Category: Archive

139 years ago: the Draft Riots

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Second of three parts

One hundred thirty-nine years ago this month, during the week of July 13-16, 1863, the streets of New York exploded in a violent episode known as the Draft Riots. It claimed the lives of more than one hundred people and destroyed millions of dollars in property — all while the Union struggled to defeat the Confederacy on the battlefield. Because so many of the rioters were Irish and Irish American, the incident tarnished their collective reputation and strengthened existing anti-Irish sentiment among native-born Americans.

The riot at the draft office at East 46th Street quickly spread throughout the city. As in most riots, the mobs that coursed through the streets did not engage in purely random acts of violence. Instead, they focused on carefully chosen targets that symbolized their grievances. Recruiting stations, draft offices, armories, and anything associated with the Union Army came under attack. So too did symbols of the Republican party — the party of war, emancipation, and the draft. Both the New York Times and New York Tribune, staunchly pro-Republican and pro-war papers (not to mention pro-emancipation), were attacked several times. In addition, rioters attacked the wealthy — so-called “three hundred dollar men” — who were able to buy their way out of the draft. Mansions on Fifth Avenue were sacked and burned, as was the Brooks Brothers store. Rioters also took out their anger on local symbols of authority, most especially the New York Police Department. One of the first men attacked was Police Chief John Kennedy. No one in the mob cared that he was a fellow Irishman and they beat him nearly to death before he was rescued.

Although they focused much of their anger against symbols of the war and the Republican party, the rioters also assaulted African Americans. One of the first institutions attacked was the Colored Orphans Asylum, located near the present day New York Public Library on 42nd Street. Rioters burned it to the ground, but amazingly none of the children or staff inside were killed. They were saved by the heroic efforts of one Paddy McCafferty, who guided them into a nearby police station. Other African Americans, however, were not so fortunate. At least 11 blacks were lynched by the mob. Many of the lynchings included particularly savage acts, including burning and dismemberment. One Irishman named Patrick Butler, whose nickname was “Butcher,” was later cited as the man who amputated the fingers and toes of a black man named Abraham Franklin.

Despite its importance to the Union, New York City had only a skeleton military presence. The so-called Invalid Corps, made up mainly of injured soldiers, was called out to quell the riot, but was quickly scattered by the much larger mob. Squads of police were likewise attacked and driven away. With the mob in control of the streets of the Union’s largest city, frantic telegrams were sent to Washington, D.C., pleading for troops.

Late Monday night the heavens opened up and the city was deluged with a most welcomed downpour. The rain extinguished the most of the fires and prevented a much larger conflagration from developing. It also drove the rioters indoors and cooled their rage. City officials hoped the relatively peaceful night meant the riot was over. The next morning, however, the violence resumed. It convinced many that this was no spontaneous uprising, but, rather, a planned insurrection led by Confederate spies (it wasn’t).

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Tuesday morning brought more steamy weather and renewed rioting. Again, African Americans, Republicans, soldiers, policemen and the wealthy came under attack. But increasingly the original focus of the rioting — protest against a class-biased draft and a war for emancipation — had devolved into an opportunistic free for all. It’s also here that the rioters become more identifiably Irish as the city’s poor underclass seized on the riot as an opportunity to vent their rage at a system they viewed as oppressive and unjust — not unlike African Americans in the 1960s.

To stymie efforts to restore order, mobs built barricades, tore up streetcar tracks, and cut telegraph lines. City officials responded by mobilizing more policemen and nearby federal troops. Col. Henry O’Brien of the Eleventh New York Volunteers used a howitzer to clear Second Avenue and killed a woman and child. The next day he was seized by the mob and torn to pieces. Citizens (including, in some cases, many Irish) formed vigilance committees to protect their neighborhoods and property. Volunteer fire companies, also manned by many Irish, struggled to contain fires. Irish priests also took to the streets to stop the violence. Fr. Treanor of Transfiguration Church, for example, intervened and stopped a lynching.

On Wednesday the tide began to turn as the first of several thousand troops arrived fresh from the smoldering fields of Gettysburg. All day Wednesday and Thursday, they stormed the rioters’ strongholds using howitzers loaded with grape shot to mow down the mob. In some neighborhoods they engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat as they moved building to building. By now the police had also regrouped and began to retake streets and make arrests.

By Thursday night the riot was over. Now it was time to assess the damage, bury the dead, and ask how on earth such a terrible thing could happen.


July 18, 1921: Brigadier General Billy Mitchell demonstrates the future significance of aviation in warfare by sinking a German destroyer seized during World War I.

July 21, 1873: Jesse James and his gang stage the first train robbery in America, nabbing $3,000 from the Rock Island Express at Adair, Iowa.

July 23, 1803: Robert Emmett’s stages his ill-fated uprising of United Irishmen in Dublin.


July 18, 1874: Irish Revolutionary Cathal Brugha, is born in Dublin.

July 22, 1890: Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy, mother of President John F. Kennedyis born in Boston.

July 23, 1936: Anthony Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, is born in Sacramento, Calif.

Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.

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