In 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War, Congress passed a conscription law making all men between 20 and 45 years of age liable for military service. On July 13, the government’s attempt to enforce the draft in New York City ignited the most destructive civil disturbance in the city’s history.
Rioters torched government buildings and, on July 15, fought pitched battles with troops. Conservative contemporary commentators, concerned about an anti-Union plot, claimed that 1,155 people were killed. In fact, about 300, over half of them policemen and soldiers, were injured, and there were no more than 119 fatalities, most of them rioters.
A majority of the rioters were Irish, living in pestilential misery. The spark that ignited their grievances and those of other workingmen and women was the provision in the law that conscription could be avoided by payment of three hundred dollars, an enormous sum only the rich could afford. In a context of wartime inflation, black competition for jobs, and race prejudice among working people, particularly the Irish, New York’s blacks were chosen as scapegoats for long-accumulated grievances. Many innocent blacks were slain and their homes sacked. A Colored Orphan Asylum was razed. In this intersection of ethnic diversity, class antagonism, and racism lay the origins of the draft riots.