New York City Draft Riots

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The most destructive urban violence in U.S. history occurred in New York City during four days of draft riots, July 13 to July 16, 1863. In the midst of the Civil War, tens of thousands of mainly foreign-born (mostly Irish) workers poured onto the streets to protest the new draft law that made them, not the wealthy, likely to be conscripted into the army. Rioters attacked the city's draft headquarters, defied police, looted stores, and sought out African-American victims to hang from the lampposts. During those four days, New York City became a battlefield.

In general, most wage workers in the North supported the Union and Abraham Lincoln's policies in the war. However, they were increasingly disturbed by what they considered to be inequities in the conscription, or draft, laws. They were especially antagonized by a new draft provision that allowed anyone with $300 to buy his way out of the army. Because most workers in New York City and elsewhere—black and white alike—earned only about $500 a year, they had little hope of escaping the military.

Resentment about the coming drawing of names for enlistment had been festering during the spring and early summer. Although the Union recorded victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the growing list of dead and injured soldiers only pointed up the desperate need for new recruits.

With the drawing of names about to begin, mobs poured into the streets and headed for draft headquarters. They set fire to the building. From there, the wildness ran unchecked. The rioters burned bridges, tore down telegraph lines, stole weapons from munitions plants, and put up barricades of defense around their own neighborhoods. But the worst violence was directed against African Americans. If caught on the streets, they were sometimes lynched on the spot, their bodies then burned and mutilated and carried through the streets. An orphan asylum housing African-American children was destroyed. White women who were known to have married black men were sought out and killed.

Ironically, African Americans lived and worked in the same neighborhoods as the foreign immigrants and suffered from the same poverty. But the war had caused new concerns for the white workers. They feared that the emancipation of slaves would bring an influx of blacks into the city who would compete for jobs. Actually, employers

had previously brought in African Americans as strikebreakers during this period. White immigrants, desperately poor and living in economic slavery themselves, became violent at the thought of losing more ground to blacks.

The violence and destruction in New York City continued for four days until July 16, when the battle-weary Seventh New York Regiment was called to return from Gettysburg. As the final hours of the rioting erupted into a frenzy, soldiers chased the looters through the streets and finally into the tenements, where some jumped to their deaths.

In all, about 119 people died in the draft riots; a number were killed by U.S. troops. At least twelve African Americans died. They were either lynched by rioters or drowned in the river trying to escape their tormentors. The number of injured was estimated at 1,000 and property damage as high as $2 million.

After all the violence and destruction, the draft went on as planned, quietly enforced in August. However, this time there was a heavy military presence to enforce it. In addition, political boss William M. Tweed administered a county loan ordinance that paid a $300 draft waiver for the poor. The New York City Draft Riots reveal the smoldering class and racial tensions that existed both North and South, far from the actual battlefields. War had exacerbated these tensions into a bloody domestic conflict.


Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Hayes, Susan. "The Great Draft Riots." Scholastic Update 131 (1998): 18–21.

Katz, William Loren. "The New York City Draft Riots of 1863." New York Amsterdam News 94 (2003): 15–20.

Corinne J. Naden and

Rose Blue

See also:Mobilization for War; Urbanization; Violence.

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New York City Draft Riots

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New York City Draft Riots