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The New York City Anti‐Draft Riots

The New York City Anti‐Draft Riots (1863) constituted the largest domestic uprising in the North during the Civil War.Caused by a newly enacted draft law, which fell heavily upon the poor because of the clause offering an exemption to anyone furnishing a substitute or paying a $300 fee, the riot started on 13 July 1863, and lasted until 17 July, when newly arrived troops brought it under control.

New York City had long been seething with discontent. A Democratic community in an often Republican state, it contained many immigrants, especially Irish Catholics, who feared black competition and were enraged by the Emancipation Proclamation. Fueled by the exasperation of the badly exploited poor and the increasingly difficult situation of many workingmen, on Monday, 13 July, a large group of disaffected volunteer firemen and laborers converged upon the district office of the Provost Marshal responsible for implementing conscription, stormed and wrecked the building, and stopped the draft process. Superintendent of Police John A. Kennedy was badly beaten; trolley tracks and telegraph wires were torn up, and many shops and factories closed.

Soon the rioters began indiscriminate attacks on black residents, many of whom were killed. The crowd also vented its anger upon the Republican press, attempting to storm the building of the New York Tribune, from which editor Horace Greeley escaped only with difficulty. In the afternoon, rioters attacked and burned the black orphan asylum on Fifth Avenue, attempted to secure guns at a gun factory, and gutted a number of police stations. The rioting continued for four more days; Col. Henry O’Brien of the 11th New York Regiment was murdered, and general looting of stores, hotels, and the homes of the rich made the city unsafe.

In the meantime, Gen. Harvey Brown had taken over command of the troops in the city and, cooperating with the police, managed to beat back a number of attacks. Democratic governor Horatio Seymour, vacationing on the New Jersey coast, came back on Tuesday and addressed the crowd at City Hall, allegedly calling them “My Friends” and exhorting them to return to their homes. He also sought a suspension of the draft, of which he thoroughly disapproved. It was not until Thursday, 16 July, that federal troops, some of them summoned from Gettysburg, were able to assist in ending the rioting. On 17 July, the Roman Catholic archbishop John Hughes cooperated with Mayor George Opdyke in pacifying the crowd, and order was restored.

The result of the riot was that the draft in New York was suspended until August, while the city and county raised a fund to help pay exemption fees for those unable to afford them. The national administration did not impose martial law, as had been requested, but it did put conservative Gen. John A. Dix in charge of the Department of the East. Estimates of effects of the riots are usually set at over $1 million in property damage and perhaps 120 people killed and more than 120 wounded. The Tammany wing of the Democratic Party under William M. Tweed took over the city's affairs and continued in power until 1871. In the long run, recruitment continued undisturbed.
[See also Civil War: Domestic Course; Draft Resistance and Evasion.]


James McCague , The Second Rebellion, 1968.
Adrian Cook , The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863, 1974.
Iver Bernstein , The New York City Draft Riots, 1990.

Hans L. Trefousse

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