New York Draft Riots: Civil War Turmoil
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and thereby broadened the North’s reasons for fighting the Civil War. Its original aim was preservation of the Union. Lincoln’s proclamation made abolition of slavery—and with it the South’s economic foundation—a central objective of the war. The addition of Black soldiers to the formerly all-white Northern regiments strengthened the Union army. However, even with these new additions the Yankee forces were still in dire need of more recruits.
Congress’ answer to the shortage of troops was the Conscription Act, passed in March 1863. This law established the first draft in U.S. history. Under its provisions, men between the ages of 20 and 45 were enrolled in the draft lottery. A controversial clause in the act provided an escape for those who could afford it. For $300 or the provision of a substitute, a man could remain safe from the carnage of the battlefields. Not surprisingly, the rich benefited most from the exemption clause.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the July 14, 1863, issue of the New York Herald (New York City)
New York City was hot in July of 1863, both in temperature and the city’s long-simmering class conflicts. German and Irish immigrants were resistant to the draft as they pursued fresh lives in their new homeland. In addition, competition for jobs between the white immigrants and free Blacks raised tensions to a breaking point.
On July 11, 1863, the first names of the new draft were drawn without incident. Two days later, the response was quite different. German and Irish immigrants banded together and began to march in a protest that turned violent. Draft buildings were burned, the rolls of names destroyed, and institutions and persons associated with enforcement of the conscription law were targeted. Anger against the draft law transformed into bloody and violent confrontations between the city’s clashing classes. Blacks in particular received the brunt of the violence. The Irish were viewed as the perpetrators of most of the death and destruction.
The riots came to an end when the draft was suspended and military forces were brought in to control the mobs. Some speculated that the riots had been instigated by agents from the South as an attempt to sabotage the efforts of the Northern draft. Others attributed the riots to a confluence of simmering cultural and political issues. Whatever the causes, the draft riots of 1863 were the largest civil insurrection in U.S. history—besides the Civil War itself.
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