On This Day

new york draft riots
Associated Press
A mob surrounds Col. Henry O'Brien of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, prior to his murder during the draft riots, July 1863.

On This Day: New York Draft Riots Begin

July 13, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 13, 1863, a second round in a national draft ignited a wave of violence and racial tension that destroyed large swaths of New York City and left scores dead.

Opposition to Draft Sparks Riot

On March 3, 1863, needing to reinforce the Union army, the federal government instituted a draft placing all men aged 25-35 and all unmarried men 35-45 into a lottery. Controversially, drafted men could hire a substitute or pay the government $300 to avoid serving.

New Yorkers had supported the war at its outset in 1861, but support waned as the war dragged on without significant progress for the North. Furthermore, New York’s unskilled labor force, primarily Irish and German immigrants, feared that they would face competition from freed black slaves moving North following the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect Jan. 1, 1863.

Fueled by sharp editorials from anti-war and anti-emancipation newspapers in New York, anger surrounding the draft reached an apex in the days just before the first lottery on July 11. In the early morning of July 13, protesters led by the Engine Company Number 33 gathered at the Ninth District Provost Marshall’s Office, where a second lottery was to be held that day.

At 10:30 a.m., when the lottery commenced, they attacked the office and set it on fire. Violence soon spread to other draft offices and an armory, and rioters targeted policemen, the wealthy and blacks. That afternoon, rioters attacked the Colored Orphan Asylum and burned it to the ground, though all the children escaped safely.

Over the next four days, mobs targeted blacks and those who helped or defended blacks, including landlords who rented to them, businesses who had served them, and abolitionists.

“What began as a demonstration against the draft and Abraham Lincoln’s Republican administration rapidly degenerated into bloody race riots,” writes Stephen D. Lut in America’s Civil War magazine.

Eleven black men would be lynched during the riots, and the mobs “made a sport of mutilating the black men’s bodies,” describes Leslie M. Harris, author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City.”

Outmanned authorities could do little to stop the rioting, as the New York state militia was still in Gettysburg, where on July 1-3 they took part in the Union victory. On July 16, 4,000 federal troops arrived and quashed the riots in a bloody battle.

“The ‘official’ death toll was listed at 119, though many contemporaries conjectured—based on often unsubstantiated and exaggerated reports—that more than a thousand people may have been killed,” according to CUNY’s Virtual New York.

Accounts of the Riots

The City University of New York’s Virtual New York offers a day-by-day description of the riots, with contemporary artwork and accounts of the events

George Mason University’s History Matters features testimony about the victims of the riots collected by the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Late Riots, which provided aid to black survivors.

America’s Civil War magazine provides an excerpt from army surgeon John Perry’s 1906 book “Letters From a Surgeon,” which includes a chapter written by his wife, Martha Derby Perry, who witnessed the riots from their New York residence.

“Men, both colored and white, were murdered within two blocks of us, some being hung to the nearest lamppost, and others shot,” she wrote. “An army officer was walking in the street near our house, when a rioter was seen to kneel on the sidewalk, take aim, fire and kill him, then coolly start on his way unmolested.”

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