Draft Riots Hit New York City: July 11-17, 1863
An excerpt from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
Before the fall of Vicksburg and Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, the southern armies had seemed to be advancing in the East and holding their own in the West. With continued successes, perhaps Great Britain or France would recognize the Confederacy; and Lincoln then would have to agree to peace or face war with European powers. Gettysburg and Vicksburg changed all that. Lee was back in Virginia, and the Mississippi River was a Federal highway. The blockade grew more and more efficient, and the hope of European intervention grew dim. Lincoln needed another supreme effort, it seemed, to topple the Confederacy. The problem was, he needed more troops.
In March, Congress had passed a conscription act that allowed the president to draft into service men between the ages of 20 and 45. With enlistments way down, Lincoln enacted the conscription act, and in July called for 300,000 men to serve for three-year stints. One provision of Lincoln’s draft, however, drew the opposition of Radical Republicans in Congress: if a man could come up with a $300 “commutation fee” or could find someone to serve in his place, he could avoid the draft. This law, declared Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, “is a rich man’s bill made for him who can raise his $300 and against him who cannot raise that sum.”
The draft gave an occasion for all sorts of corruption. Brokers for substitutes set up shop, taking a fee to find substitutes for men with means. Some doctors, for a hefty fee, diagnosed non-existent diseases. It seemed the poor working class man alone would fill the ranks of the army and become cannon fodder for the union. The Irish in the cities, who resented the blacks because they competed for their jobs and who felt generally kicked around, especially resented the draft.
On July 11, the first names of draftees were drawn in New York City. It was the same day that names of casualties at Gettysburg were posted. Festering resentment now found an occasion for expression. Irish mobs attacked the draft office, destroyed files, and finished the job by razing the building. For the next three days, the mobs wandered the streets, rioting, breaking into stores and businesses, and looting. Black neighborhoods were their special target; mobs set fire to black boarding houses, a black orphanage, and a black church. Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who had supported the draft, intervened on July 17, appealing to his flock to stop the rioting. Finally troops, veterans of Gettysburg, restored order. The killed numbered 105.
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“Paddy’s Lamentation,” a Civil War-era song set to a traditional Irish melody, describes what many Irish immigrants likely felt having come to America during the most bloody conflict ever fought on the continent.