draft riots

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DRAFT RIOTS. One of the bloodiest riots in American history, the New York City Draft Riots erupted on 13 July 1863 and lasted until 16 July 1863. The Draft Riots broke out when officials attempted to enforce the first federally enacted draft. As the Civil War dragged on and troops dwindled, the Union hoped to increase its ranks through a draft that called upon all white men between 20 and 35 and all unmarried white men between 35 and 45. The Conscription Act excluded African American men, who were not considered citizens, and also released men capable of paying $300 to obtain a waiver.

The draft lottery was held at the office located on Third Avenue and Forty-sixth Street, and officials picked more than 1,200 names on the first draft day held 11 July 1863. The next one was scheduled for Monday 13 July 1863. Shortly after dawn that Monday morning, working-class white men protested the draft by going on a looting spree throughout the city. Mobs first attacked the conscription office, protesting the draft law. Then the rioters targeted Republican sympathizers, conscription personnel, and abolitionists who supported the Union cause. They also set fire to buildings like the Brooks Brothers store as well as the offices of the New York Tribune. Within hours of the outbreak of violence, the mobs sought out African Americans, attacking their places of work, institutions, homes, and blacks themselves. For the next four days, white mobs beat blacks, ransacked their homes, set fire to their buildings, and leveled their community institutions like the Colored Orphan Asylum. Rioters injured over thirty African Americans and murdered at least eleven.

The riots had a sweeping effect on New York City's African American population, driving nearly 5,000 blacks from the city. Eight hundred members of the metropolitan police could not quell the riot, so city officials called Union troops back from a battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the soldiers restored order on 16 July 1863. William M. "Boss" Tweed and Tammany Hall held the next draft in August 1863. Over 100 black men from the city enlisted in the United States Colored Infantry in order to demonstrate their support for the Union troops.


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, 1990.

Jane E.Dabel

See alsoCivil War ; Riots .

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draft riots, in the American Civil War, mob action to protest unfair Union conscription. The Union Conscription Act of Mar. 3, 1863, provided that all able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 45 were liable to military service, but a drafted man who furnished an acceptable substitute or paid the government $300 was excused. A defective piece of legislation enforced amid great unpopularity, it provoked nationwide disturbances that were most serious in New York City, where for four days (July 13–16, 1863) there occurred large-scale, bloody riots. Many elements in New York sympathized with the South, and the war had aggravated long-standing economic and social grievances. Aroused by the statements of Gov. Horatio Seymour and other Democratic leaders that the conscription act was unconstitutional, the populace was incited to action. Laborers, mostly Irish-Americans, made up the bulk of a tremendous mob that overpowered the police and militia, attacked and seized the Second Ave. armory containing rifles and guns, and set fire to buildings. Abolitionists and blacks were especially singled out for attack. Many blacks were beaten to death, and a black orphanage was burned, leaving hundreds of children homeless. Business ceased, and robbing and looting flourished. Since the conscription provision that allowed the rich to buy exemption was especially resented, the Tammany city government voted to pay the necessary $300 for anyone who might be drafted. Meanwhile, New York troops (including the famous 7th Regiment, which had been sent to the front for the Gettysburg campaign) were rushed back, and with the aid of the police, militia, naval forces, and cadets from West Point, they succeeded in restoring order. President Lincoln supported a Democratic-dominated commission that investigated the draft in New York, while Governor Seymour urged both adherence to the conscription act and a court test of its constitutionality (which never came about). In August the draft was peacefully resumed. The privilege of buying one's way out of service was limited (1864) to conscientious objectors. The riots had inflicted property damage of $1.5 million to $2 million, and it has been estimated that total casualties ran as high as 1,000.

See B. L. Lee, Discontent in New York City,1861–1865 (1943); I. Werstein, July,1863 (1957, repr. 1971); J. McCague, Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots (1968); A. Cook, The Armies of the Streets (1974); I. Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots (1989).