Draft Riots in New York City; Union Troops Fresh from Gettysburg Sent to Quell Unrest

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Draft Riots in New York City; Union Troops Fresh from Gettysburg Sent to Quell Unrest

"Battle in Second Avenue and Twenty Second Street at the Union Steam Works, July 14"
Published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 1, 1863
Image from http://newyorkdraftriots.blogspot.com
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: July 13-16

Today's posting is a bit more about the homefront during the American Civil War, but it required extreme measures to end bloody rioting in New York City.


In 1863 the Civil War entered its third year, with no resolution in sight. The manpower needs of the Union were enormous. Most of the men whose first glow of patriotic ardor had impelled them to enlist were already in the field, or else they had died. Recruiting offices were falling short of their quotas, and the federal government in Washington, DC was becoming worried.

As a result, the U.S. Congress passed – and President Lincoln signed – the Enrollment Act, on March 3, 1863. It was also known as the Civil War Military Draft Act. The controversial act required the enrollment of every male citizen and those immigrants who had filed for citizenship between ages 20 and 45. Federal agents established a quota of new troops due from each congressional district.

The U.S. Provost Marshal General James Barnet Fry administered the national implementation of the Enrollment Act and answered directly to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Beneath Provost Marshal General Fry were the State Acting Assistant Provost Marshal Generals. The State Provost Marshal Generals were not authorized by the Enrollment Act, but were appointed personally by James Fry to attend to matters in each individual state.

Each state was divided along district lines with each district under the jurisdiction of an enrollment board. The enrollment boards were headed by a district provost marshal and also included a surgeon and a commissioner. Each enrollment board employed clerks, deputies, and special agents as needed. The enrollment boards divided themselves into sub-districts along ward (in cities) and township (in rural areas) lines. In each sub-district a census was conducted by an enrollment officer to document every man eligible for the draft in the sub-district.

One part of the act's provisions stated that all unmarried men in a district would be conscripted prior to any married man. There were two other provisions that inspired loathing of the Enrollment Act.

Recruiting poster for enlistment in Michigan, 1864; Notice the $300 bounty is emphasized to "avoid the draft"; (Image courtesy of http://prophecypanicbutton.wordpress.com)
Recruiting poster for enlistment in Michigan, 1864
Notice the $300 bounty is emphasized to "avoid the draft"
(Image courtesy of http://prophecypanicbutton.wordpress.com)

One way of avoiding the draft was to pay a commutation fee of $300. Commutation was intended to raise money for the war effort. The rationalization for this process was that unwilling troops were ineffective, so the government may as well extract funds from the unwilling if it couldn't get proficient service. While commutation did raise war funds, it was often a criticism of the draft that it was better at raising money than troops. In addition, the $300 was considered a way for a man of moderate financial means to avoid the draft.

The other, more controversial way, was by hiring a substitute. In many cases, a substitute would collect compensation – usually called a "bounty" – then desert before his unit would be sent to the front. He would then move to a new area or state, and start the process all over again. These men became known as "bounty jumpers," and they were almost universally reviled as cowards. One man was known to have "jumped" 32 times. As many states and cities also offered their own bounties, some men could make up to $1000 per "jump." Most Union privates earned a mere $13 a month, so bounty jumping, while dangerous, could also be highly lucrative. [Such men, when caught, were often treated more harshly than homesick deserters. Many of the jumpers were hung.]

Many immigrants, lower-class, and low-wage workers complained bitterly that they were going to shoulder the main burden of enlistment, as most them were unable to pony up the necessary $300. This led to the coining of the phrase "rich man's war, poor man's fight."

New York City: The Perfect Powderkeg

New York City's economy was closely tied with the South, as by 1822 half of the city's exports were cotton. There were many Southern sympathizers when war broke out, one of them being the city's Democratic mayor who urged that New York City declare its own independence. In addition, there were thousands of Irish and German immigrants living in the city, many only able to get menial, low-paying jobs. Many freed blacks and immigrants competed for the same jobs.

The Tammany Hall political machine vigorously recruited newly-minted citizen immigrants to vote for Democratic candidates. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 proved the power of the up-and-coming Republican Part. In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 worried many New York residents, as they feared freedmen would now converge on the city and begin taking away jobs from the lower-wage earners. Despite the fact that many areas of New York had mixed ethnic neighborhoods, the blacks were looked down upon by everyone. In March of 1863, white longshoremen refused to work with blacks and rioted.

The Rioting Begins…

The first drawing of numbers for the draft in New York City took place on Saturday, July 11 without incident, and over half of the city's 2000-man quota was drawn. Things changed, however, on Monday the 13th. At 10:00 am, a crowd of at least 500 men gathered at the Ninth District Provost Marshall's office at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft was taking place. Many members of the crowd were Irish laborers who feared having to compete with emancipated slaves for jobs. They were led by members of Engine Company #33, whose captain had conceived the idea of burning the draft office down to destroy the records so none of his men would be drafted. The mob attacked the office, throwing paving stones through the windows, then bursting through the front door and set the building ablaze. Another fire company sent to fight the fire was attacked, its horses killed and equipment broken up.

Provost Marshall's office ablaze at start of NYC draft riots, July 13, 1863; Engraving (artist unknown); image courtesy of http://history1800s.about.com
Provost Marshall's office ablaze at start of NYC draft riots, July 13, 1863
Engraving (artist unknown); image courtesy of http://history1800s.about.com

Shortly afterward the police superintendent, John A. Kennedy, arrived at the site to check on the situation. Although not in uniform, he was recognized by people in the mob who attacked him. Kennedy was left nearly unconscious, having had his face bruised and cut, his eye injured, lips swollen, and his hand cut with a knife; he was beaten to a mass of bruises and blood all over his body. Police drew their clubs and revolvers and charged the crowd, but were overpowered.

The rioting crowd grew as the day went on. A local tavern that refused to serve alcohol to the mob was burned. Soon, any blacks seen in the streets were targeted by the rioters, mainly as the perceived scapegoats of the war and the draft, as well as potential jobseekers. Many of these unfortunates were beaten, some were tortured, and others were lynched. One man was attacked by a crowd of 400, beaten with clubs and paving stones, then hanged and his corpse set afire. At least 100 blacks were killed for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Other buildings in the city attacked by the mob included the Mayor's residence, two police stations, and the offices of the New York Times. The attack on the Times building was thwarted by the staff members manning Gatling guns. The Federal armory at 2nd Avenue and 21st Street was another target of the rioters.

Burning of the Colored Orphan's Asylum, from the London Illustrated News, August 15, 1863; Image from digital collection of the New York Public Library; (Image courtesy of http://history1800s.about.com)
"Burning of the Colored Orphan's Asylum," from the London Illustrated News, August 15, 1863
Image from digital collection of the New York Public Library
(Image courtesy of http://history1800s.about.com)

At about 4:00 pm a crowd of several thousand people – including women and children – besieged the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. The mob tried to break into the building, but the quick-thinking superintendent barricades the main doors. This action allowed nearly 200 children to escape through the back door. Soon after, the rioters broke into the building, smashed furniture, ransacked it for food, and then set fire to the four-story structure. A local police official pleaded with the mob to disperse, and was promptly attacked and beaten. A fire company which arrived to battle the blaze was attacked and had to retreat, leaving the building to burn.

Heavy rain fell on Monday night, helping to abate the fires and sending rioters home, but the crowd returned the next day. Commerce in the city was halted, with workers joining the crowd. Throughout the city makeshift barricades were built in the streets to keep the police out. Rioters attacked the homes of notable Republicans. New York Governor Horatio Seymour arrived on Tuesday and spoke at City Hall, where he attempted to assuage the crowd by proclaiming the Conscription Act was unconstitutional. In an attempt to quell the unrest, General John E. Wool, Commander of the Eastern District, brought approximately 800 troops in from forts in the New York Harbor and from nearby West Point. He also ordered the state militias to return to New York.

"Battle of the Barricades" by J.F.J. Tresch (1887); From book Recollections of a New York Chief of Police by George W. Walling; (Image courtesy of the digital collection of the NY Public Library at http://digitalgallery.nypl.org)
"Battle of the Barricades" by J.F.J. Tresch (1887)
From book Recollections of a New York Chief of Police by George W. Walling
(Image courtesy of the digital collection of the NY Public Library at http://digitalgallery.nypl.org)

On Wednesday July 15, units of the New York State Militia (NYSM) began arriving in the beleaguered city, primarily the 65th and 74th NYSM regiments, as well as a section of the 20th Independent Battery, NY Volunteer Artillery. In addition, a number of Federal regiments – mostly federalized New York Volunteer or National Guard units – were sent to the city. These included the  5th, 9th, 11th, 47th and 152nd NY Volunteer Infantry regiments, the 14th NY Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, and the 7th, 8th, and 22nd NY National Guard regiments. These men joined the police in attempts to quell the bloodshed and protect private property.

The arrival of these troops had some effect on the rioters. Another was the announcement by Assistant Provost Marshall Robert Nugent that the draft would be suspended. As a result of these two acts, many rioters stayed home. However, many other continued their rampages throughout Manhattan. In addition, Federal troops began arriving in the city after having participated in the battle of Gettysburg less than two weeks earlier. These included the 26th Michigan and the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry regiments. With the arrival of battle-hardened Union troops, order began to prevail throughout the city. However, on Thursday night there was one final confrontation between the Federal troops and police on one side and the rioters on the other. It took place near Gramercy Park, and was said to have led to the death of at least 12 civilian rioters.


The exact death toll during the New York Draft Riots is unknown, but according to historian James M. McPherson, at least 120 civilians were killed. At least eleven black men were killed by lynching. Violence by longshoremen against black men was especially fierce in the docks area.

The most reliable estimates indicate that at least 2,000 people were injured. Herbert Asbury, the author of the 1928 book Gangs of New York, upon which the 2002 film was based, puts the figure much higher, at 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded, but this figure is not widely accepted and is considered myth. Total property damage was about $1-5 million (between $15-$75 million in 2011 dollars adjusted for inflation). Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the riots were "equivalent to a Confederate victory". Fifty buildings, including two Protestant churches and the Colored Orphan Asylum, burned to the ground.

Footnote #1: On August 19, the government resumed the draft in New York. It was completed within 10 days without further incident. Fewer men were drafted than had been feared by the working class: of the 750,000 selected nationwide for conscription, only about 45,000 went into service.

Footnote #2: Many wealthy Democratic businessmen sought to have the draft declared unconstitutional. At the same time, Tammany Democrats did not seek to have the draft declared unconstitutional, but helped pay the commutation fees for those who were drafted.

Footnote #3: The final portion of the 2002 movie "Gangs of New York," starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, took place during the 1863 draft riots.

2002 theatrical release poster
2002 theatrical release poster

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.