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.
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The American Civil War, fueled by the debate over slavery and states' rights, pitted North against South in the costliest conflict fought on U.S. soil.
Home to over 8 million people, New York is the most populous city in the United States.
In July 1863, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War.
During the Civil War, many Irish and Irish-Americans fought with the Union Army, often serving in all-Irish regiments known as the â€œIrish Brigade.â€
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Many of the U.S. Army regiments that restored order to New York City arrived directly from Pennsylvania, where they had recently fought in the Battle of Gettysburg.
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.
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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