“Early in the summer it had been announced from Washington that a compulsory addition was to be made to the armies in the field by means of a general conscription. The quota of the New York was fixed at 12,5000, and that of Brooklyn at 5,000. Colonel Robert Nugent, of the Sixty-ninth New York Volunteers — a captain in the Thirteenth United States Infantry — was detailed as assistant provost marshal general, and established his headquarters in Leonard street. The business of his department was conducted with quiet discretion, and the bugbear of a draft, which at first had created great consternation, in the course of time lost its terrors, as people became accustomed to its contemplation. Still there was a deep-seated hostility to the proposed conscription, which the political opponents of the war fostered as sedulous as they dared, with the hospitalities of Fort Lafayette and its sturdy commandant, Martin Burke staring them in the face,” wrote Major T. P. McElrath, a Union officer who participated in putting down the eventual riots.1
According to Herbert Asbury in The Gangs of New York, Democratic political leaders “frequently appeared at Police Headquarters, and at a time when houses were being looted and burned and Negroes tortured and hanged, when business was at a standstill and the streets were filled with surging mobs, demanded that the police and soldiers be withdrawn from their districts, complaining that they were murdering the people. A Democratic Police Magistrate held a special session of his court, brought forward a test case, and solemnly pronounced the draft law to be unconstitutional, and urged the people to resist its enforcement.”2
Democratic newspapers as well as politicians fueled discontent in the city. After the arrest and expulsion through Union lines in May 1863 of former Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham, a Copperhead rally was held in New York City. J.A. McMasters, editor of the Freeman’s Journal, advocated that opponents of the Lincoln Administration to organize to fight — “not by street fighting, not by disorganized opposition. They should organize by tens and hundreds, by companies and regiments, and they should send to their Governor and ask him for commissions as soon as they had their regiments formed (cheers)….They should keep their arms, and if they had not them, they should get them, and be ready, under their gallant Governor, to defend the liberties of their State.”3 Writing of the incendiary rhetoric at the May 18 rally, historian Sidney David Brummer concluded: “There can be little doubt of the connection between this incident in New York’s political history and the draft riot of the following July. The worst elements of the City’s population had been aroused.”4
Consternation about the draft continued over the next two months. Major McElrath wrote: “On Monday, June 29th, Governor Horatio Seymour, in Albany, received private information that a deep laid conspiracy was on foot in New York to resist the draft. Hastening to the city the details of the plot were communicated to him from the same source, to the effect that a large body of deserters, 1,800 strong, acting in concert with another large body of ‘Copperheads were banded together to oppose the draft. Arms were to be obtained for the revolutionists by a simultaneous attack on the State arsenal in Seventh avenue, and on the Seventh Regiment armory, to be made during the night of July 3d, when it was believed that the noise and confusion attendant upon ushering in the national holiday would render the movements of the leaders in the daring project less liable to be observed. Governor Seymour held a council with Major [George] Opdyke and General [Charles W.] Sanford. Strong guards were posted at the places threatened with attack. The police authorities were privately notified, and Superintendent [John] Kennedy detailed trusty officers to watch the armories, and to report the slightest circumstance of an unusual character that might occur in their neighborhood.5
Disregarding the incendiary situation, Governor Seymour threw a match in the mix. On July 4, Governor Horatio Seymour addressed a Fourth of July Celebration at the New York Academy of Music. Biographer Stewart Mitchell said “As regards the time of its delivery this speech was probably the most unfortunate of his whole career.”6 Seymour said: “The bloody and treasonable doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government.”7 Noted historian David E. Long, “It was tantamount to an invitation for what happened little more than a week later.”8 But Seymour also said: “If you would save your country, begin right; begin at the hearthstones; begin in your family circle; declare that your privileges shall be held sacred; and, having once proclaimed your own rights, take care that you do not invade those of your neighbor.”9 Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg wrote: “The tremendous and continued applause which came when Governor Seymour referred to liberty as suspended, ‘men deprived of the right of trial by jury, men torn from their homes by midnight intruders,’ meant that the audience believed he was in favor of opposition to the draft and that the ‘outrages’ and usurpations’ of the Government should be resisted. Naturally he said afterward that he did not mean they should resist by riot and burning, by stealing and mayhem, by gun and torch and stone and brickbat.”10
The riots were fed by class divisions, noted historian Philip S. Paludan: “Frustration over economic hardship fed, and was fed by, Democratic allegiance. Already suspicious of the nativist origins of many Republicans, immigrant workers in large cities that made life harder for them. The huge number of excise taxes fell most heavily on wage earners. Increased immigration, supported by Lincoln and his party, increased job competition; the leader of the iron workers union called the idea ‘infamous. Even more of an outrage was the use of employers by black workers, sometimes to break strikes, other times simply to work for lower wages.”11 The structure of the draft also contributed to class resentment. Wealthy New Yorkers could afford to pay the $300 which the draft law stipulated at the price to avoid conscription. But poor New Yorkers could not afford that price. The New York Herald editorialized that “the draft was an unfair one, inasmuch as the rich could avoid it by paying $300, while the poor man, who was without ‘the greenbacks,’ was compelled to go to the war.”12
The riots were also fueled by racism. Tyler Anbinder wrote in Five Points: “After Lincoln’s emancipation plans became public, Irish-American New Yorkers became more openly disdainful of the war effort. At a meeting of anti-war Democrats in April 1863, one Irish Catholic judge, John H. McCunn, complained about expending millions of dollars in a war against slavery. According to a newspaper that paraphrased his speech, ‘he had seen the negro at the mouth of the Congo River, and the Slavery of the South was a paradise in comparison. The negro was a prince in the South compared to his situation at home.’ Although the Irish-American and Leader never criticized the [Emancipation] proclamation, Clancy’s journal called all interaction with African Americans ‘repulsive to the white man’s instincts,’ and the Irish-American often referred to the Republicans pejoratively as the ‘Abolition party’ and ‘Abolition fanatics.'”13
Northern whites “feared that emancipation of the slaves would cause a general exodus of Negroes to the North and that the ensuing competition for work would depress wages and create unemployment,” wrote historian John Hope Franklin. “The New York draft riots of 1863 were closely connected with the competition between whites and Negroes for work. Shortly before the riots began 3,000 longshoremen went on strike for higher wages. Negroes, with police protection, took their places. When the government began drafting these unemployed whites, they looked upon it as adding insult to injury: they had been displaced on their jobs by Negroes and were now being sent off to fight in a war to set more Negroes and were now being sent off to fight in a war to set more Negroes free. Consequently, they resisted conscription to the point of violence.”14 Historian Leslie M. Harris noted that in the July draft riots, “White longshoremen took advantage of the chaos of the Draft Riots to attempt to remove all evidence of a black and interracial social life from area near the docks. White dockworkers attacked and destroyed brothels, dance halls, boarding houses, and tenements that catered to blacks; mobs stripped the clothing off the white owners of these businesses.”15
There was an ethnic element in opposition to conscription. “The measure was not popular in New York City, and the most vociferous opponents were the Irish. For while many Irish had supported the fighting — the Sixty-ninth Regiment was made up largely of sons of Erin — tremendous numbers of them felt the war was not in their interests Not only did they feel no loyalty to the United States, since they had not prospered here, they also resented the provision of the draft act that allowed a man to buy exemption for $300, a sum they could not possibly afford. It was a rich man’s war, they said, but a poor man’s fight. Even more important, they resented the war’s allegedly being fought for the rights of blacks, with whom they competed for hard-to-get jobs. Blacks, they said, were strikebreakers, and on more than one occasion striking Irish workers had been dismissed and replaced by blacks willing to work for lower wages. The Irish in such instances retaliated by beating up the blacks, with the police unable to intervene.”16
Historian Iver Bernstein wrote: “Any understanding of this social and political upheaval must begin with the observation that Irish Americans and African Americans at this moment in history shared much. Both were desperately poor. Both were subjected to the same battering and dehumanizing discrimination in the 1850s and ’60s, which characterized them as ‘lazy,’ ‘bestial,’ and ‘low-browed.’ The fantasy of the rioting Irish was that they could somehow become more American by using their whiteness as an emblem to distinguish them from slaves — an ironic dream because the Irish were very close to being slaves themselves and they knew it.”17
“Most Irish criticism of emancipation focused on the racial interaction it would necessitate,” wrote Tyler Anbinder. Democratic newspapers fueled this discontent. “The Day Book opposed the use of African Americans in the Union armies, for example, because ‘equality as soldiers means equality at the ballot-box, equality everywhere,’ which would result in the Irish being ‘degraded to a level with negroes.’ When in late June an Irish-American mob in Newburgh, New York, lynched an African American accused of assaulting an Irishwoman, the Irish-American blamed Republicans, whose emancipation policy had ‘sedulously placed the negro, with all his drawbacks of character and condition, in opposition to the white man.’ Republicans, complained the Irish-Americans, had ‘thrust the negro again in their [whites’] faces,’ even thought whites were already ‘smarting under the reverses’ brought about the war.”18
Historian Iver Bernstein wrote: “The draft rioters’ rage against the Republican Party had its origins in workers’ efforts to intervene in politics on their own terms during the 1850s. In 1850, artisan craft workers advanced proposals that envisioned city and state legislatures acting under the guidance of workingmen reformers rather than party politicians and regulating inequitable and oppressive economic relations.”19
According to Bernstein, the discontent was widespread “By the end, the riots had revealed a popular opposition to Republican rule broad enough to astonish even the most optimistic Copperhead. The rioters were in most part not the economically marginal or criminal poor, though vagrants and thieves, ubiquitous in the unruly port city, certainly did join the mob. Nor were the rioters the most proletarianized and degraded workers. The revolt was primarily the doing of wage earners accustomed to considerable control over the conduct of their jobs. Judging from the aggressive tone and wide-ranging scope of the riots, these workers also had a sense of their own political importance. Yet this popular opposition was fragmented, drew upon diverse constituencies, and deployed many, often conflicting, ethnic, religious, racial, class and political strategies.”20
Another contributing factor in the riots may have been Mr. Lincoln’s limited experience with New Yorkers. “Military events,” wrote presidential aide William O. Stoddard, “accomplished much in the way of checking the growth and preventing the pernicious effect of all this excitement; but the path for mischief to come had been prepared in ways unperceived by Mr. Lincoln. Well as he knew his countrymen generally, he was but little acquainted with the population of New York City. He knew as little of it, in fact, as do nine tenths of its better classes at this day. He as not at all aware how strong, active, and well-armed a ‘garrison’ it constantly requires in time of peace. He therefore could not estimate how much more numerous and efficient should have been its armed occupancy at such an hour of sure and sore emergency as that of the enforcement of the Draft Act.”21
Another presidential aide, John G. Nicolay, wrote: “Notwithstanding Governor Seymour’s neglect to give the enrolling officers any cooperation, preparations for the draft went on in New York city without prospect of serious disturbance, except the incendiary language of low newspapers and handbills. But scarcely had the wheel begun to turn, and the drawing commenced, on July 11, when a sudden riot broke out.”22 Stoddard noted: “There had been dark rumors of the exited state of feeling in New York City with reference to the enforcement of the coming draft for men, but no great attention had been paid to the matter in government circles, owing to the confidence assurances of peace given by men in office and by such apparently good authority as the Tribune‘s Mr. Greeley.”23
Historian William B. Hesseltine wrote: “From the beginning Seymour held that conscription was unconstitutional. The federal government should depend solely upon the states for troops. Moreover, as a strict constructionist, the Governor objected vehemently to the suspension of habeas corpus and the arbitrary arrests of citizens. Colonel Fry recognized that Seymour would furnish the most strenuous opposition to the draft, and the wary colonel instructed the provosts marshals in New York to handle the Governor with gloves.”24
“The first provost marshal to interview Seymour found the Governor willing enough to raise troops and hoping that new state bounties would bring enough recruits to avoid a draft. Seymour, however, was casting suspicious eyes upon the state’s quota, and the provost marshal suggested that any differences of opinion be adjusted quickly. Seymour himself told Stanton that he hoped to raise enough troops — through vigorous recruiting and bounteous bounties — to avoid a draft,” wrote historian William B. Hesseltine. “But the War Department had no disposition to deal peacefully with the Democratic leader. Seymour denounced the draft and declared that neither the President nor the Congress had a right to force men ‘to take part in the ungodly conflict which is distracting the land.’ Moreover, the Governor condemned the administration for seizing and sentencing Vallandigham. Stanton had no patience with such attitudes and resolutely faced the challenge. When the United States district attorney for New York held that evasions of the Enrollment Act were not punishable under the law, Stanton protested to Seward that even federal civil officers in New York gave no aid to the government in the war if they could find a ‘colorable pretext for withholding it. Seward ordered the district attorney to support the government — and the stage was set for trying the draft in Seymour’s bailiwick.”25
According to Seymour biographer Stewart Mitchell, “Some time before the drawing of the names was to begin in New York, Governor Seymour sent Adjutant-General Sprague to Washington to ask Lincoln and Stanton to postpone the draft. Sprague failed to carry out his commission because he dared not disobey his superior, Provost-Marshal-General Fry, who arrogantly forbade him to speak to the President or the secretary of war. It was more than a week before the governor learned that his message had never been delivered. Not long after, [Tribune Editor] Greeley charged Seymour with having sent [Samuel J.] Tilden to the capital for the express purpose of getting the draft suspended because he was afraid that the Irish servant girls would burn down the houses of their masters and mistresses if the law which took their men away from them were put into effect.'”26
The police force in New York was the subject of continuing controversy. Iver Bernstein wrote in The New York City Draft Riots “The Army’s relation to the Republican national government was self-evident; the Metropolitan Police was a creation of the local Republican elite, which had wrested control of city law enforcement from the Democratic Party in July 1857 only after suppressing a riot opposing the change. Under the zealous leadership of Superintendent John A. Kennedy, whom the rioters singled out for vengeance early on, the Metropolitan Police practically became an arm of the Republican government in Washington. Secretary of War Stanton appointed Kennedy a special provost marshal and the police a provost marshal’s guard in August 1862, as the city prepared for the state draft. Kennedy’s police now had the power to apprehend any who interfered with the war effort, and they exercised that power to the utmost. They arrested four thousand deserters in little over a year, defined disloyalty broadly enough to include harmless statements against the Republican Party, detained suspects on meager evidence, and on Election Day 1862 used information procured during state draft enrollment to challenge the legal status of immigrant (and presumably Democratic) voters. This was the context in which Kennedy’s police were popularly identified with Republican authority.”27
- Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South, Originally Published in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, p. 286-287 (T.P. McElrath, “The Draft Riots in New York”).
- Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York, .
- Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 313.
- Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 315.
- Annals of the War Written by Leading Participants North and South, Originally Published in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, p. 287 (T.P. McElrath, “The Draft Riots in New York”).
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 303.
- David E. Long, The Jewel of Liberty, p. 69.
- David E. Long, The Jewel of Liberty, p. 69.
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 362.
- Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 362.
- Philip S. Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, p. 212.
- Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, p. 314 (New York Herald).
- Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, p. 311-312.
- John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, p. 278-279.
- Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1826-1863, p. 283.
- Oliver E. Allen, New York, New York: A History of the World’s Most Exhilarating and Challenging City, p. 152.
- Iver Bernstein, “July 13-16, 1863: the New York City Draft Riots”, Civil War Times, August 2003, p. 35.
- Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum, p. 312.
- Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots, p. 123.
- Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots, p. 41.
- William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 396-397.
- John G. Nicolay, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 356.
- William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 184.
- William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors, p. 297.
- William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors, p. 297-298.
- Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 329.
- Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots, p. 37.