"In the Midst of Strange and Terrible Times": The New York City Draft Riots of 1863

Article excerpt

"From one point of view, this is doubtless the darkest fourth of July which has dawned on us since the commencement of our National existence.

From another, we sincerely believe that it is the brightest ..."

Horace Greeley, NEW YORK TRIBUNE, 18631 (1)

IN THE ABOVE QUOTATION, written on July 4, 1863, ardent abolitionist Horace Greeley was referring to the ongoing Civil War in the United States. Greeley's statement ominously foreshadowed mounting socioeconomic and racial tensions, which, in the days after he penned those words, exploded into one of the most violent episodes in New York City's history--the Draft Riots of 1863. These have been called by one historian "the largest civil insurrection in American history other than the South's rebellion:" (2)

During the New York City Draft Riots the city's own inhabitants unleashed a torrent of violence and destruction that chiefly targeted African Americans. What originated as a protest against the enforcement of the Conscription Act quickly escalated into a riot that erupted at the volatile nineteenth century crossroads of race, class, and economic competition. In a letter home, the great American poet Walt Whitman wrote: "So the mob has arisen at last in New York. It seems the passions of the people were only sleeping and burst forth with a terrible fury.... We are in the midst of strange and terrible times." (3) In the end, more than one hundred people were killed, hundreds more were injured, and dozens of buildings were destroyed in a rampage that lasted nearly a week.

The 1863 New York City Draft Riots are much more than simply a long-ago or isolated disturbance. This historical event offers students a unique opportunity to analyze and understand how the interaction of complex social issues such as ethnicity, economic status, and immigration can be multifaceted and far-reaching.

The Enrollment Act of Conscription: Opposition

When the Civil War first broke out, no one envisioned a protracted battle. Many believed the war would last no longer than ninety days. At first, it was not difficult to find men to fight for either side. But while men rushed to enlist at the beginning of the war, as the conflict wore on, it became increasingly problematic to enlist willing soldiers. The Confederacy had already instituted a draft in April 1862. The Union introduced its draft in 1863; Congress passed the Conscription Act on March 3rd. Single men, aged twenty to forty-five and married men, aged twenty to thirty-five were eligible to be drafted. Some citizens supported the measure, believing that "The administration is acting wisely in ordering the immediate enforcement of the draft.... The conscription is necessary," according to a New York Times editorial. (4) However, as soon as the draft was declared, rumblings of dissent could be heard throughout the North. Some of the balking was a result of the commutation provision, that is, that drafted men could either pay $300 directly to the government, or they could hire a substitute to fight in their stead. Considering that $300 was more than the average laborer's annual salary, it was obvious that only wealthy men would be able to utilize that provision. Thus, the conflict came to be known as "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

Opposition to the draft was made evident in several cities. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a mob broke windows in the marshal's office and attacked police officers. (5) The state's governor, Joseph A. Gilmore, warned the federal government that if conscription quotas were to be enforced, Washington would have to send a regiment. (6) In Boston, there was immediate opposition to the Enrollment Act. At least 500 people rioted in protest. Swift action by city and state authorities resulted in minimum destruction of property and loss of life. Violence was indiscriminate; African Americans were not targeted in the Boston disturbances and no blacks were listed among the dead or wounded. …