The Role of the New York City Draft Riots in the American Civil War

The draft riots that erupted across New York City beginning on the morning of July 13th, 1863 reflect the more serious problems dividing the nation during the time of the American Civil War.  The rioters brought particular attention to the issues of sectionalism and the increasingly tenuous northern support for the war’s continuance after the Emancipation Proclamation.  Their grievances were related to military conscription and linked to the larger questions of racial relations and underlying social conditions.  This paper will examine the New York City draft riots in light of attempts by post war historians, to minimize the significance the riots played in revealing that in 1863 there was a lack of consensus over the principle reasons for fighting the war.  At the time it could not be taken for granted that America would even rally behind the Republican Party in support of the prolongation of the war.

In order to place the importance of the New York City draft riots within the greater context of the Civil War, it is necessary to analyze the background to the riots, the Federal draft legislation and its opponents.  It is also essential to assess the politics of New York City, with a particular emphasis on the Democratic political machine that held sway over New York’s large immigrant population, especially the Irish-Catholics.  Furthermore, the outbreak of the riots and the specific grievances that escalated smaller demonstrations of discontent into a massive city-wide event is examined as a means of illustrating the sectionalism that was particularly rampant among New Yorkers.  Finally, a consideration of the wide ranging reactions to the riots and their greater meaning to the Civil War as a whole will be appraised, emphasizing that the Union in 1863 was a deeply divided body and far from unified or without grievance during the post-Emancipation Proclamation Civil War.

1863 was a pivotal year in the Union war effort.  Prior to the twin summer victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in early July, Union support was at one of its lowest ebbs throughout the war.  Earlier in the year, “the northern public could see only the failures of the past four months”[1] in both the Western and Eastern fronts of the war.  Union army enlistment and enrollment numbers were entering a crucial period.  Massive numbers of desertions and absentee soldiers on the muster rolls meant that in March 1863, Lincoln and his government in Washington were nervous that numbers would fall well below the necessary levels for continuance of the war.  The situation was becoming so desperate the estimates indicate that there was an “illegal absence of more than one hundred thousand persons” from the Union Army in early 1863.  Despite entering the third year of the war, “the army was making uncertain progress on the battlefield” and “horrifying tales of carnage at the front circulated throughout the North,”[2] making the process of enlisting new troops and maintaining morale increasingly difficult.

While Gettysburg and Vicksburg served to galvanize Union supporters and give credence once again to those predicting an eventual victory over the Confederacy, they came too late to head off the conflict and debate over what would be known as the Federal Conscription Act.  Conceived early in the year and passed by Congress on March 3rd 1863, the act was “designed mainly as a device to stimulate volunteering by the threat of a draft”[3] rather than as an outright tool to increase Union numbers.  However, its “inefficiency, corruption and perceived injustice” destined the Act to become “one of the most divisive issues of the war.”[4] The Act’s flawed conception and implementation became a disruptive political element in the North that further threatened the stability of support for the Union War effort and would further irritate festering debates over the war and the rationale for its prolongation.

In order to place the New York City draft riots in their proper context, it is necessary to examine the Conscription legislation in detail and study the mechanisms it established as a means of understanding both the rationale for the Act’s implementation and the roots of grievances of both Democratic politicians and the American populace in general.  Officially known as the Act for Enrolling and Calling Out the National Forces, the Conscription act (as it was colloquially referred to) created a national Provost Marshal Bureau empowered by the federal government to oversee and administer the draft.  This office, led by the Provost General, was a massive imposition of federal power on local affairs on a scale previously unknown in American history.

Controversial Section 5 of the Act “empowered a federal provost marshal in each congressional district to make summary arrest of draft evaders and resisters, deserters and spies,” providing both mechanisms to “sustain the flow of men into the army and keep them there once enlisted.”[5] This massive federal program affected a huge majority of the population.  The bill ordered that “all male American citizens between the ages of twenty and forty-five” be enrolled into two classes based on age and marriage, the premise being that “the second class was not to be called up until all the men in the first class had been drafted or exempted,”[6] an attempt to avoid the widespread breaking up of families.  After a “laborious house-to-house enrollment conducted by government agents,”[7] there was a random lottery to determine those who would be liable for service in the Union army.

Exemptions to enrollment were available for a wide variety of reasons, some more reasonable than others.  Mental or physical disability was among the reasons one could be exempted from the draft, or “proof that a drafted man was the sole support of aged or widowed parents or of orphaned children.”[8] However, the most contentious of the exemptions was the so-called “Three Hundred Dollar” clause.  This allowed a drafted person to either present an acceptable substitute to take their place or simply pay a three-hundred dollar exemption fee to get out of service.  This last provision, more than anything else, created a massive outcry against what was seen by many as an attempt by Lincoln’s ruling Republicans to shift the heavy burden of fighting the war onto the poorest ranks of society.

Political complicity, particularly on the part of the Democratic Party, was also a factor in creating the necessary vacuum of authority for the formation of the riots.  Given conscription’s “radical departure from the long American tradition of voluntarism and distrust of standing armies and centralized power,” it was perhaps in many senses inevitable that the Act “aroused strong opposition”[9] among contemporary politicians and across the country.  However, it would be naïve to suggest that all opposition to conscription measures was non-partisan.  The Democratic Party, with its peace platform and constant rebuke of Lincoln’s Republican government, worked hard to foster racially motivated biases and tendencies in an attempt to facilitate broad-based opposition to both the war and the government.

Edward B. Freeland, a correspondent reporting an early analysis of the draft riots in Continental Monthly, lamented that “it is one of the vices of our political system, not yet remedied, that it holds out great inducements to unscrupulous and ambitious men to deceive the ignorant and credulous masses, in order to obtain their good will and their votes.”[10] Freeland, of course, was directly referring to the actions of the Democratic Party in fomenting and reinforcing grievances among New Yorkers, particularly the New York Irish, who in these early days of Tammany Hall politics were overly susceptible to political manipulation and would play a key role in the riots.

Sitting on a social and political powder keg, the first national draft in American history would begin, with explosive consequences for New York City.  While the preexistence of grievances related to the war effort is to be expected, it was the violent expression of these criticisms on the streets of New York City that underscores their entrenchment in Northern society.

Examining the course of the riots in New York City reveals several trends that accentuate how the composition of the rioters changed as the riots progressed, along with their particular grievances and aims.  Rather than a single-issue, the riots in New York City would be driven by a multiplicity of reasons both local and national in scale.  The protests against the enrollment process “occurred all over the North after May 25, when enlisting officers began their work,”[11] and was marked by demonstrations and outbursts in the press, particularly newspapers supporting the Democratic Party, which attempted to position itself as the moral opposition to the draft.

Despite initial expectations of trouble, the enrollment process continued relatively smoothly and with little opposition or resistance throughout the state of New York.  However, as the enrollment process was ending and the date of the draft approached, murmurs of a conspiracy and protest against the draft began to circulate, particularly within New York City itself.  Evidence suggests that “the first actual plans for resistance seem to have been formed on Saturday night and Sunday, as working people gathered in saloons, streets and kitchens to discuss their own remedies for the lotteries to be resumed Monday morning.”[12]

Many reporters including James G. Bennett, the editor of the New York Herald, a staunchly Democratic publication, reported during the weekend with such certainty as to suggest that they “knew exactly where Monday’s revolt would start.”[13] The initial phase of the draft riots was a rational and legal protest over specific grievances they hoped would be addressed in a timely manner. This was not simply an outbreak of hooliganism and criminality as some post-war writers have characterized them. The draft riots were a symptom of a greater malady that had the potential to undermine the whole war effort for the Union.

By all accounts, the rioting that began by early morning on Monday, July 13th was initially just as a series of disconnected protests, many peaceful in character, taking on aspects of a city-wide strike or work stoppage.  Harper’s Weekly’s coverage of the riots notes that initially, “it was merely a demonstration against the draft, which had been commenced on Saturday in the Ninth District…the drawing of names was here resumed on Monday morning,” drawing a growing crowd, which after a time attacked the draft office, destroying the draft lottery-wheel and setting the building ablaze.[14] As a symbolic act of defiance against the government and the Conscription Act, the riot was intended to signal the disapproval of New Yorkers for the conduct of the government with regards to the draft.

However, the initial protests, rooted in the tradition of striking workers, very quickly escalated.  The situation on Monday evening transformed from a protest-driven event to a riot in the purest sense of the term, particularly as the composition of the rioters began to change as word of their massive scale and motives began to spread.  George Templeton Strong, a preeminent New Yorker and leading citizen, was a prolific diarist who left a rich account of the riots from the perspective of a wealthy member of the urban elite.  His viewpoint articulates typical patrician sentiments, with a healthy bias against the Irish and an inability to grasp the essential motivations of the rioters beyond base destructive impulses.  He recorded his observations of the mob late Monday evening ransacking a home of a wealthy Republican family:

The mob was in no hurry; they had no need to be; there was no one to molest them or make them afraid.  The beastly ruffians were masters of the situation and of the city.  After a while sporadic paving stones began to fly at windows…the rear fence was demolished and loafers were seen marching off with portable articles of furniture.  I could endure the disgraceful, sickening sight no longer, and what could I do?[15]

Strong’s own sense of despondency and lack of ability to assert control over the situation was also shared by the political and military leadership of the city.  Yet despite their efforts and hopes that the mob would disappear just as quickly as it had materialized, it was only the beginnings of the riots for New York.

Despite the condemnatory reactions of much of the city’s elites, many of the initial rioters felt strongly justified in their actions.  In a fascinating primary source, one of the rioters wrote in to the New York Times on the evening of July 13th attempting in part to explain his motivations to the readers:

You will, no doubt, be hard on us rioters tomorrow morning, but that 300-dollar law has made us nobodies, vagabonds and outcasts of society, for whom no one cares when we must go to war and be shot down.  We are the poor rabble, and the rich rabble is our enemy by this law.  Therefore we will give our enemy battle right here, and ask no quarter.  Although we got hard fists, and are dirty without, we have soft hearts, and clean consciences within…Why don’t they let the nigger kill the slave-driving race and take possession of the South, as it belongs to them.[16]

The anonymous author of this piece identifies the sense of alienation and disaffection felt by many poor New Yorkers cut off from the mainstream, whose only recourse for action was to resort to violence.  The letter also belies an inherent racism towards African-Americans; the reference to sending African-Americans south to fight instead of the Northern poor suggests a disagreement with the principles of Emancipation as the newly defined locus of the war effort.

These justifications and rationale succinctly cover all of the grievances cited by both contemporaries and scholars as the primary causes underlying the riots.  Yet this attitude, however convincing, was not accepted by a large number of contemporary New Yorkers.  The Editor of the Times remarked in response to the letter that while “our correspondent is evidently very much in earnest…if our correspondent thinks that this justifies him in committing murder and arson…he will live to find out his mistake.”[17] The devastation of the riots for many could not be explained away with glib excuses.

For many decades, the historiography of the draft riots focused its attention on the issue of social and class tensions as a strong motivation for the riots.  Stereotypical accounts of the rioters from several biased contemporaries attempted to portray the mob as a mass of immigrants with no other motivation than petty destruction.

George Templeton Strong described a passing mob as “rabble” of “the lowest Irish day workers” and peppered his account of the riots with further references to these “Celtic” monsters terrorizing the streets.[18] However, Strong’s particular anti-Irish bias, though important for pointing out the demographic reality that a majority of the rioters were Irish in origins, is misleading.  Specific studies on the composition of the rioting masses, particularly those on the first day, have revealed interesting trends about their ranks.  Rather than merely a mass of angry poor, “the draft riots were remarkable for the participation of so many different kinds of workers.”[19]

This ability to draw upon a broad base of support indicates that the multiple grievances, which converged to create the preconditions necessary for a riot of the magnitude experienced in New York, were felt by a fairly broad cross-section of non-elite New York society.  For these workers, “the theme of opposition to unjust centralizing power was potent” and appealed to an expansive group of individuals with the ability to “see connections between economy and polity” and ultimately take on “their own initiative.”[20] The connection perceived in the minds of workers between Republican war policies and their own social and class tensions created an atmosphere that was conducive to the development of violent protest.

Related directly to the competition between classes is the issue of employment.  Given the demographic breakdown of the riots, with their clear Irish-American majority, particularly through the more violent phases during the latter half of the week, scholars have argued that the riots had their flashpoint “largely in a fear of black labour competition,” whereby it was believed that “upon Emancipation…great numbers of Negroes would cross the Mason-Dixon line, underbid them in the Northern labour market, and deprive them of jobs.”[21]

These fears lead to the notion that protests against conscription was a means through which workers could attempt to assert control over their economic futures in an increasingly uncertain employment environment.  Fear of an African-American flood into the New York job market (in a manner consistent with the way in which the Irish had taken control of the lowest paying jobs by undercutting the costs of labour throughout the city) during or after the war compounded resistance to conscription and for many lower class New Yorkers further linked opposition to conscription with one’s own current and future economic stability and prosperity.

The riot turned even more violent as the composition of the mob changed to include more virulent protestors, along with criminals and other delinquents.  Brutality and destruction spread as nightfall descended upon the city.  Dr. John Torrey, a distinguished botanist and professor who lectured at Columbia University, was confronted by the violent mob at his downtown home.  The crowd came to his house, demanding “to know if a republican lived there” and were only “induced to go away by one or two Catholic priests, who made pacific speeches to them.”[22] After escaping the ransack of his home and after being berated by “furious bareheaded and coatless men assembled under our windows,”[23] many of whom shouted their support for Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, Dr. Torrey watched the mob move against the Coloured-Orphan Asylum on 5th Avenue.  The mob, “rolling a barrel of kerosene in it” managed to set the whole building on fire, which was soon enough reduced to nothing more than “a smoking ruin.”[24]

The evening of the 13th illustrates a clear transition from the draft protests of the morning to a more violent and “indiscriminate attack upon the colored people, and upon those who were supposed to be in any way connected with the draft or with the Republican Party.”[25] Harper’s summed up the transition in grim terms:

Several buildings were sacked and burned. The Tribune was attacked, and only saved by the vigorous efforts of the police; negroes were hunted down, several were murdered under the most revolting circumstances…for a while it seemed that the city was under control of the mob…the movement, which was at first one in opposition to the draft, has developed into a scheme of plunder and robbery.[26]

This transition from strong protest to utter violence makes analysis of the draft riots a difficult affair.  Separating the legitimate grievances of the protesters early Monday from some of the more baser motivations exhibited Monday evening is complex, partly because there is no way to definitively know how many of the protestors from Monday morning made the transition to lynch-mob.

However, the abandonment of the riots by several identifiable groups central to their initiation helps illustrate the transition in mob composition and motivations during the first day.  By evening, early leaders such as Thomas Fitzsimmons and Richard Hennessey, who played roles in shutting down various businesses throughout Monday morning, had instead formed vigilance committees to assist authorities and police to protect private property.[27] Another of the “most obvious repudiations” of the violence was the Volunteer Fire Companies, one of whom, the Black Joke Engine Company, had actually, in an ironic twist, started the fire in the Ninth District Draft Office.[28] These companies would for the most part from this juncture on work instead to protect their own neighbourhoods.

In all, as Monday progressed, the rioters most concerned with the draft, acting in a “style of protest…familiar to all the city’s workers” were gradually replaced or superceded in leadership positions by men who had been present in the earlier protests but who “were willing from the outset to employ far more violent means,” even if it meant the destruction and removal of “all manifestations of the Republican social presence.”[29] This demographic shift in turn would alter the character of the riots and transform the mob into a bloodier and more sectarian multitude.

Many reporters condemned Democratic partisanship as being responsible for fanning the flames of the working classes discontent and inciting them to commit increasingly more violent and bloody retributions.  In its July 25th, 1863 edition, Harper’s Magazine lamented that “for many days past the newspapers which are said to speak the views of the Democratic leaders have denounced the conscription as unequal, unjust to the working-men, tyrannical and outrageous,” while “knowing perfectly well that…a conscription act was absolutely necessary.”[30]

These accusations of base partisan manipulation of the New York mobs for political reasons underscored the national political tensions caused by the riots.  The influence of Democrats, Copperheads and closet Confederate supporters was felt to be so great that some contemporaries even cited a Confederate conspiracy as the cause of the riots.  One particularly strong proponent of this theory was Gideon Welles, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of the Navy.  In his diary, he confided his fears on what he viewed as “indubitable evidences of concert in these riotous movements, beyond the accidental and impulsive out break of a mob,” suspecting instead that “this conjunction is not all accidental, but parts of a great plan.”[31] Welles, like many union politicians, remained dangerously unaware of the underlying issues that contributed to the breakout of the draft riots and of the potentially harmful consequences for the northern cause.

In many of the contemporary portrayals of the riots, the involvement of immigrants was used as a means of deflecting some of the blame for the riots towards already marginalized social groups within New York.  One group singled out both by contemporaries and by more modern historians are the Irish.  It is an undeniable demographic reality that the majority of the rioters were Irish, reflecting the social, economic, and political tensions particularly exasperated by their marginalized social position in the New York hierarchy.  And indeed, the Irish were largely supporters of the Democratic Party and strongly biased against African-Americans.

For many of these new immigrants, rioting became “a racial ritual of civic differentiation.”[32] However, even contemporaries realized that the Irish could not bear full responsibility for the riots.  Harper’s reasoned that while “some newspapers dwell upon the fact that the rioters were uniformly Irish, and hence argue that our trouble arises from the perversity of the Irish race,” given the existence of riots in every other major city in Europe, that “turbulence is no exclusive attribute of the Irish character: it is common to all mobs in all countries.”[33] The involvement of immigrant groups, particularly the Irish, is a reminder that the riots were sparked by grievances that most threatened the poorest economic and social classes.

These deep seated fears manifested themselves even more violently as the riots continued and the number of rioters began to grow.  Despite the pleadings of the city elites with the mobs, including New York Governor Horatio Seymour, an anti-Lincoln Democrat well known for his public diatribes against the unconstitutional quality of the draft, the riots continued raging on Tuesday July 14th.  Business was brought to a complete halt across the city.  Failing to heed Seymour’s plea to “refrain from all acts of violence and from all destruction of property,”[34] the violence continued, with a specific focus on African-Americans.  Even the New York Herald, normally a staunchly Democratic newspaper in its allegiances, wrote of the utter atrocities visited upon African-Americans by the riotous mobs:

The negroes of this city are certainly in a very unfortunate condition – that is, those who are left behind…a perfect reign of terror exists in the quarters of these helpless people, and if the troubles which now agitate our city continue during the week it is believed that not a single negro will remain within the metropolitan limits.[35]

The targeting of African-Americans for beatings and lynching, often in broad daylight, in the midst of the largest city in the North was a disturbing development of the riots which worsened as the week progressed.  It was a stark illustration of the deep seated racism and distressingly prejudicial attitudes that the draft riots had seemingly uncovered.

This extreme violence was underscored not only by employment issues but by one of the most pervasive reasons for the rioting: systemic northern racism, particularly directed towards African-Americans.  The lynching of numerous African-Americans outside their homes and in the streets of New York City, the torching of the Coloured Orphan Asylum, along with countless assaults and indignities endured by those not lucky enough to find refuge belies a tremendous and prevalent racism.

New York, with the second highest population of African-Americans in the North during the Civil War era, was a hub of “Negrophobe propaganda, generally circulated by Democrats” that “reinforced popular views about the status of the coloured man: that he was intellectually and morally inferior, a sub-species of the human race” and “unsuited for northern climates.”[36] These prevalent beliefs were held in check largely until the passing of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act in early 1863.  These acts unleashed a new series of fears, related largely to the above mentioned socio-economic fear “that white draftees would fight and die only to free Negroes who would take their jobs and homes after the war.”[37]

Despite the prevalence of racism, the alacrity and speed with which white mobs settled into a pattern of targeting African-Americans for assault and murder is damaging to a post-war narrative premised on white consent for African-American emancipation.  However, many Northern contemporaries found these views and acts appalling.  Harper’s argued that “every sober man in the country” knew that “this mad hatred of the colored race” was “entirely undeserved” and further declared that the treatment accorded to them by both the mobs and by Northern society in general was despicable, “a treatment which of itself disproves our [supposed] superiority.”[38] Nevertheless, the draft riots provided ample proof of the continued existence of pervasive racism at many levels throughout Northern society, a racism which reared its ugly head in the context of the riots.

Other headlines in the Times’ coverage of Tuesday’s riots included: the destruction of the Brooks Brothers Clothing Store; shootings of police officers; the beatings and murder of African-Americans on Thompson, Sullivan and Leroy Street; and even an attack on the office of the Times itself.[39] A correspondent from Harper’s reported that “the rioters were dragging the body of a man along the sidewalk with a rope,”[40] which turned out to be that of a Colonel O’Brien of the Eleventh New York Regiment.  He was killed in retribution for the deaths of a few rioters at the hands of soldiers now attempting, in cooperation with volunteers and local law enforcement, to drive the mobs back and break them apart.

This senseless violence, now directed at any symbol or person thought to be connected in some way to Emancipation, the Republican Party, the draft or authority in general, continued on and off through the remainder of the week.  The riots would ultimately require military intervention to bring the violence to a halt.  Regiments marching north from the recent victories at Gettysburg battled with rioters in the streets, and finally by the end of the week regained the upper hand.  It was only by July 16th that George Templeton Strong felt sufficiently confident enough to declare in his diary that “the trouble is over,” though even he entertained concerns that the rioting might be rekindled.[41] The riots were over, but fear and uncertainly continued to dominate New York City for some time after the violence ended.

The grisly nature of the draft riots raises several integral questions concerning the grievances motivating those involved.  Clearly, opposition to the war existed in many forms.  Yet the violent manifestation of so many seemingly interrelated grievances, in the heart of what many Americans rightly viewed as the most urbanized centre in the whole Union, indicates that opposition to the war was far deeper and more complex than politicians and pundits had realized.  It is thus important to examine the justifications and rationales offered by both rioters and contemporaries as a means of accounting for the riots within the overall narrative of the Civil War.

The riots raise the critical question of support for the war and its newly articulated causes.  Certainly, opposition to the war was not limited to Irish-Americans.  Opposition from all social and ethnic groups played an essential part in forming the grievances that would in turn help spark the riots.  Despite recent Union victories, opposition to the war remained high in many locales throughout the North, and was made increasingly vocal through the Democrat sponsored political press which spurned the continuance of the Republican war effort.

Yet despite oppositionists, there remained a significant body of opinion in the North that the draft, having possible legislative weaknesses, was of extreme importance due to the urgency of continuing the war effort.  In its review of the year 1863, the Times argued that the draft “was a question involving the success of the war, and, therefore, the very existence of that Government,” and likened opposition to the draft to opposing “the war as effectively as if they took up arms and fought in the rebel ranks.”[42]

Increased opposition to the prolongation of the Civil War was inexorably linked to the larger debate over the aims of the war.  In addition to military setbacks and political opposition to the Republican’s handling of the war effort, it is important to remember that the winter of 1863 saw another critical piece of federal legislation passed named the Emancipation Proclamation.  Promulgated on January 1st, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation’s passing meant for many Northerners that the “war had been transformed into a crusade against slavery,” a move that meant potentially “thousands of ardent supporters of the Union would no longer be interested” and that “confidence in Lincoln, who had declared that preservation of the Union was the paramount issue, would be undermined.”[43]

In summary, as historian Iver Bernstein remarked, “it is not hard to see, then, how the Conscription Act – biased against the poor, magnifying white racial fears, and involving the federal government as never before in local affairs – galvanized ongoing conflicts in the city.”[44] The vast number of grievances, both national and local in scale, combined to create an untenable atmosphere that with the correct mix of provocation proved deadly.

Riots were also “endemic” throughout the mid-nineteenth century in New York, and represented an established means of social protest, understandable given the harsh living conditions of the majority and the “unholy trinity” of gangs, fire companies and politics.[45] In short, the start of riots cannot be explained away simply as the result of extremely localized conditions.  One must concede that the riots “raised many questions about class and the burdens of war; about Republican leadership; about unity in the North; and about Northern whites’ willingness to make sacrifices perceived to be for the benefit of Southern blacks.”[46] It is important that “disaffection and violence in this matters are not to be glibly explained,” but rather viewed as the consequence of a vast convergence of factors ranging from “party feeling, race prejudice, agitation for peace” and every other imaginable major socially and politically divisive issue.[47] This wide variety of grievances in New York City alone illustrates the tensions wracking the Union during this critical juncture in the Civil War, what historian James McPherson referred to as “the fire in the rear.”  Despite the victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the riots in New York City indicate that it is important to realize that at this stage in 1863, the future course of the war was very much a matter for speculation.

The greater meaning of the New York City draft riots in the narrative of the Civil War is an important question with broad implications for many commonly held assumptions over the motivations for fighting the war, particularly for arguments concerning the homogeneity of the North in its support of the conflict.  As Eric Foner reflected, while “the Civil War consolidated the national state while identifying that state, via emancipation, with the interests of all humanity,” it was “these developments” which “also galvanized bitter wartime opposition.”[48] The draft riots thus represent the accumulation of these grievances.  Foner’s argument that the New York City draft riots were the culmination of “all the elements of opposition to the war and its consequences”[49] is a powerful idea that illustrates the tremendous reservations that contemporary New Yorkers had about the war and the values they were fighting to uphold.  The intense reaction over racial conflict that surfaced during the draft riots would resonate not only within the confines of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. The idea of racial equality and the existence of a powerful, centralized nation-state to ensure those rights, continued to play a key role in influencing American history up until the Civil Rights Era one-hundred years later.  Thus the draft riots provide an extremely potent illustration that “for North and South alike, the war’s legacy was fraught with ambiguity,”[50] and that the central issues of the war were very much unresolved even within the heart of the Union.

In conclusion, the draft riots that rocked New York City beginning in mid-July of 1863 are a microcosm of a multiplicity of grievances racking the North during the Civil War.  Ostensively started by resistance to the federal Conscription Act, the riots were a confluence of several underlying political and racial conditions present across the North during the war.  The reality of the Emancipation Proclamation, the rampant sectionalism of the North and its ambivalence over the war, all converged during the draft riots. New York City, with its large immigrant population, entrenched Democratic politics and deeply engrained racist traditions provided a fertile environment for the development of a violent reactionary movement.

The further existence of a social tradition emphasizing strikes and walkouts as a means of protest, along with a history of rioting, further hastened the development of conditions conducive for the outbreak of a full blown riot.  Accounts of the riots show how it moved away from being merely a protest against a draft system unfairly targeting the economic sub strata, into city-wide violence directed against African-Americans and symbols of Republican authority.  The rioters, particularly the Irish, who would bear a burden of guilt for the riots far beyond their actual responsibility, were fueled by fears raised by Democratic Party demagoguery, journalism, and a deeply engrained racism.

The New York City draft riots were much more than what Civil War apologists have characterized as being merely a violent Irish donnybrook. Though ultimately the draft riots failed to bring any resolution to the issue of conscription, they have come to symbolize the vast ideological and political gulf that separated Americans during the Civil War and for future generations.


[1] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 590.

[2] Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 7.

[3] McPherson, p. 600.

[4] McPherson, p. 600.

[5] Bernstein, p. 8.

[6] Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863, (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1974), p. 50.

[7] Bernstein, p. 8.

[8] Cook, p. 51.

[9] Cook, p. 51.

[10] Edward B. Freeland, “The Great Riot,” Continental Monthly, Sept. 1863.

[11] A. Hunter Dupree and Leslie H. Fishel, Jr, “An Eyewitness Account of the New York Draft Riots, July, 1863,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Dec. 1960), p. 472.

[12] Bernstein, p. 13.

[13] Bernstein, p. 14.

[14] Harper’s Weekly, July 25th, 1863.

[15] George Templeton Strong, The Diary of George Templeton Strong, Ed. Allan Nevins and M.H. Thomas, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1952), p. 238.

[16] New York Times, “A Letter from one of the Rioters,” July 15th, 1863.

[17] New York Times, “A Letter from one of the Rioters,” July 15th, 1863.

[18] Strong, p. 335.

[19] Bernstein, p. 124.

[20] Bernstein, p. 124.

[21] Albon P. Man, Jr, “Labor Competition and the New York City Draft Riots of 1863,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 36, No. 4 (Oct. 1951), p. 375.

[22] A. Hunter Dupree and Fishel, p. 476.

[23] A. Hunter Dupree and Fishel, p. 476.

[24] A. Hunter Dupree and Fishel, p. 476.

[25] Harper’s Weekly, July 25th, 1863.

[26] Harper’s Weekly, July 25th, 1863.

[27] Bernstein, p. 21.

[28] Bernstein, p. 21.

[29] Bernstein, p. 41.

[30] Harper’s Weekly, July 25th, 1863.

[31] Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume 1, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1911), p. 369.

[32] Mathew Fry Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 52.

[33] Harper’s Weekly, August 1st, 1863.

[34] New York Times, “Doings of Gov. Seymour,” July 15th, 1863.

[35] New York Herald, ”Conscription,” July 15th, 1863.

[36] Dupree and Fishel, p. 473.

[37] Dupree and Fishel, p. 474.

[38] Harper’s Weekly, August 1st, 1863.

[39] New York Times, “Facts and Incidents of the Riot,” July 16th, 1863.

[40] Harper’s Weekly, August 1st, 1863.

[41] Strong, p. 340.

[42] New York Times, “Review of the War,” August 7th, 1863.

[43] John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1963), p. 83.

[44] Bernstein, p. 10.

[45] Cook, p. 29.

[46] Jacobson, p. 52.

[47] J. G. Randall, The Civil War and Reconstruction, (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1961), p. 318

[48] Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, (New York: Harper and Row, 1990), p. 13.

[49] Foner, p. 14.

[50] Foner, p. 14.

3 responses to “The Role of the New York City Draft Riots in the American Civil War

  1. Kelly

    I’m doing a 50-page paper on the Draft Riots and this has helped me tremendously. Thanks!

  2. Jim Strickler

    Great article. Thanks. Are you the Steve Bennett of Grinnell, Iowa?

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