In April 1862, the Confederacy passed the first general draft in United States history. Although Lincoln initially resisted the measure, the U.S. Congress passed a similar draft calling for 300,000 troops in 1863. Two years into the Civil War, both the Union and Confederate armies were plagued by deserters. With tens of thousands of battlefield deaths and an equal number of deaths from disease, the Union Army was desperately in need of manpower. The conscription law targeted men between the ages of 20 and 35, and all unmarried white men up to the age of 45 for military service. Neither side was happy about the draft—but the Enrollment Act proved particularly unpopular in the North. When the first names were called on 13 July 1863, New York City exploded into class and race warfare. During the four-day long riot, 50,000 Irish-American men rampaged through Manhattan. The New York City draft riots remain the bloodiest civilian insurrection in United States history.
What were the riots really about?
Vocal opponents of the Civil War, members of the Peace wing of the Democratic Party (nicknamed “Copperheads“) were incensed by the draft law, which allowed rich draftees to hire someone as a substitute in their place. If you could find someone to fight for you, you were permanently exempted from the draft. The Conscription Act of 1863 also permitted men to pay a commutation fee of $300—the yearly wage of a common laborer—to buy their way our of the army, although they might be drafted again in the next levy. New York State also offered “bounties” in order to incentivize men to sign up as “volunteers.” These bonuses added up to more than $700 per man (over $12,000 in 2013). Substitutes received the same financial benefits as volunteers. Denounced as, “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight,” these provisions led to widespread civil unrest.
Who bought their way out of the draft?
Some of New York City’s most prominent citizens took advantage of the policy. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s fathers both purchased $300 commutations (T.R. Roosevelt was reportedly mortified by this piece of family history). J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, also bought their way out of the war. The country’s illustrious list of draft dodgers even included a future U.S. president: Grover Cleveland paid a 32-year-old Polish immigrant $150 to take his place in the ranks.
Was there a racist component to the riots?
Tragically, yes. Although class tensions played a major role, it’s important to acknowledge that the riots were also racially motivated. Many members of New York City’s large Irish underclass were enraged that they were being forced to abandon their families for a war that they had no stake in. By 1860, one of every four of New York City’s 800,000 residents was an Irish-born immigrant. The vast majority of them were unskilled laborers forced to toil away as ditch diggers, street pavers, cartmen, and coal heavers. In many of these industries, they competed directly with African-American workers who had lived and worked in New York City since well before the Revolutionary War. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 only escalated the tension. Although many middle-class and wealthy Republicans supported abolition, the city’s Irish underclass feared they would be put out of work by a large influx of newly emancipated slaves.
The New York Times reports:
“Many Northern whites concluded that the combined policies of emancipation and conscription meant that they would be forced to risk their lives in a war to free black slaves. In addition, Democratic politicians and newspapers convinced their constituents, including many Irish immigrants, that emancipation would allow the freedmen to move North to take their jobs and marry their daughters.”
As the violence escalated, the rioters began shouting racial slurs and systematically torching the homes of African Americans. A mob even burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum on west 44th Street—thankfully, its 237 children escaped to safety at the last moment. Many racially mixed couples were violently assaulted. More than 115 people lost their lives, including nearly a dozen black men who were lynched after being brutally beaten.
How did the violence end?
Although Democratic politicians initially tried to appease the rioters, Republicans called for forceful action. Since Robert E. Lee, the invading Confederate commander, had crossed back into Virginia following his defeat at Gettysburg, Lincoln was able to dispatch five regiments to New York City:
“The federal troops arrived on Wednesday, July 15, as the demonstrators continued attacking blacks, the wealthy, Protestant missions, and Republicans (who were identified with the previous three groups). Fierce fighting between soldiers and their allies and the rioters lasted until Thursday evening, July 16. By Friday, 6000 soldiers were dispersed throughout the city, and the situation began returning to normal.”
Lincoln reduced New York’s draft quota by more than half. Although conscription resumed on August 19th without further violence, many blacks fled in the aftermath. The riots resulted in a 20 percent decline in New York City’s African-American population during the Civil War.
Feature image: 1863 New York City draft riots via Long Island Wins