A Fair and Open Field: The Responses of Black New Yorkers to the Draft Riots

Article excerpt

For three days in July of 1863, the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, the dean of New York City's black clergy, and four of his friends remained sequestered in Garnet's Manhattan home on West 30th Street. Garnet's daughter Mary had removed his nameplate from the front door, and the group waited "in tense silence, as the mob passed his very door." (2) The mob was part of several days of explosive violence that came to be known as the New York City Draft Riots.

A broad range of issues, some decades in the making, related to slavery, abolition, social class, politics, ethnicity, race, labor, and capital inspired the riots that resulted as New York began to implement the nation's first military draft in the second year of the Civil War. As a city of commerce, many New York merchants had strong financial ties with the southern planter class against whom the war was being waged. As a northern bastion of the Democratic Party, many New York Democrats opposed the Civil War and sympathized with their fellow Democrats in the South. But New York was also a center of abolitionism, with the city's presses producing thousands of anti-slavery tracts, and its churches and other meeting houses for decades serving as gathering places for meetings denouncing slavery. New York had also become a base of the new anti-slavery Republican Party. Earlier in 1863 elite New Yorkers founded the Union League Club to "undermine the social and political leadership of New York's foremost conservatives." (3)

The city's working men were divided as well. The rapid growth of the city's Irish population, primarily consigned to unskilled employment, and the popularizing of the notion that if the Civil War succeeded, freed blacks would quickly travel north to compete for their jobs, created a particularly hostile attitude toward blacks among many white New York working people from various backgrounds. Detailed accounts of the Draft Riots, such as Adrian Cook's The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (1974) and Iver Berstein's The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance fir American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (1990) discussed these issues in detail. During the riots, black New Yorkers and their allies were targeted for violence. Draft Riot accounts describe these attacks as well as the ways that, in the aftermath of the riots, white New York leaders organized aid to African Americans. (4) But very little has been written regarding what Black New Yorkers did to assist each other in the aftermath of the riots. Black New Yorkers' responses to the Draft Riots provide a window highlighting who some of the black leaders of nineteenth century New York City were, and the tactics they adopted to support the black community while also challenging the white community to treat them in a just manner in the future.

The spark for the Draft Riots was the federal Conscription Act, the nation's first, passed by Congress in March of 1863. The law targeted men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five and all unmarried white men up to the age of forty-five for military service. (5) While the law itself was a departure from all-volunteer military service, the provision that enabled draftees to be released from service by paying $300 to a replacement ensured that the draft would target lower income men. In New York City, this fact seemed to confirm for some white working men the rhetoric circulating in the streets suggesting that white draftees's jobs would be taken by the very black men critics said they were being drafted to set free. Frustration regarding the draft was directed at the black population and their sympathizers. (6)

The draft selection had begun routinely on Saturday, July 11th and was scheduled to resume on Monday morning, July 13th. Several hours before the draft resumption, "hundreds" of white workers failed to appear at their jobs. By eight o'clock they had begun a procession up Eighth and Ninth Avenues, gathering numbers as they moved. …