TODAY IN HISTORY: Civil War Draft Riots Tear Apart New York

On July 13, 1863, New York City was plunged into five days of  deadly rioting over recently passed draft laws. More than a hundred people, most of them African-American victims of vicious mobs, died in the violence that tore across New York City.

The hostility of the day might best be summarized by this sentiment:

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WILLING TO FIGHT FOR UNCLE SAM BUT NOT FOR UNCLE SAMBO!

That was a headline in a Pennsylvania newspaper in the summer of 1863 and it voiced an uncomfortable truth in Civil War America. Many people who believed that the Civil War was being fought for the preservation of the Union balked when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in January 1863.

Here is a link to the National Archives Emancipation Proclamation pages: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/

The situation only worsened when the Enrollment Act, a military draft, became law in March 1863. Nowhere was resistance to the draft more vocal than in New York City, where Abraham Lincoln was despised by  the powerful Democratic party,

Working class Irishmen, in particular, were furious over policies that allowed the wealthy to buy their way out of the draft by paying for a “substitute,” and they were hostile toward blacks, many of whom had recently been used to replace striking Irish longshoremen on the New York City docks.

When the first names of draftees were drawn in a lottery and published on Saturday July 11, 1863, they appeared alongside the lengthy casualty lists from the Battle of Gettysburg, fought a few days earlier from July 1-3, 1863. On the following Monday, July 13, the city exploded in a paroxysm of violence when the draft office was attacked by a mob who set the building on fire. A fire brigade, angry that their jobs did not exempt them from the draft, joined the mob.

That was the beginning of a four-day spree of looting and arson that ended with cold-blooded murder, as blacks became the targets of mob violence and more than a hundred people were beaten and burned to death or lynched from streetlamps.

The Brooklyn correspondent of the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church published in Philadelphia, wrote this account:

Many men were killed and thrown into rivers, a great number hung to trees and lampposts, numbers shot down; no black person could show their heads but what they were hunted like wolves. These scenes continued for four days. . . .  Over three thousand are today homeless and destitute, without means of support for their families. It is truly a day of distress to our race in this section.

The rioting continued until troops that had just fought in Gettysburg could be rushed back to the city to restore order.

You can read more about these events in Don’t Know Much About the Civil War.


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