The New York City Draft Riots
In the middle of July 1863, beginning ten days after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, lower Manhattan exploded in urban unrest which began as protests against the draft. The overwhelming majority of the rioters were Irish immigrants or of Irish descent. Within hours of the riot’s beginning it became a race riot, directed at the free blacks which had been flocking to the city in search of work. The Irish were outraged over the competition for jobs keeping pay scales low. Over one hundred people were killed in the riots, and Union troops were diverted to the area to help bring the city under control.
The protest of July 13 was initially a demonstration against the draft, which allowed anyone to pay a fee of $300 to acquire a substitute rather than be drafted (almost $10,000 in today’s money). The first drawing of draft numbers under the new law occurred on July 11, 1863 and the second on Monday, July 13. On that day the site where the draft was taking place was attacked by a mob of more than 500, who set the building on fire, and destroyed the vehicles of the arriving firefighters. A hotel which refused to allow members of the crowds any alcohol was likewise set on fire. Later that day the Black Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was looted of its food.
Businesses which were owned by blacks and those which were known to cater to blacks were looted and burned. The mob grew as it roamed the area of the city near the mid-town docks. The rioters attacked and destroyed businesses including brothels, boarding houses, tenements, groceries, pharmacies, and any other business where blacks were served. If the business was owned by whites, they were beaten and stripped of their clothes by the mob. That night heavy rains helped to clear the streets and quench the many fires left behind.
The mob began to form again the following day, and attacks on interracial couples occurred in several locations around the city. The Governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, arrived from Albany and informed the crowd that the draft laws were unconstitutional and that he intended to appeal to the Supreme Court to have them overturned. He was supported by contingents of armed Marines and troops from both West Point and the forts defending New York Harbor. The presence of the troops prevented the situation from deteriorating further.
At least eleven blacks were lynched during the riots, and the final death toll is unknown. Many blacks fled the city never to return, settling instead in nearby Brooklyn, which was then a separate city, or in Jersey City. Fifty New York buildings were totally destroyed by arson, including the Black Orphan Asylum. About 4,000 Union troops were moved from the Army of the Potomac to the New York area to keep the area under control. The draft resumed in August. New York continued to support the Union, and the factories of the Empire State alone produced more war material during the war than did the entire Confederacy.