Eyewitness Reports in History 1863 New York Draft Riots Part 1

An eyewitness account of the New York Draft Riots in 1863 during the American Civil War, an important and violent moment in United States history.

The 1863 Draft Riots

When: July, 1863

How: Antiwar protests litter the pages of American history from the Revolutionary War to our own time, but none eclipses the violence engendered by the New York City draft riots of 1863.

When the Union Army lost 75,000 men at Gettysburg, Congress passed America's first national draft law, on Mar. 3, 1863. Calling for the conscription of all able-bodied white men between the ages of 20 and 45-unless exemption was secured by payment of $300 to the government, or a substitute was provided-the act was bitterly opposed by most Northern governors.

One particular dissenter was Democratic Gov. Horatio Seymour of New York, who said, while speaking before a mass meeting of Democrats in New York City: "Remember this: that the bloody, treasonable, and revolutionary doctrine can be proclaimed by a mob as well as a government." His incendiary speech received a standing ovation.

Most of New York City's draft eligibles were indigent Irish laborers. Stacked multiple families deep in indescribably filthy tenement buildings, they were enraged by two of the draft's main provisions: the money clause, which let the rich escape, and the exclusion of blacks.

The first draft lottery was held, without incident, on Saturday, July 11. But when Sunday newspapers printed the list of the 1,236 names drawn, much grumbling about the draft and threats to oppose it were heard by a reporter barhopping in the Irish district.

Shortly before sunrise on Monday, July 13, small groups of men, women, and children, armed with crowbars, clubs, and brickbats, emerged from the slums to move toward the draft office at 677 Third Avenue, where the lottery was slated to resume at 9:00 A.M. Laborers and sweatshop workers for the most part, they were soon joined by hordes of thieves, pick-pockets, pimps, prostitutes, and bullyboys--all spoiling for a piece of action.

There were few to oppose them, for New York's regiments had left to engage Confederate forces in Pennsylvania and the city's police force was undermanned.

The draft was proceeding quietly inside the enrolling office when the well-liquored mob, now 500 strong, arrived at 10:00 A.M. While spectators urged them on, they showered the building with bricks and paving stones before forcing its doors. Once inside, lists, records, books, and articles of furniture were seized and torn to shreds, while draft official and policemen escaped through a rear door, their exit accelerated by curses and blows from the invaders. Then the building was set afire. In a few moments the blaze spread to adjoining structures and the whole block was on fire.

When Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy arrived at the scene and tried to reason with the mob, he was assaulted and almost killed before friends rescued him.

With Kennedy disabled, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Acton took charge. A coolheaded man who was convinced that the riot marked the start of outbreaks that could spread across the city, Acton ordered all police reserves to headquarters, organized them into mobile units, and sent detectives out to mingle with the mob. Their reports allowed Acton's forces to position themselves wherever major outbreaks occurred.

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