat to their job security. Yet despite the inherit racism in this belief, this accusation, held by Natives and Irish, was not entirely unfounded. For example, in the early years of the Civil War, employers hired African-Americans to replace striking workers in disputes at the Staten Island Ferry, the Custom House, and the docks of New York City. In 1862, the labor tensions almost reached the breaking point when two to three thousand white workers from South Brooklyn threatened to burn two tobacco factories unless several hundred black women and children left the plants. When the factories refused, the mob started to light fires before they were chased away by the arrival of the police.[8] Thus, the labor tensions and demand for work created a distrust and hatred among the different ethnic factions in New York.

Throughout the North and South, New York City was known as the North’s southern-most city in terms of sympathy and its economy. The city’s economy was completely connected to the slave and cotton economies of the southern states. New York businessmen insured and financed southern products and slaves. Bankers accepted slave property as collateral against loans. Gotham ship owners benefited from the vast shipping industry built around transporting cotton. Even newspaper editors—who benefited from Southern subscriptions—and other economic branches of New York profited greatly off of a slave economy. One New York Merchant eloquently explained his predicament to Samuel J. May, a leading abolitionist:

…We are not such fools as not to know that slavery is a great evil, a great wrong. But a great portion of the property of the Southerners is invested under its sanction; and the business of the North, as well as of the South, has become adjusted to it. There are millions upon millions of dollars due from Southerners to the merchants… the payment of which would be jeopardized by any rupture between the North and South. We cannot afford… to let you… overthrow slavery…. It is a matter of business necessity.[9]

 

Thus, New York’s businesses—even its whole economy—had a vested interest in maintaining slavery and the southern system. As a result, New York was largely a Democratic town. [10]

While the majority of New Yorkers may have subscribed to the ideals of the Democratic Party, New York’s citizenry could not stand idly through succession. As war broke out, New Yorkers rallied to the cause of preserving the union. As one merchant explained, “There is but one feeling here now, and that is to sustain our flag and the government at all costs.”[11] However, while New Yorkers were seemingly in accord for a war to preserve the Union, they were less agreeable of some of the consequences of the war.

In September of 1862, George B. McClellan’s Union Army defeated General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army at Antietam, Maryland. The victory at Antietam was what President Abraham Lincoln needed to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.[12] While there are many reasons for its issuance, Lincoln no doubt hoped to turn the seemingly political battle of preserving the Union into a moral battle against the evils of slavery.

In New York, this plan was disastrous. Until then, New Yorkers could justify the Civil War as a war to preserve the Union. The New York Times explained:

The issue is between anarchy and order,—between Government and lawlessness,—between the authority of the Constitution and the reckless will of those who seek its destruction.[13]

 

However, this shift in war aims became too much for many New Yorkers to bear. Once he issued his proclamation, Lincoln was asking New Yorkers to fight to end slavery. The city’s merchants were being asked to fight a war to destroy an institution that had economically benefited New York for years. New York’s immigrants were being asked to fight a war to increase the freedoms of African-Americans—the same African-Americans that were perceived to be stealing jobs from good white men. New York Democrats quickly broke into two separate factions. War Democrats—comprising of prominent businessmen and the majority of Tammany Hall politicians—favored fighting to victory and opposed Lincoln’s Republican Party agenda. Conversely, Peace Democrats—united under ex-mayor Fernando Wood’s Mozart Hall—wanted to return the Union to its previous form with slavery existing in the south.

New York’s hostility toward Lincoln’s lofty goal is epitomized in the New York state and municipal elections of 1862. In the elections, ex-mayor Wood denounced Lincoln’s administration and called for active resistance to emancipation. Fellow Peace Democrat Horatio Seymour—who was running for Governor—favored restoring the Union as quickly as possible, even if it meant granting concessions to the South. Both politicians resorted to racism, asserting that emancipation meant “niggerism for nationality.”[14] Using these tactics, the former mayor captured a congressional seat and Seymour won the Governor’s office. In fact, the Democrats (resorting to the same tactics used by Wood and Seymour) carried every district in the city. Thus, as the war shifted from the political struggle to restore the Union to the moral struggle to eliminate slavery, the patriotic cries to preserve the Union that characterized the city in the beginning of the war quickly turned angry and bitter.

The spark that ignited the social and political tensions in New York was the National Conscription Act. In March of 1863, because of heavy casualties, soaring desertion rates, and dwindling recruitment, Congress passed the National Conscription Act, authorizing the government to forcefully draft men into the army. Federal provost marshals were assigned to each congressional district and instructed to hold draft lotteries to fill each state’s quota. Besides the issue of forced service, the Conscription Act had one significant feature that disturbed many people. A provision in the Act exempted anyone who would pay three hundred dollars or find a substitute.[15] To the Act’s supporters, this provision made sense: the draft would not enroll men vital to society and the war effort, such as important leaders of industry. However, the Act’s detractors did not find merit in this claim. On July 11, 1863 the Daily News stated “the fact that the Conscription virtually exempts the rich and fastens its iron hand upon the poor alone, is sufficient demonstration of its injustice.”[16] In New York, the epicenter of the nation’s wealthiest and poor, the enactment of the National Conscription Act would be a decisive moment.

The National Conscription Act was problematic in New York for various reasons. In the first months of war, New York sent eighteen local regiments for two-year service. Yet, New York City had relied on appeals to patriotism and economic incentives to appeal to New Yorkers and people outside of New York City to fulfill its quotas. The Conscription Act would force New York’s immigrants and poor to fight, regardless of their feelings on the war. To be fair, in the beginning of the war, many Irish and other ethnic groups fought and died to preserve the Union. Now they were being pressed into military service to fight for the freedom of African Americans. Emancipation and the allowing of African-Americans into the military were perceived to be an insult to the Irish, an ethnic group that suspiciously regarded African-Americans as a threat to their economic “stability.” Although small, another significant problem in New York was that the Conscription Act eliminated the earlier draft exemption of members of New York’s volunteer fire regiments. The volunteer fire regiments in New York amounted to little more than gangs. Even though their members represented only a tiny part of the population, they were an organized force and their organized resistance to the draft would ignite the violent Draft Riots. Finally, the three hundred dollar exemption provision proved confirmation to many that immigrant and working class poor were being exploited by the rich.

Apart from all these potential problems of implementing conscription in New York, the Act could not have come at a worse time. On June 27, 1863 Lee’s army had crossed the Potomac River into the North and by June 29, the Confederate army was within ten miles of Pennsylvania’s capital city. To meet Lee’s army, Governor Seymour sent eight militia regiments from New York to join General George Meade’s army, which engaged Lee in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.[17] The emergency battle left the city almost defenseless. As the bloodiest battle in America’s history was winding down, the National Conscription Act was about to go into effect. On Saturday July 11, the draft lottery commenced. By the end of the day 1,236 names had been selected.[18] All Sunday, men, women, and children read through the names to see if their sons, husbands, and brothers had been drafted. On Sunday night, these people fled to the bars and taverns across New York City to decide and formulate a response to the draft.

The morning of the draft, the Tribune reported: “Many stories have been circulated to the effect that bands, gangs… have been organized here and there with the intent of resisting the draft but from what all we can learn no such organizations exist.”[19] By Monday July 13, the peace would transform into complete civil disorder. Early Monday morning, “hundreds of workers from the city’s railroads, machine shops, shipyards and iron foundries, together with building and street laborers working for uptown contractors, began to stream” uptown toward the provost marshal’s office. As the draft process started up, the Black Joke Engine Company—a volunteer fire regiment—stoned and set fire to the building after its leader and several members had been drafted. The New York Draft Riots had begun. To fully comprehend the significance of the Draft Riots, it is necessary to consider the Riots in two views. First, the riots were upward-directed attack against city elites who had exploited the immigrants and working-class. Second, the riots were also a downward-directed attack against African-Americans, who became the symbol of the war.

The first targets of the riots were institutions and homes of the Republicans and the rich. In New York, many of the city’s wealthy were Republican while the lower classes were mostly Democrats. A mob entered Columbia College grounds, knocked on the door of the house of its President, Charles King, and demanded to know if a Republican lived inside.[20] On the streets, rioters targeted anyone who appeared to be wealthy.[21] Crowds could be heard screaming: “There goes a $300 man!” or “Down with rich men!”[22] The mobs attacked and burned the clothing store Brooks Brothers, a purveyor of clothing for the rich. The crowds beat policemen and soldiers, who were viewed as agents of upper class and federal power. Upon hearing of the riots, Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy immediately headed toward the riots. After he was identified, a mob “beat him, dragged him through the streets by the head,”[23] until he was unrecognizable. In another incident, Colonel Henry O’Brien of the Eleventh New York Volunteers was beaten, stripped, tortured, and then shot in the head after he used a howitzer to clear Second Avenue (killing in the process a woman bystander and child). On the second day of riots, mobs headed toward Wall Street, yet were held back as Wall Street was the best-defended part of the city. However just in case, Custom House workers prepared bombs, employees of the Bank Note Company readied vats of sulfuric acid to pour on the rioters, and a warship lay anchored off of Wall Street ready to unleash its cannons if rioters attacked the city’s financial institutions. Meanwhile, throughout the riots, many Fifth Avenue estates were ransacked and burned.

At the same time rioters attacked up the social latter, they also attacked downward at African-Americans. Bands of Irish dock workers and other laborers began to chase African-Americans, chanting: “Kill all niggers!”[24] African-Americans were indiscriminately dragged off of the streets and beaten. The owner of a colored sailor’s boardinghouse was robbed and his building set on fire. On Fifth Avenue and Forty-third Street, rioters attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum and could be heard screaming, “Burn the nigger’s nest”[25] In fact, if it had not been for the sympathy of an Irishman, the 237 African-American children (who were for the most part were not older than twelve years) would have probably been murdered. Instead, the children were taken to a police precinct and then herded onto a boat and anchored in the middle of the East River for safety.[26] On Monday night, several African-Americans were attacked by a mob. When one of the African-American men turned and shot one of his attackers and escaped, the mob grabbed one of the other African-Americans, lynched him and then burned the corpse. Throughout the riots, the mobs attacked any building or institution that catered or aided African-Americans in any form. Bars, boardinghouses, tenements, and dance halls were all targeted and burned. Along the waterfront, the mobs pushed African-Americans to the docks and into the East and Hudson Rivers, drowning them.

With the army and militia in Gettysburg, the rioters easily overpowered the city’s authorities. The Metropolitan Police had tried to enforce the law, but they were heavily outnumbered. Mayor Opdyke urgently asked Secretary of War Stanton for soldiers, and Stanton agreed. Soldiers began to arrive in the city on Wednesday, July 15, in the third day of rioting. Without wasting any time, the troops began to restore order by killing all those who resisted. By Thursday evening, the riots were over. The City was filled with 6,000 troops as each regiment patrolled a different part of the city.[27] At the end of it all, 119 people were killed and over two and a half million dollars were lost in property damage.[28]

To prevent another such riot, city officials worked to satisfy the demands of the rioters and address some of their concerns. With the help of Tammany Hall, Democrats in the city government appropriated two million dollars to buy draft exemptions for poor New Yorkers who did not want to serve. When the drafts began again on August 19, the peace was not disturbed. Of course, the city was well prepared this time. Soldiers marched up and down streets while various regiments set up headquarter in Madison Square Garden and Washington Square. Perhaps the most significant and noticeable immediate consequence of the Draft Riots was the steep decline in the population of African-Americans in the city. Many African-Americans fled the city, and in 1865, their number dwindled to only 9,945—or 1.5 percent of the total New York population.[29]

            Despite the Draft Riot’s immediate effects, the riots had a profound and long-lasting effect on New York City. The Draft Riots was the nation’s bloodiest moment of civil disorder. Throughout the Union, people were angry at New York. The whole country was suffering from civil war, so how could New York express its problems with such violence? New Yorkers asked themselves the same questions; they were finding that these problems could not be solved with a reduced draft quotas or money to pay for exemptions. Rather, New Yorkers looked toward reform and found different ways to express their grievances. Just as the riots can be divided into two forms of attacks, so can the responses to the riots. First, New York’s elite and wealthy realized that they could no longer ignore the plight of the poor, and they became actively involved in enacting reforms. Second, New York’s immigrants and working class realized that they would have to find a more peaceful way to exert their majority voice. The answer came in the form of machine politics: in the second half of the nineteenth century, Tammany Hall grew significantly in power as its base grew to include Irish and other immigrant men.

            In the aftermath of the riots, George Templeton Strong declared: “I would like to see war made on Irish scum…”[30] Yet unlike other similar riots in similar cities, there were no mass sentencings or executions of rioters. Rather, New York’s response was much more mild and introspective. Various committees and associations made up of the city’s elite were formed to examine the cause of the riots and to prevent future ones. One such association (and perhaps the most influential) was the Citizens Association. Including industrialists and merchants from both political parties, the Association called for “environmental” reforms such as housing reform and parks.[31] However, these initiatives took a backseat to the pressing demands of the Civil War. Just before the war, reformers lobbied for the creation of state commissions to examine and repair municipal problems. After the war, the Citizens Association renewed their lobbying for reform under such an approach. Although this approach to reform had begun before the Draft Riots and before the Civil War, the riots played an instrumental part in gathering support for government involvement in reform. Traditionally, many businessmen were hesitant to support government involvement in property and in the larger market place. However, the Draft Riots changed the minds of many of these businessmen. It was clear that another such riot would be devastating to business and would cut deeply into profits. It was also clear that the privately funded reforms groups of the pre-civil war era were ineffective. Thus, to prevent another disastrous riot, businessmen were prepared to support government-led reform out of fear of another riot

            One of the most significant reforms to come out of the post Draft Riots era was the Tenement House Law, which the state legislature passed in 1867. The act limited the number of people allowed to occupy a given amount of space and it required that every room have proper ventilation and access to a fire escape.[32] Unfortunately, the Tenement House Law was loosely worded and filled with loopholes that allowed landlords to ignore certain parts of the act. Despite its loopholes, the act was a significant moment in government. Reformers had turned a private housing matter into a cause for government legislation. Suddenly, a municipal government had a building code designed to protect the health and safety of tenants. It is true that regulatory legislation would have eventually passed without the Draft Riots. However, the Draft Riots caused a renewed interest in reform and helped scare many businessmen who were against government-led reform to support such reform. Without the riots such reform could have been decades away from being passed. But, with the draft riots still fresh in the mind of all New Yorkers, New York could not wait for such reform.

            As New York’s wealthy responded to the Draft Riots with renewed calls for reform, the city’s immigrants and poor struggled to find a more effective and peaceful way to express their complaints. Recognizing the political power to be gained from such a group, Tammany Hall Boss, William H. Tweed, began to position his party into the favor of Irish immigrants. Utilizing resources that only Tammany Hall had, Tweed provided care and service to immigrants. In a sense, Tammany Hall Americanized the immigrant. As one boss explained, Tammany Hall took “hold of the untrained, friendless man and converted him into a citizen.”[33] Tammany helped the immigrant find work and helped him adjust to American life. In exchange for these services, Tammany asked for the immigrant’s vote. This exchange seemed to work nicely for both parties. With the its new Irish allies, Tammany Hall grew significantly in power and controlled city government for almost two decades after the Civil War. For the first time, immigrants had political representation that watched out for their concerns. Although Tammany’s reasons for such benevolence were less than lofty, its support for immigrants and the destitute was a significant change from the pre-Draft Riots era in New York. Even if bosses were more concerned with lining their own pockets than with helping the poor, the poor still felt like they had a place to turn to whenever things became bad.

            The New York Draft Riots were perhaps the most significant and decisive moment in New York City’s history. The riots were a culmination of a class crisis and a racial crisis that resulted in an upward-directed attack against city elites and a downward attack against African-Americans. It was a moment when all of the city’s troubles were exposed. At the end of the riots, New Yorkers had two choices: continue to maintain the status quo in New York or begin a program of drastic reform to improve conditions in the city. In a letter home, Walt Whitman, who had spent the war in Washington D.C., wrote: “So the mob has arisen at last in New York. It seems the passions of the people were only sleeping and burst forth with a terrible fury…. We are in the midst of strange and terrible times.”[34] The remarkable thing about New York is that it met this passion not with more violence but with reform and democracy. Although it would be decades before any real effective reform would pass into law, the reforms initiated in response to the Draft Riots were important and significant first steps. Perhaps, what is most significant of the Draft Riots is that it illustrates a method that is so uniquely New York: to take disaster and turn it into opportunity. In terms of the Draft Riots, New Yorkers turned a riot into a catalyst for change.



[1] Reports of Mr. Edward S. Sanford, U.S. Military Telegraph Service. July 13, 1863 http://www.civilwarhome.com/essanfordor.htm [Accessed April 19, 2003]

[2] Ibid

[3] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 737

[4] Edward Robb Ellis, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History (New York: Kodansha International, 1966), p. 251

[5] Charles Dickens, American Notes (1843)

[6] Ellis, Epic, p. 251

[7] It is an ironic fact of history that next to the Dutch, African-Americans are this nation’s oldest minority group; therefore, it was the Irish who originally stole jobs away from African-Americans. Although the Irish felt that African-Americans were stealing jobs, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that African-Americans were reclaiming their jobs.

[8] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 884

[9] Quoted in: Robb, Epic, p 236

[10] Abraham Lincoln ran for presidency under the Republican ticket. Although the Democrat Party was not necessarily “pro-slavery,” its proponents (at least in New York) were in favor of preserving the status quo: a free North and a slave South.

[11] Quoted in: Robb, Epic, p. 264

[12] On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued his complete Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation freed all slaves not yet in reach of federal power.

[13] The New York Times, Quoted in: Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 885

[14] Quoted in: Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 886

[15] In 1863, three hundred dollars was a significant sum of money that only the rich could afford to pay.

[16] Daily News, Quoted in: Edward K. Spann, Gotham at War: New York City, 1860 – 1865 (Wilmington: SR Books, 2002), p. 96

[17] Spann, Gotham at War, p. 97

[18] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 888

[19] New York Tribune, July 11, 1863 Quoted in: Spann, Gotham at War, p. 98

[20] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 889

[21] Wealthy people were easily identifiable by their clothes and general mannerisms.

[22] Ibid, p. 893

[23] New York Tribune, July 14, 1863 Quoted in: Spann, Gotham at War, p. 98

[24] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 890

[25] Ric Burns, New York: A Documentary Film, Order and Disorder: Episode Two (Videotape: PBS Home Video, 120 minutes)

[26] Ibid

[27] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 895

[28] Spann, Gotham at War, p. 101

[29] U.S. Bureau of Census

[30] Spann, Gotham at War, p. 102

[31] Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, p. 899

[32] Ibid, p. 922

[33] George J. Lankevich, American Metropolis: A History of New York City (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p. 119

[34] Burns, New York: A Documentary Film