Thanks to its status as America's business capital, New York City stood deeply divided at the start of the Civil War in April 1861. Its merchants and financial institutions were loath to lose their southern business and the city’s then-mayor, Fernando Wood, had called for the city to secede from the Union. New York's poorer citizens, meanwhile, increasingly came to see the war as benefitting only the rich, filling the coffers of the city’s elites with the financial spoils of battle. The conflict became known as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s battle.”
The passage of the nation’s first military draft act, in March 1863, only worsened the situation. Not only did it allow men (presumably only the wealthy) to buy their way out of military service by paying a commutation fee of $300 (more than $5,500 in today’s money), but it also exempted African Americans from the draft, as they were not yet considered American citizens. Opposition to the draft was widespread across the North, and in New York, some of the bill's loudest critics could be found in city government, as politicians (primarily Democratic) railed against the bill's legality and its impact on the city’s working-class poor.
Volunteer Fire Company Leads the Charge
As the July draft approached, New York City was already on edge. A labor demonstration earlier that year had turned violent, as had a protest by the city’s white, largely immigrant dockworkers, who refused to work alongside African-American workers. The two groups, on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, had long jostled for the city’s lowest-paying jobs, and tensions had only increased as the war dragged on.
Remarkably, the first day of the draft, Saturday, July 11, passed largely without incident. However, as the initial lists of the conscripted began to spread, a large-scale protest movement got underway. When officials (accompanied by just a dozen police officers) arrived at the city’s Provost Marshall’s office on the morning of Monday, July 13, they found a restless, anxious crowd of roughly 500, many of them armed.
Shortly after the draft’s 10:30 a.m. start time, a volunteer fire company, angered at the military conscription of their chief two days earlier, arrived on the scene. Known as Black Joke Engine Co. No. 33, the burly group was just as famous for their fist-fighting skills as for their firefighting. The men soon began to smash the building’s windows and force their way inside, followed closely by the growing mob. Inside, they destroyed much of the draft equipment as local officials fled the scene. The protesters, meanwhile, began to spread out across the city, growing in numbers.
An early target of the mob was the pro-war press, particularly the New York Tribune, run by ardent abolitionist Horace Greeley. By mid-morning, a group of protesters had descended on the city’s lower Manhattan media district and were only turned away under heavy fire by armed newspaper staffers. Around the same time, another mob contingent laid waste to one of the city’s armories. Late that afternoon, the crowd reached the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, home to more than 230 children. The orphanage’s staff was able to evacuate all the children to safety, but just minutes later the mob turned on the building with a savage ferocity, uprooting trees, destroying clothing, toys and supplies before setting fire to the building.
As the first day of the riots wore on, many of its early members, whose opposition had been focused solely on the draft itself, turned away from the increasingly violent mob. Many, including some of the men from the Black Joke Engine Co., would spend the next several days combating the rioters and protecting the city’s citizens.
Targeted Attacks on Black Citizens Intensify
After a night of heavy rain, rioters returned to the streets early on Tuesday, July 14, looting and destroying businesses in the downtown area, including a large Brooks Brothers’ store, which as a contractor for the U.S. government, had been churning out thousands of pieces of military garb for more than two years. The mob also began constructing barricades around the city that proved difficult for police to overcome.
Targeted attacks on Black citizens intensified and included the lynching of at least two African American men: a young sailor who had been attacked after speaking to a young white boy and a man who had been captured and killed while attempting to escape to Brooklyn (reportedly disguised in his wife’s clothing). Among the dead, that day was Col. Henry O’Brien, the commander of a local regiment who had come to the aid of beleaguered policemen and been attacked and killed by the angry mob.
As the violence continued to spread, New York politicians squabbled about how to bring order to the city. The Democratic governor, who had openly opposed the draft law before it went into effect, seemed reluctant to move forcefully against the demonstrators. The city’s Republican mayor, well aware of the shortage of available police officers, formally asked the War Department to send federal troops but stopped short of declaring martial law and turning over control of the situation to federal officials.
At least four more Black New Yorkers were killed on Wednesday, July 15, as the riots reached their third day. Desperate to contain the violence, New York Police Commissioner Thomas Acton and Harvey Brown of the New York National Guard decided to concentrate their vastly outnumbered forces at key parts of the city, including the area around City Hall, and northern outposts on the city’s east side, allowing them to target the barricaded areas more efficiently, but leaving other areas of the city vulnerable to attacks. In fact, two key decisions that afternoon—the passage of an emergency bill that would provide low-interest loans to New Yorkers wishing to buy draft exemptions and the announcement of the suspension of the draft itself—did little to quell the violence, as the riots spread to Brooklyn and Staten Island.
Hoping to appeal to the now largely Irish Catholic mob, secular leaders implored religious leaders to get involved, and early on the morning of Thursday, July 16, Archbishop John Hughes delivered an appeal for peace from his residence near St. Patrick’s Cathedral (still under construction and located in what was then the northern section of the city). By midday, the first of more than 4,000 federal troops, fresh from the horrors of Gettysburg, arrived in the city. Within hours, they faced off against rioters in what is now the city’s Murray Hill neighborhood in what became the final clash of the New York City Draft Riots.
More Than 100 Lives Lost, 50 Buildings Destroyed
Estimates vary greatly as to the number of people killed in the Draft Riots, though most historians believe around 115 people lost their lives, including nearly a dozen Black men who were lynched after being brutally beaten. Hundreds of buildings were damaged—and as many as 50 burned to the ground—causing millions of dollars in damage. Republican Mayor George Opdyke vetoed the Democratic-sponsored bill providing funds for draft exemptions—but the veto was promptly overturned by the city council.
The long-term damage to New York’s Black citizenry was significant: In the aftermath of the riots, Black residents fled the city in droves, causing the Black population to plummet by more than 20 percent, to less than 10,000 (the lowest number since the 1820s). Many of those who stayed relocated from their racially mixed neighborhoods to areas with an elevated police presence or to the relative safety of the outskirts of the city.
In all, just 67 people were convicted for their role in the riots, and none received significant sentences. One month later, New York City’s Civil War-era draft resumed, this time peacefully, and concluded 10 days later. Thanks to physical deferments, exemptions and commutations, fewer than 2,400 of the 80,000 men drafted from New York State entered the U.S. Army through the new draft. One group, however, did not need encouragement (or legal force) to bring them to the field of battle. In March 1864, the city’s first all-Black volunteer regiment—1,000 strong—proudly marched through the same streets that had teemed with violence less than a year before.