Voices of the Civil War Episode 18: “New York Draft Riot”

Voices of the Civil War Episode 18: “New York Draft Riot”


In July 1863 the community of New York City
was made up of working class whites, Irish Americans, and African Americans all in constant
competition for jobs and housing. Poor working conditions for Irish immigrants and poor working
class whites resulted in several strikes in June, in which black workers were brought
in to replace the strikers. In addition to blaming African Americans for their job displacement,
Irish Americans and poor whites also blamed African Americans for causing the Civil War
and racial tensions in New York were extremely high.
One month after the June strikes, on Saturday July 11, 1863 Provost-Marshall officers began
the draft process, under the new Enrollment Act of Conscription, in what was already a
hostile and angry community (McPherson 609). The results of the draft were then published
in the Sunday morning newspaper on July 12 (McCabe 79).
Similar to the Detroit Draft Riot, in May 1863, the lower class community of New York
was angered by the exemption clause, which allowed wealthy citizens to pay a $300 exemption
fee, making them exempt from the draft and discriminating against lower class citizens
who could not afford the fee. Many citizens who were not in support of the Civil War were
now, not only being forced to enlist, but also being forced to take the place of wealthier
men who purchased their exemption. When the draft list was published, Sunday morning,
those men whose names were listed congregated together in bars and on the streets, to protest
the draft and threatened to riot if the draft was continued the next day (McPherson 609).
On July 13, 1863, rioters gathered outside of the Provost Marshal office, attacking the
officers, setting fire to the building, and eventually burning down the entire block (McCabe
82). In another part of the city rioters attacked the Asylum for Colored Orphans and what began
as a riot against the unfair practices of the draft, quickly became a race war. All
of the children and staff were able to escape the building before rioters destroyed and
looted the orphanage and then set fire to the building (Barnes 117). African Americans
throughout the city were beaten, tortured, and even killed. One black man was attacked
by a crowd of more than 400 people and eventually lynched and set on fire. In an account of
the riot, published by the New York police, they described the attack on several black
citizens, including the following, “Joseph Jackson (colored), aged 19 years…was in
the industrious pursuit of his humble occupation of gathering provender for a herd of cattle,
and when near the foot of Thirty-fourth Street, East River, July 15, was set upon by the mob,
killed, and his body thrown into the river” (Barnes 116).
Rioters targeted African American homes, businesses, employers, draft offices and wealthy whites,
destroying over 50 buildings and homes with estimated damages in the millions. One servant
of the St. John’s Episcopal Church reported that, “while passing through Clarkson Street…she
had seen a colored man hanging on a tree, and men and women setting him on fire as he
dangled from the branches” (Bernstein 48). Chants were heard throughout the city of,
“down with the rich” and “there goes a $300 man” in reference to the exemption clause
(McPherson 610). In total 105 people died and at least 11 black men were lynched (McPherson
610). The New York Draft riot continued for three
days as a result of the majority of the New York State Militia having been called away,
a few days earlier, to assist in the Battle of Gettysburg. The New York City police did
their best to disband the riot, but were often overrun by rioters. John A. Kennedy, the police
superintendent, was beaten to an almost unconscious state. When the New York State Militia returned
back to the city, along with thousands of Federal troops, the riots ended on July 16th,
1863. To maintain order 20,000 Federal troops remained in the city and monitored subsequent
drafts in August 1863 (McPherson 611). In the after math of the riot the New York Tribune
reported on August 3 that quote, “A large number of colored families have left the city”
(Bernstein 66). The New York City Draft Riot, similar to the
Detroit Draft Riot, was an example of the racial tensions and prejudices that existed
in so-called “free states” and those states that had abolished slavery years before. For
African Americans the struggle for freedom was more complex than simply abolishing slavery.
The ideals of racial prejudice, discrimination, and superiority also needed to be eradicated
in the minds and hearts of fellow Americans. As the American Civil War continued so did
African Americans’ fight for equal rights and fair treatment.

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