The Draft Riots

Early in the morning of Monday, July 13, 1863, riots began in New York City that rocked the metropolis for five days. A reaction against the conscription lottery that had begun two days before, these so-called draft riots reflected the racial, political, and economic tensions between the city’s largely Democratic, low-income immigrant population and those that they both feared and opposed: the Republican federal government and the African American population that, by this point in time, it sought to emancipate as part of the Civil War. The draft riots spread quickly from their initial military and government targets in what was a direct reaction against perceived unfair conscription laws to redirect toward the city’s substantial free black community. Homes and businesses belonging to blacks, and even the Colored Orphan Asylum, were attacked in the mayhem; nearly a dozen black men had been lynched by the time the riots ended on Friday, July 17, following the arrival of federal troops on Thursday afternoon.

Summary Overview

Early in the morning of Monday, July 13, 1863, riots began in New York City that rocked the metropolis for five days. A reaction against the conscription lottery that had begun two days before, these so-called draft riots reflected the racial, political, and economic tensions between the city’s largely Democratic, low-income immigrant population and those that they both feared and opposed: the Republican federal government and the African American population that, by this point in time, it sought to emancipate as part of the Civil War. The draft riots spread quickly from their initial military and government targets in what was a direct reaction against perceived unfair conscription laws to redirect toward the city’s substantial free black community. Homes and businesses belonging to blacks, and even the Colored Orphan Asylum, were attacked in the mayhem; nearly a dozen black men had been lynched by the time the riots ended on Friday, July 17, following the arrival of federal troops on Thursday afternoon.

Defining Moment

During the early months of the Civil War, the Union Army was composed entirely of volunteers. As the war dragged on, however, the number of enlistments failed to keep pace with the need for new soldiers. In early July of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln called for the expansion of the Union military by 300,000 troops, but Northern enthusiasm for the conflict had waned such that the practical response to that call was insufficient. Several days later, the US Congress passed the Federal Militia Act. This law established, among other clauses, the right of African Americans to enlist in the army and the right of the president to require state governments to conscript their citizens into state militias in order to meet ever-growing federal troop demands. The Militia Act thus set up a scenario in which governments could force white male citizens to serve in the Civil War, but African Americans–who lacked status as citizens under the pre-war Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)–need serve only by choice.

Unsurprisingly, the act was not universally popular. Copperheads , those who wished to end the Civil War through diplomatic negotiation with the Confederacy rather than armed conflict, particularly opposed the draft. Despite some resistance, states did successfully begin drafting new soldiers. By the spring of 1863, however, the federal government had decided to bypass the state-level drafts and simply carry out conscription at the federal level. Congress passed the first true federal draft law, the Enrollment Act, in early March of 1863. This sweeping law made all male citizens between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, along with unmarried male citizens between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five, eligible to serve in the Union military. Draftees were chosen by lottery, but not all chosen men had to serve. They had the option of having a substitute to serve in their stead or of paying the government three hundred dollars–a substantial sum–to avoid service. Well-off citizens could therefore opt out of service, but poor men lacked this luxury.

In the weeks before the first draft lottery took place on July 11, 1863, a dozen Copperhead newspapers and government leaders in New York, a city with a relatively high level of sympathy for the South, lashed out against the draft. The city had long-standing economic ties to the South thanks to the lucrative trade in cotton. It was also home to a large working-class immigrant population that believed the emancipation of black laborers would create untenable competition for available jobs as freed slaves moved to Northern cities. Further, New York already claimed one of the largest urban free black populations in the nation.

Author Biography

The New York Times was a relatively young but already influential publication by the time of the city’s draft riots. Established in 1851 with the aim of reporting the news objectively rather than in the sensationalist or passionate styles preferred by the contemporary New York Herald and New York Tribune, the daily nevertheless reflected the politics of its cofounder and editor, Henry Jarvis Raymond. Both journalist and editor, Raymond had served as a Whig representative in the New York State Assembly and as the state’s lieutenant governor during the 1850s. In 1856, he helped form the new Republican Party, becoming a delegate to its national convention in 1860. Thus, the Times supported Republican aims, including the active execution of the Civil War to restore the Union and, for the most part, the administration of President Lincoln. It did so with a dispassionate and measured tone, however, which helped it grow its circulation to some seventy-five thousand in the early 1860s, making it the city’s second most popular newspaper.

The Civil War only increased the newspaper’s importance. Its Charleston, South Carolina, reporter relayed the news of growing secessionist feeling in the city throughout 1860 and was returned to the North as a Union spy after secession. In July 1861, Raymond himself covered the First Battle of Bull Run, the war’s opening encounter, although he initially mischaracterized the battle as a Union victory. The Times’s war correspondents were effective ones with a deep understanding of the South; they were so successful that the newspaper relayed the news of the Union victory at Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864 even before the War Office had been officially informed.

During the draft riots of 1863, the newspaper’s Republican leanings made it a target for violence along with the city’s other leading Republican outlet, the New York Tribune. Its offices were attacked and damaged by the mob, but the Times was willing to fight back. Three Gatling guns that had been gifted to the paper by the Lincoln administration were placed on the premises, and rifles were handed out to the newspaper’s staff. Raymond also fought against the mob in the newspaper’s pages, declaring that he would not give in to what he characterized as blackmail and calling for its defeat. After the riots had ended and the city began to attempt to make sense of their events, the Times had no reluctance to point its finger firmly at the inflammatory stories printed by the Democratic press.

Document Analysis

The New York Times’s contemporaneous description of the city’s multiday draft riots combines the newspaper’s signature dispassionate reporting style with a clear condemnation of the rioters and those who may have incited them, a stance in keeping with the publication’s advocacy of Republican policies in general and the actions of the Lincoln White House in particular. Throughout its coverage of the riots, the Times consistently presents the rioters as senselessly brutal and thoroughly unpatriotic for their drive to not just oppose what the Times characterizes as a legal and necessary draft but also to inflict physical harm on the persons and property of their fellow New Yorkers. “The issue is not between Conscription and no-Conscription, but between order and anarchy,” proclaims the Times. The publication’s own position on that issue clearly informs its writings on the riots that stemmed from it.

The cover article, “The Mob in New York,” opens with a purposefully dramatic contrast between the apparent civility of the draft when it began in New York City on Saturday, July 11, and the outbreak of violence on Monday morning; the article’s internal chronology suggests that it was written on Tuesday, July 14, even as violence raged on in the city. The Times does, however, acknowledge that the draft was far from universally popular, noting that authorities expected some type of visible opposition–but not, it seems, until the time that draftees were actually to be required to formally join with the military. The draft was an exception rather than the rule in US military practice. State-level militias had occasionally used the draft somewhat inconsistently in earlier conflicts and in the preceding months of the Civil War, but the conscription lottery that sparked the New York draft riots was the first application of a true nationwide draft in the United States. Government and military leaders thus had no prior experience on which to draw to anticipate what kind of resistance was likely to come from opponents and unwilling draftees, and the Times argues, the “plotters of the riot knew this, and in it they saw their opportunity” to wreak havoc unchecked by adequate police or military forces.

For the Times was apparently certain that the riots were no spontaneous demonstration by the men unwillingly tapped for military service. Instead, it argues, the outbreak had been planned and launched by a small behind-the-scenes group. As proof of this allegation the Times points to incidents in which a small number of industrial workers traveled from workplace to workplace Monday morning, demanding that the workers there stop their regular duties and, presumably, join with their small but growing band. Modern historians generally disagree with this view, instead categorizing the draft riots as a popular uprising fomented largely within the white working-class New York community that took part in the violence. Although the Times believes all to have been quiet in the city on the weekend preceding the riots, modern scholars instead believe that those who incited the riot on Monday morning had spent much of Sunday feeding their rising anger with cheap liquor and heated talk. The riots may have erupted rapidly on Monday, but they were not, as the Times suggests, entirely without warning.

In fact, officials were aware that some people were planning to resist the draft in the Ninth Congressional District, and a small group of troops was sent to the draft office early Monday. The draft lottery was set to resume that morning, and it was at the draft office at Third Avenue and Forty-Sixth Street that the first violent incidents of the riots began. Although the Times estimates the early crowd at perhaps sixty ranging up to five hundred people, later estimates suggest that the mob may already have reached several thousand by the time that it paraded from a nearby vacant lot, where draft opponents had been giving speeches to rouse the crowd further. By mid-morning, the growing mob had reached the draft office, and as officials began to announce the names of those who were first selected, the angry rioters were attacking the draft office. Rioters damaged parts of the building, destroyed whatever draft records they could find, and began to assault the draft officers responsible for conducting the lottery, who fled out the back of the building. Some of these men were injured, at least one severely, the Times reports. The draft office itself was set on fire.

The mob took out a greater part of its anger on Metropolitan Police superintendant John Kennedy. By this time, Kennedy had received numerous telegrams and other notices of troubles throughout the city, and he had sent additional men to threatened draft offices; however, rioters had been destroying telegraph lines as they proceeded through the city, effectively cutting police and military communications with each other and with the outside world. The superintendant then decided to visit the site of the riots himself, traveling by carriage to the troubled draft office. He was unprepared for the reception that he received, however. Despite being unarmed and in plainclothes, the sixty-year-old officer was soon recognized by some members of the crowd and physically attacked. The Times–perhaps loathe to give credit to a Democratic politician–notes that an anonymous “strapping fellow… dashed in to the rescue.” This man was, in fact, a Democratic official of the local ward and longtime acquaintance of Kennedy, John Eagan, who managed to keep the crowd at bay until two police officers who had accompanied Kennedy removed the gravely injured man from the scene. The Times claims that Kennedy’s savior accomplished this through physical resistance, but the majority of historians agree that Eagan actually held off the crowd by convincing them that the much-beaten man was already as good as dead. To show how insult was added to injury, the Times lists a number of items stolen from the superintendant by the “ruffians” of the mob. In this story, the mob is clearly the villain while the Republican representative of the government–and, by association, the draft–is the victim; furthermore, the mob is portrayed as petty and heartless. The Times has no sympathy for their cause or their methods.

Although the riots began by focusing on military offices connected with the draft lottery, they quickly expanded throughout the city as the mob spread out “apparently with no concerted plan but bent on fresh depredations.” By now numbering several thousands, the mob contained not just men but also a large number of women and children. Some sources suggest that women were among the loudest and most enthusiastic voices in condemning the draft. This teeming mob was increasingly met but not controlled by a growing police presence. The rioters managed to destroy numerous telegraph lines and thus impede communications, but precincts sent out detachments to places where they had received reports were under attack by the mob or where officials believed threats were likely to take place. The Times’s reporting of the resulting encounters leaves no doubt as to which group it saw as the aggressors. In describing an altercation between security forces under the leadership of a Lieutenant Ried and the mob, the Times presents the police and the limited soldier presence affiliated with the draft as a noble, if thoroughly inadequate, force. The soldiers, under orders, shoot harmless blanks at the mob; the rioters, in response, set on them with any weapon on which they could lay their hands, chasing soldiers into side streets, beating and killing the forces of law, and hunting down those who attempted escape in a way even “more inhuman and brutal” than might be expected of hunters on the trail of animals.

The power of the mob obviously outstripped that of the law. The Times describes the beleaguered troops as “completely demoralized,” and indeed the inability of police and military forces to deal with the rioters runs through the entire account. Kennedy had escaped death at the hands of the mob only by the timely intervention of another. The forces under Ried had no such benefactor, and many, the Times claims, were killed as a result. In contrast, the mob is presented as a strong, almost irrepressible mass capable of organizing themselves into effective squads to locate and attack their targets. The language that the Times uses to describe the rioters reinforces this characterization. The mob is alternatively “satiated and disgusted with their foul work” and “elated with success” but never controlled, calculating, or possessed of any particular goal. Frenzied and apparently propelled by heavy drinking, the mob pressed on into the afternoon “like so many infuriated demons,” readily suggestible for more ways to cause destruction upon those it perceived as enemies.

Among those that the mob saw as opponents were the members of the Union League Club, formed by the city’s Republican elite to support the cause of the Union and work against all those that may have been considered disloyal to its cause. The mob moved toward the club’s headquarters, allowing the Times’s reporter an opportunity to eavesdrop on some of the on-the-ground conversations between mob members. The rendering of the dialect used by the two quoted rioters certainly indicates their lower-class status and suggests the Irish tenor of the mob’s composition, as does the name of Sam Garrigan or Galligan that the Times reporter identifies as a likely ringleader. Although no further details of this supposed mob leader appear to be recorded in history, certainly some members of the mob acted to incite others, leading them from place to place and making inflammatory speeches.

Later on the first day of the riots, the mob reached the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, more commonly known as the Colored Orphan Asylum. Founded in the late 1830s by white philanthropists, the orphanage provided room, board, and basic labor training for more than 230 children at the time of the riots; the Times’s estimate of “600 or 800” charges vastly exceeded the founder’s own numeration of her charges, as historian Barnet Schecter reports.

The organization was an obvious example of the African American presence in the city and of white charity toward that community, making it an easy target for the rioters’ antiblack wrath. As the mob reached the area where the orphanage was located, several hundred members of the group broke off from the mass and invaded the building, setting fires as “they ransacked and plundered the building from cellar to garret.” The property was a large one, but its destruction took as little as twenty minutes; the efforts of city firefighters under Chief Engineer John Decker were insufficient to prevent fire from consuming the premises.

Remarkably, the orphans, who fled the building as the rioters set to destroying it, managed to escape without significant personal harm. Although the mob was not deterred from destroying the property, the orphanage’s staff was able to lead the children out of the premises and through the crowd safely. Some white protectors apparently within the mob who spoke up in defense of the orphans were less fortunate; at least one Irishman who yelled at the mob to leave the children alone himself became the victim of mob attacks. Although the orphans managed to survive the riots in the security of a police precinct station house, the intent of the rioters was readily apparent. They rejected the presence of African Americans and the notion of white support for black lives and well-being; further, the economic connections of the asylum, which trained orphans as manual laborers and even sent them out as indentured servants, may suggest that the rioters were also expressing their anger over the competition for low-wage working-class jobs presented by free black labor. The incident at the Colored Orphan Asylum was the first and one of the largest-scale actions against the city’s black community, but it certainly was not the last. Attacks on individual African American persons, homes, and businesses continued throughout the course of the riots, particularly against black dock workers. Just as the mob had attacked the white Irishman who condemned them for not helping the black children, rioters targeted white New Yorkers who fraternized with African Americans, rented them housing, employed them, or otherwise supported their presence in the city over the following days of the riots. The mob may have lashed out against the hated conscription laws on the surface, but an obvious and violent racism boiled just beneath.

The Times dedicates the latter paragraphs of “The Riots Yesterday” to a discussion of the nature of the riots and the necessity of crushing them in the interests of the Union and of American patriotism. Vital to this discussion was a strong defense of the draft law and, at a deeper level, the Republican method of waging the Civil War; nearly as vital was a condemnation of those publications that had spoken out against the conscription law. Such newspapers and various discontents as influential Ohio Copperhead Clement Vallandigham, the Times accuses, had worked for months to generate public opposition to the draft and even to incite just the kind of violence that had in fact erupted in New York City. Wise thinkers–and, naturally enough from this Republican-leaning newspaper, officials of the sitting Republican government–saw the dangers of speaking against the cause of the Union and had sought to end it, presumably a reference to Vallandigham’s arrest by Union soldiers two months previously for giving an antiwar speech that the government saw as treasonous. The Ohio politician had based his defense partially on the right of freedom of speech, and the Democratic press had united behind him; his conviction and banishment to the Confederacy generated sufficient media coverage that his ideas likely reached a much broader audience than they would otherwise have. This the Times sees as a mistake. Antiwar speech served only to create anger and mayhem, as could be seen in the riots that had taken place across the nation, from Ohio and Indiana to the major metropolis of New York. Resistance, readers are warned, was thus “formidable and dangerous.”

The article concludes by framing the riots in a broader perspective: not as a question of draft, but as a question of whether citizens had a duty to follow the law. This question likely resonated with readers more than two years deep into a civil war over the issue of national government authority over state government and individual citizens alike. Firm public action against the belligerent rioters was fully warranted, according to the Times, because the conscription law was just that–a law passed by the US Congress and signed by the US president in full accordance with the provisions of the nation’s Constitution. As such, it demanded not only adherence but protection by the federal government. “The official or the citizen who falters is treacherous to every civil obligation,” asserts the Times, clearly implicating the rioters in this statement. That, like most laws, the draft law had not enjoyed complete bipartisan support is dismissed by a publication that strongly supported the ruling Republican regime as simply “the favor of the evil-minded,” tying objections to the draft to a rejection of the overall cause of the Union. Finally, the article issues a call to action to the state and local authorities overseeing New York to work to “crush… this twin hydra of the rebellion utterly,” bringing both the riots and the resistance to the draft–and thus the war–to a close.

Essential Themes

In the short term, the draft riots failed to make much of a difference in the requirements placed upon the city’s working class men. The draft went on, albeit in a reduced form. New York’s governor persuaded Lincoln to require the state to provide fewer men for the federal army and sought to limit the overall number drafted by counting as many late enlistments as possible. When New York City ran its second lottery on August 19, ten thousand federal troops were present in the city to prevent a repeat of the previous month’s riots. Tammany Hall also sought to ease working-class concerns by promising to help anyone drafted who did not wish to serve; to live up to this promise, the resulting County Substitute and Relief Committee found just over one thousand substitutes for unwilling local draftees. New York, however reluctantly, thus gave its men to the Union Army.

The riots did, however, highlight the social and racial tensions that ran through New York and indeed many parts of the North during this time. Black New Yorkers left in droves, with many settling in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn–a city separate from New York until 1898–and across the river in New Jersey. By 1865, fewer than ten thousand African Americans remained in New York City proper, a decrease of about twenty-five hundred from the city’s 1860 black population and the lowest level in four decades. Those that remained faced continued discrimination and the threat of violence from those that harbored antiblack sentiments. Black workers found it hard to go back to their jobs and even harder to find new ones; many black residents had also lost their homes and accumulated property, thus facing not only an economic but also a political setback due to the state’s property requirements for black voters. Nevertheless organizations such as the Union League Club and the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People run by the city’s Republican elite worked to assist those African Americans affected by the riots.

Yet despite the racism of some Democratic newspapers and white working-class residents in the city, the first African American regiment in New York organized and marched out of the city in March of 1864. African American soldiers from across the nation fought bravely in high-profile war battles, helping improve public perception of black people both as soldiers and as potential citizens. Yet the antiblack racism evidenced by the draft riots remained in force for many decades to come, particularly among the same white working class that had launched the 1863 riots and that continued to see free black labor as a threat to its economic livelihood.


  • Bernstein, Iver.The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.
  • Harris, Leslie M.In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. 279–88. Print.
  • Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds.Encyclopedia of the American Civil War: A Political, Social, and Military History. 5 vols. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.
  • Mindich, David T. Z. “Raymond, Henry Jarvis.”American National Biography Online (2010): 1.Biography Reference Center. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
  • Schecter, Barnet.The Devil’s Own Work. New York: Walker, 2005. Print.

Additional Reading

  • Barnes, David M.The Draft Riots in New York, July, 1863: The Metropolitan Police, Their Services during Riot Week, Their Honorable Record. New York: Baker, 1863. Print.
  • McCague, James.The Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. New York: Dial, 1968. Print.
  • McKay, Ernest A.The Civil War and New York City. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1990. Print.
  • Werstein, Irving.The Draft Riots: July 1863. 1957. New York: Messner, 1971. Print.