Category: Archive

139 years ago: The Draft Riots Begin

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

First of three parts:

One hundred thirty-nine years ago this week, on July 13, 1863, the streets of New York erupted in violence. Thousands of workers, a great many of them Irish and Irish American, began attacking Union Army draft offices and other targets associated with the Civil War and the Republican administration. The initial violence quickly disintegrated into general anarchy that ran for four days. When it was over, more than a hundred people lay dead and large sections of the nation’s largest city lay smoldering. What’s more, the Irish in America were left with a black mark on their collective reputation that would take decades to overcome.

The story of the Draft Riot necessarily begins with the Civil War. When fighting between North and South began in the spring of 1861, Union Army recruiting stations were overwhelmed by men eager to join the fight (the same was true, of course, in the South). Few men on either side expected the war to last more than a few weeks. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, spoke for many Northerners when he boasted that “Jeff Davis and Co. will be swinging from the battlements at Washington at least by the 4th of July.” On paper this confidence seemed justified, for the northern states possessed more than twice population (22 million to 5.5 million free and 3.5 million enslaved) and nine times the industrial capacity of the Confederacy.

But subsequent events made clear just how unrealistic these hopes were. Beset by a series of incompetent generals and a host of other problems, the Union’s Army of the Potomac in the east performed poorly in the field. On several occasions it appeared that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee might drive it from the field and take Washington, D.C.

By mid-1862 it was clear to all that the war would be long and bloody. Later that year Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which effectively announced the abolition of slavery. It was a measure Lincoln deemed necessary to win the war, but it also produced intense opposition among certain groups of Northerners, including many poor Irish who feared labor competition with free blacks. War weariness, not to mention anti-war sentiment, rose in the North and suddenly Union Army recruiting stations were empty. If Lincoln was to make good on his promise to preserve the Union at all costs, a second drastic measure was needed.

In March of 1863, Congress passed the Conscription Act (the first in U.S. history), which declared all male citizens (and immigrants who had applied for citizenship) aged 20-45 eligible to be drafted into the Union Army. Each district would be responsible for supplying a quota of men once Lincoln decided to issue a call for more soldiers. If drafted, a man had several options short of serving in the Union Army. He could pay a “commutation fee” of $300 to the government, hire a substitute to serve in his place (which might cost less than $300), or disappear — something that more than 20 percent of draftees did. To establish a list of potential draftees, the War Department sent officials into every congressional district to register the eligible men.

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The first draft, held in mid-July, touched off widespread protest, despite the encouraging news of Union victories at Gettysburg in the east and Vickburg in the west. Violence broke out in Boston; Troy, N.Y.; Wooster, Ohio; Portsmouth, N.H., and other cities. Some denounced the draft as an affront to democratic liberty. Others focused on what they termed its “aristocratic” provisions that allowed the wealthy to buy their way out of service (the $300 commutation fee exceeded the annual income of many poor laborers). More and more, they argued, it was becoming “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

The draft also incited anger among those Northerners, principally Democrats, who initially had been willing to support a war to preserve the Union but who now balked at fighting a war for emancipation. Many politicians in the years before the war had used the issue of emancipation and the specter of cheap African labor flooding Northern cities to rally urban workers — especially the Irish — to the Democratic Party. The message to the Irish was clear: if you think it’s tough to earn a living now, just wait until you have to compete with hundreds of thousands of black workers willing to work for less money. It was an opportunistic message of fear that ignored the fact that for the previous 30 years Irish immigrants had bumped blacks from many jobs. Nonetheless, it stoked racist animosity among the Irish.

The worst incidents of anti-draft violence occurred in New York City. The first day of the draft, Saturday, July 11, resulted in 1,236 names drawn. Despite rumblings and rumors of protest, it ended without incident. The plan was to resume the draft on Monday morning. Discontent among working-class New Yorkers was palpable Saturday night and on Sunday (when no draft was held) as people pored over the lists and found names of men they knew. Conspicuously absent were the names of any wealthy or prominent New Yorkers. Sunday also happened to be July 12 — an infamous day in Irish history, marking the defeat of the forces of King James II by William of Orange in 1690 and the subsequent imposition of the draconian Penal Laws. The mood in Irish neighborhoods like the Five Points grew ugly by Sunday night, a fact indicated by the many bonfires set on street corners.

Signs that there would be trouble when the draft resumed emerged early Monday morning when mobs of workers formed and began moving north toward the draft office at East 46th Street and Third Avenue. It did not help that the weather was hot and humid — prime conditions, sociologists assert, for a riot.

By the time the draft office opened, a crowd of 5,000 had gathered in the surrounding streets. Moments after the first names were drawn, a volunteer fire company called the Black Joke, apparently enraged that one its members had been drafted on Saturday, stormed the office and destroyed the lottery wheel used to draw names. This action unleashed the pent up fury of the crowd, which destroyed what remained of the office and set it on fire.

The riot — the worst civil insurrection in American history — was on.


July 11, 1921: War for Independence ends with truce between British and the IRA.

July 13, 1940: two of Irish America’s most powerful families — the Fords and the McDonnells — are joined through marriage as Henry Ford II marries Anne McDonnell, daughter of Wall Street tycoon James Francis McDonnell.

July 14, 1881: Outlaw Billy the Kid (William Bonney) is killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in New Mexico.


July 13, 1942: Actor Harrison Ford is born in Chicago.

July 13, 1818: Hugh O’Brien, first Irish mayor of Boston, is born in Maguiresbridge, Co. Fermanagh.

July 15, 1899: Taoiseach Sean Lemass is born in Ballybrack, Co. Dublin.

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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