HISTORY Lists

6 Violent Uprisings in the United States

By Evan Andrews
While it’s no doubt the most striking example, the Civil War was not the only time the United States experienced a violent internal revolt. In its short history, the nation has played host to several popular uprisings fueled by everything from racial tensions and electoral disputes to tax complaints and wartime hardships. Most of these small-scale skirmishes ended with only a brief flash of bloodshed, but they often had far-reaching consequences for local governments, civil rights and even federal laws. Get the facts on six of the most famous domestic disputes in American history.
Illustration depicting the New York City Draft Riots

Illustration depicting the New York City Draft Riots

1. Wilmington Insurrection of 1898
On the morning of November 10, 1898, a throng of some 2,000 armed white men took to the streets of the Southern port town of Wilmington, North Carolina. Spurred on by white supremacist politicians and businessmen, the mob burned the offices of a prominent African-American newspaper, sparking a frenzy of urban warfare that saw dozens of blacks gunned down in the streets. As the chaos unfolded, white rioters descended on City Hall and forced the town’s mayor to resign along with several black aldermen. By nightfall, the mob had seized full control of the local government, some 60 black citizens lay dead and thousands more had fled the city in panic.

While it took the form of a race riot, the Wilmington uprising was actually a calculated rebellion by a cabal of white business leaders and Democratic politicians intent on dissolving the city’s biracial, majority-Republican government. Once in power, the conspirators banished prominent black leaders and their white allies from the city and joined with other North Carolina Democrats in instituting a wave of Jim Crow laws suppressing black voting rights. Despite its illegality, state and federal officials ultimately allowed the power grab to proceed unchecked, leading many historians to cite the Wilmington insurrection as the only successful coup d’etat in American history.

2. New York City Draft Riots
Only 10 days after the Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, New York City became embroiled in the largest popular insurrections in American history. The incident began on the morning of July 13, 1863, when hundreds of young men poured into the streets to protest the federal draft lottery. New York was deeply divided over the Civil War, and many viewed the conscription law—which excluded blacks and allowed wealthy men to buy their way out of serving for $300—as a blatant civil rights violation. The demonstration quickly turned violent when the mob stormed the draft office and beat the city’s police superintendent to a bloody pulp. As the protestors’ ranks swelled with armed malcontents, the men marched through Manhattan and began ransacking and burning the homes and offices of prominent draft supporters and other wealthy elites.

The bedlam would continue for four days, as rioters looted businesses, torched buildings and brawled with police and National Guardsmen from behind makeshift barricades. Convinced that freed blacks were a threat to their livelihood, rioters also beat and lynched several black men, demolished the homes of others and even set a black children’s orphanage ablaze. Finally, on June 16, some 4,000 federal troops marched into the city and put the uprising down by force. While the draft would resume only a month later, the riots still left a devastating mark on New York. All told, the incident claimed the lives of more than 100 people and caused millions of dollars in property damage.

3. Battle of Blair Mountain
In 1921, the winding hills of southwest West Virginia played host to the largest and bloodiest labor dispute in American history. At the time, the coal-rich region operated under the thumb of powerful mining interests who employed thuggish private detectives to harass any workers who tried to unionize. Tensions boiled over in August 1921, after company agents assassinated a pro-union lawman named Sid Hatfield. In response, as many as 15,000 miners—many of them World War I veterans—armed themselves and set off to confront the coal tycoons and organize their fellow workers.

When they approached Blair Mountain in Logan County, the army of miners clashed with a force of around 3,000 defenders marshaled by an anti-union sheriff named Don Chafin. As the miners advanced up the mountain, they were met with punishing rifle and machine gun fire, and Chafin’s forces even used a small air force of biplanes to drop explosives and tear gas. The battle raged for several days before federal peacekeeping troops finally arrived on the scene, at which point most of the exhausted miners returned to their homes or surrendered. By then, over 1 million rounds had been fired and an unknown number of men—estimates range from 20 to more than 100—had been killed. The miner’s defeat derailed union activity in the region for over a decade, and some 1,000 workers were later charged with crimes including conspiracy, murder and treason.

4. Richmond Bread Riots
By its third year, the Civil War had taken a bitter toll on the Confederacy’s civilian population. With their supply lines choked off and inflation soaring, many Southern cities erupted in mass revolts. The largest of these “bread riots” unfolded in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. On April 2, 1863, a group of armed, half-starved women descended on the state Capitol and demanded to speak to Governor John Letcher. When Letcher shrugged off their concerns, the hoop-skirted mob marched down one of the city’s major thoroughfares, commandeered several supply carts and began violently ransacking warehouses for food.

The rioters’ numbers quickly grew into the thousands as more desperate men and women took to the streets, many of them chanting “bread or blood!” Ignoring the protests of city officials, they broke down the doors of private businesses and supply houses and made off with food, clothing, jewelry and other valuables. According to some accounts, Confederate President Jefferson Davis even addressed the crowd, tossing coins at rioters and pleading, “you say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have.” The riot finally ended after the city’s public guard arrived and threatened to fire on the crowd. Some 60 members of the mob were arrested, and the city would later place artillery pieces in Richmond’s business district as a warning against future uprisings.

5. Battle of Athens
In 1946, a group of veterans and disgruntled citizens went to war with the local government of Athens, Tennessee. The small farming community had spent the 1940s dominated by a crooked political machine led by sheriff and legislator Paul Cantrell, who was known to rig elections in his favor through ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. Corruption ran rampant until 1945, when hundreds of young men returned to Athens fresh from the battlefields of World War II. After they experienced repeated harassment by law enforcement, the ex-GIs organized their own political party and ran several veterans for local office in the hopes of ousting Cantrell and his cronies once and for all.

The “battle” unfolded during a tense Election Day on August 1, 1946. When the veterans’ accused Cantrell of vote fraud, armed sheriff’s deputies began beating and detaining the GI’s poll watchers, and one officer even shot an elderly voter in the back. After Cantrell and his deputies confiscated the ballot boxes and barricaded themselves inside the local jail, hundreds of ex-GIs armed themselves with high-powered rifles and laid siege to the building. The two sides traded fire throughout the night, leaving several men wounded, but the deputies finally surrendered after the veterans began lobbing dynamite at the jailhouse. When the votes were counted, the GI candidates were declared the winners and immediately sworn into office. Their upstart political party would go on to restructure local government and clean up much of the corruption in Athens.

6. Shays’ Rebellion
In the years following the Revolutionary War, the United States plunged into a severe economic crisis. Tensions were especially high in Massachusetts, where overtaxed farmers began losing their property to debt collectors. In September 1786, a small army of disgruntled citizens organized mass demonstrations across the state. Led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, the rebels eventually armed themselves and began preventing county courts from convening in the hope of curbing property seizures. Fearing revolution was in the air, Massachusetts governor James Bowdoin responded by mustering a 1,200-strong militia led by former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln.

In January 1787, Shays’ forces set their sights on the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. The battle plan was botched, however, and the 1,500 rebels were pushed back by heavy artillery fire, leaving four men dead and another 20 wounded. Only a week later, Lincoln’s militia ambushed Shays’ camp at the town of Petersham and crushed the main rebellion. Small skirmishes continued for several weeks, but most of the insurgent leaders—including Shays—were eventually captured. The rebellion helped influence the adoption of a more robust central government at the Constitutional Convention later that year, but it would not be the last time that economic troubles provoked a revolt. Tax disputes later led to both the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s and Fries’s Rebellion in 1799.

Categories: Military History, Riots