In the eyes of modern anti-war folks opposition to the Draft is a matter of principle. I fully understand. After all, I was a Vietnam resistor and did my time in Federal custody. The active draft was allowed to expire un-mourned though a rusty Selective Service System remains in place if needed. Our recent wars of choice—the Gulf War, intervention in Bosnia, and the tandem wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought by an all volunteer professional military and a National Guard/Reserve component stretched to the limits. As always, the dead young soldiers are mostly from the poor and working classes. The sons and daughters of the economic and political elite are notable by their almost complete absence. Yet few, if any, voices have been raise for a return to the Draft.
The nation’s first Draft, enacted in the midst of a bloody Civil War did not get off to a good start and its opponents hardly covered themselves in progressive glory. On July 13, 1863 the New York Draft Riots broke out. Historians describe it as the largest and bloodiest revolt against government authority in American history—except for the bloodier conflict that sparked it.
In the third year of carnage, the Union desperately needed fresh bodies. The enthusiastic responses that had filled the ranks of Volunteer units in the early days of the war had faded with the mounting casualty count. After the first batches of 90 day volunteers came and went, subsequent volunteers units found themselves serving “for the duration.” As mounting casualties thinned their ranks with no good system of recruiting replacements, regiments shrank to the size of companies, brigades to regiments, divisions to brigades. Raising new volunteer units at home became harder and harder.
President Abraham Lincoln, knowing how unpopular it would be, reluctantly backed the Draft in the hope that the threat would spur a new round of volunteer enlistments. It turned out it did, but that’s another story. Democrats were ideologically opposed to the extension of government power and many were either tepid supporters of the war or in sympathy with the South. Even many Republicans were queasy.
But the Draft, though unpopular, might have been tolerated if it were not for one glaring provision. Drafted men could escape service if they provided—hired—a substitute or paid the Treasury a $300 commutation fee. This provision was intended to produce an infusion of cash in support of the war effort which was seen as just as important as securing bodies. Naturally members of the lower classes resented this, recognizing that rich men’s sons could buy their way out of harm’s way while they were doomed to be cannon fodder.
Many of New York’s laboring classes had another reason to resent conscription. The war effort had stimulated the economy. Factories and ship yards were humming with war production. Unemployment, long the bane of the slums, was disappearing and wages were high. To a lot of working men it looked like just when they were finally going to get a piece of the pie, they were going to be snatched away to become $8 a month privates.
Democrats in control of the city had been allied with southern Democrats since Aaron Burr and the earliest days of Tammany Hall. They competed against Whig/Free Soil/Republican organizations from Up State for control of the state government. In 1862 with state Republican boss William H. Seward away serving in Lincoln’s Cabinet, New York Democrats were able to elect anti-war Horatio Seymour as Governor, who the Lincoln administration feared was a virtual fifth columnist.
Tammany Hall Machine rallied opposition to the Draft, although they were careful not to call for resistance. Instead they proposed to pay the fees of members who were drafted. But they indirectly contributed to opposition with their successful campaign to enroll as many immigrants as possible as citizens so that they could vote. These new citizens, largely but not exclusively Irish found themselves suddenly subject to the Draft.
The first draft drawing occurred on Saturday, July 11 without incident. But when the list of drafted men was published in Monday’s newspapers it overwhelmingly contained the names of laborers and mechanics. It looked like the “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” that opponents had warned of.
The second drawing was slated to take place that day at 10 AM at the Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office, Third Avenue and 47th Street. A crowd of over 500 gathered outside led firemen of Black Joke Engine Company 33, some of whose members had been called. After pelting the building with paving stones, they rushed inside beating and dispersing officials then setting the building ablaze. The undermanned Police Department responded but was unable to contain the crowd. Superintendent James Kennedy was recognized, although in civilian clothes, and seized by the crowd which nearly beat him to death. The police responded with a disorganized charge with clubs and revolvers but were overwhelmed by the growing mob which began to roam the streets seeking new targets for its wrath. The local armories of the New York Militia were empty because their troops had been sent to Pennsylvania to try and stem the tide of Robert E. Lee’s invasion. The Police, for the time being, were on their own.
The famous Bulls Head Hotel on 44th Street was torched when it refused to serve rioters liquor. The home of Republican Mayor George Opdyke on Fifth Avenue, the Eighth and Fifth District police stations, and other buildings were attacked and set on fire. The staff of Horace Greeley’s Republican newspaper, The Tribune barely managed to save their building by manning two Gattling Guns that they somehow procured.
But the mood of the crowd really turned ugly when they encountered a Black man on Clarkson Street. He was beaten, hanged from a tree and set afire by the cheering mob. Blacks of all ages and races were attacked when found, their homes burned by laborers resentful of competition with them for jobs and blaming them for causing the War. The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was set ablaze although hard-pressed police reportedly were able to evacuate the nearly 400 orphans and the staff. In all at least 26 Blacks were killed, although many historians regard that figure as ridiculously low.
As night fell the police finally established a line preventing the rioting from spreading south of Union Square. Then heavy rains helped douse the fires and send everyone home.
The crowd swelled again on Tuesday as many workers not involved on the first day downed their tools and joined, paralyzing business and commerce. The homes of several prominent Republicans were sacked and burned. Governor Seymour arrived from Albany and addressed the crowd at City Hall declaring that conscription was unconstitutional. Seymour’s defenders have said that his motivation was simply to diffuse the situation. In Washington Lincoln and the War Department considered it pandering to the mob at best or inciting an insurrection—and possibly a wider Copperhead rebellion. They scrambled to mobilize troops from Pennsylvania to march to the relief of the city.
Meanwhile Major General John Wool, an aging Mexican War veteran in charge of the New York District cobbled together a force of 800 troops from the harbor forts and West Point and ordered the New York Militia home from the front.
The announcement in the newspapers on Wednesday by the Provost Marshall that the draft would be suspended in the city caused some rioters to stay home. Others returned to the streets and the rampage.
Militia and Volunteer units who reached the city, often exhausted by forced marches and irate at violence at home while they were facing the enemy—many of them having seen hard action at Gettysburg—reacted harshly and without restraint. They unleashed volleys of fire into mobs, charged with bayonets, and even cleared public squares with artillery fire, some of it directed from Navy ships in the harbor. Among the troops arriving from the battlefield were members of 11th New York Volunteers (who had begun the war as Ellsworth’s Zouaves recruited from the same fire battalions now leading the rioters) 152nd New York Volunteers, the 26th Michigan Volunteers, the 30th Indiana Volunteers and the 7th Regiment New York State Militia. Governor Seyemour under pressure from Washington also dispatched Upstate Militia units that had not yet been Federalized.
Many of the city troops were Irish, as were substantial numbers of the rioters. Even in the face of such overwhelming force, fighting was sometimes heavy. Colonel Henry F. O'Brien, commanding the 11th was seized by the mob and beaten to death.
By Thursday there were several thousand troops in the city. That evening a final confrontation near Gramercy Park was quelled with artillery fire resulting in scores of deaths. After that an uneasy peace prevailed in the city.
The exact toll of deaths and injuries in four days of rioting is a matter of wide debate. Respected Civil War historian James M. McPherson places the total civilian deaths at a relatively light 120 while Herbert Asbury, a specialist in New York history and expert on the 19th Century gangs who played a leading role in the fighting, places the figure much higher with as many 2,000 killed and 8,000 injured.
Samuel Eliot Morison, author of one of the most respected single volume histories of the United States ever written and a Boston Yankee with unabashed Union sympathies regarded the riots as, “equivalent to a Confederate victory.” Lincoln and the War Department considered it a very close thing, but in the end a victory. Not only was the Draft resumed without further interference, but widespread public revulsion in the North doomed Copperhead hopes in Ohio and border regions.
Property losses were estimated to be between $1 and 5 million. Most of that loss uncompensated by insurance or the government. At least 50 building burned, including two Protestant churches with noted Abolitionist ministers.
The Draft Riots are often painted as an exclusively Irish uprising. While the Irish certainly made up large portions of the mobs, they were never even in the majority. Plenty of lower class “Americans,” including members of the Fire Brigades that played such a prominent role on the first two days, were involved as were other immigrant nationalities—except for the stalwart Unionist Germans. And, as we have seen, Irish in the police and military played key roles in finally quashing the rebellion.