“Dreadful Scenes Enacted In The City”: The New York Draft Riots

New York Rioters attacking the Tribune Building

Although deep in northern territory, New York City’s war sentiments were not heavily pro-Union. The merchants and businessmen of the city looked on the conflict with displeasure from the beginning since it interrupted their commerce and trade with Southern states and ports and halted in the arrival of raw cotton.

As the war progressed, anti-war agitators and politicians covertly informed the working class of the city – mostly Irish-Americans or German-Americans – that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would trigger a mass exodus of African Americans from the South to New York City to take all the paying jobs. This idea added tension and resentment toward the war and federal government among the working class.

These major social ideas and conflicts were compounded by the institution of the Union Draft Law, passed earlier in 1863. To many New Yorkers, the draft seemed like forcible service for a cause they didn’t believe in – fighting for an end goal, which in their view, would wreck their opportunities and livelihood. It all came to a violent outburst in mid-July 1863 – resulting in largest civil and racially-charged riot in American history and the deaths of hundreds.

On July 11, 1863, the first draft lottery in New York City took place under suspiciously quiet circumstances. A day passed. Then – July 13 – violent rioting began. White citizens and immigrants mobbed and attacked government buildings and military posts throughout the city. Next, they attacked the homes, businesses, and property of free blacks, white abolitionists, and interracial couples. Even an orphanage came under assault, leaving about 200 children frightened and refugees.

Beatings, lynchings, and other atrocities were committed. After the riots, papers claimed the death toll finished at 119 persons, but estimates at that time and researchers’ findings suggest 1,200 people may have died in the violence.

Mrs. Maria Lydig Daly – wife of a prominent judge and a Democrat supporter – wrote in her private journal about some of the incidents:

July 14, 1863

The draft began on Saturday, the twelfth, very foolishly ordered by the government, who supposed that these Union victories would make the people willing to submit. By giving them Sunday to think it over, by Monday morning there were large crowds assembled to resist the draft. All day yesterday there were dreadful scenes enacted in the city. The police were successfully opposed; many were killed, many houses were gutted and burned: the colored asylum was burned and all the furniture was carried off by women: Negroes were hung in the streets!

All last night the fire-bells rang, but at last, in God’s good mercy, the rain came down in torrents and scattered the crowds, giving the city authorities time to organize. Today bodies of police and military patrolled the city to prevent any assembly of rioters…. Fearful that they might attack a Negro tenement house some blocks below us, as they had attacked others, I ordered the doors to be shut and no gas to be lighted in front of the house. I was afraid people would come to visit Judge Daly, ask questions, etc. I did not wonder at the spirit in the poor resented the three-hundred-dollar clause.

The news from the army is most encouraging. It is thought that Lee will not be able to escape. It would seem as though this war might be brought to an end, but this news of the riots here will give the rebels encouragement. The principal cause of discontent was the provision that by paying three hundred dollars any man could avoid serving if drafted, thus obliging all who could beg, borrow, or steal this sum to go to the war. This is exceedingly unjust. The laboring classes say that they are sold for three hundred dollars, whilst they pay one thousand dollars for Negroes….

July 23, 1863

At last the riot is quelled, but we had four days of great anxiety. Fighting went on constantly in the streets between the military and police and the mob, which was partially armed. The greatest atrocities have been perpetrated. Colonel O’Brian was murdered by the mob in such a brutal manner that nothing in the French Revolution exceeded it. Three or four Negroes were hung and burned; the women assisted and acted like furies by stimulating the man to greater ferocity….

City authorities reacted hesitatingly. Peace Democrat Governor Horatio Seymour had already opposed the draft law for New York and was not anxious to stop the riot. Even the city’s Republican mayor dallied to declare martial law, though he did request the War Department in Washington to send in federal troops.

On July 16, the first blue-clad troops arrived on the violent scenes; some of these soldiers had just left the Gettysburg battlefield. With troops in the city actively restoring order, the riots came to an end, leaving millions in damaged property and thousands of homeless civilians in their wake.

On August 19, 1863, conscription started again in New York City with many military guards posted throughout the metropolis.

The 1863 New York City Riots brought homefront and political unrest to the forefront of discussions. How would the tension play out the following year in the 1864 Presidential Election? How long would it take for civil right to be recognized and respected in the north?


Adapted from Gazette665 Blog, with permission

Daly, Maria Lydig, edited by Harold Earl Hammond. Diary of a Union Lady, 1861-1865. (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln: 1962).

3 Responses to “Dreadful Scenes Enacted In The City”: The New York Draft Riots

  1. Great post. The one source of profound confusion I notice on the riots are the wildly different death counts.

  2. At the Essential Civil War Curriculum we recently had a controversy over whether troops from Gettysburg were used to quell the NY draft riots. With some digging around it is apparent that many secondary sources are citing other secondary sources and incorrectly naming various regiments as having fought at Gettysburg and being used to suppress the draft riots. Some regiments so cited were disbanded before Gettysburg! In any case Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines, IA: The Dyer Publishing Company, Des Moines, 1908) lists four regiments that he said came from Gettysburg to NY to suppress the draft riots. If you go to https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-battle-units.htm and look the regiments up, three of them report service at both Gettysburg and NYC draft riots, these being Battery C, 5th US Artillery, 13th New York Cavalry, and 28th New York National Guard Infantry. Even Dyer, apparently got it wrong. This posting states merely that Union soldiers who were at Gettysburg were also used to quell the draft riots and that is objectively correct. It can also be argued that the units in question were not front-line units engaged in the heavy fighting. In any case trying to figure out which regiments came from Gettysburg to NY is is an excellent demonstration of the danger of relying on secondary sources.

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