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…. 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…. I did not wonder at the spirit in which the poor resented the three-hundred-dollar clause.
—Maria Lydig Daly, July 14, 1863 (Daly 2000, 246)
From July 13 to July 17, 1863, a little more than a week following the Union victory at GETTYSBURG, enraged mobs of working-class immigrant and native-born white men, women, and children filled the streets and alleys of New York City, wreaking death and destruction wherever they roamed. By the time the Union army wrested control of the streets, at least 105 people were dead, thousands were injured, and over a million dollars’ worth of property had been damaged or destroyed. It remains to this day the most severe case of civil disorder in U. S. history.
The outpouring of violence and hatred was a direct response to the first federal draft law, the Conscription Act of 1863. According to its provisions, all white men between the ages of 20 and 35, and all unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45, were eligible for the draft. Any man who could provide a substitute to serve in his place or who paid $300 was exempted and did not have to serve. For the masses of unskilled laborers and artisans in the city—many of whom were poor Irish immigrants earning less than $500 per year—exemption was beyond their reach. For them and for their families, the draft created an overwhelming economic hardship as it removed the most highly paid wage earners from their households.
In the best of times, the city’s poor lived on the brink of destitution and starvation. The new draft law could not have come at a worse time. In 1863, wartime inflation was hitting the city’s poor hard. By the time of the riot, prices had increased 43 percent since 1860 while wages had risen no more than 12 percent (Cook 1974, 50). Factory workers throughout the city were restive and had been participating in strikes on their employers.