What Caused the New York City Draft Riots of 1863?

In July 1863, New York witnessed one of the most violent episodes of its history, when a protest against the draft turned into a bloody riot and an anti-Black pogrom.

Jun 4, 2023By Christos Konstantopoulos, MPhil Politics: Comparative Government, BA History

new york draft riots battle first avenue


Few Mondays in New York City history were as eventful as July 13th, 1863. That morning, workers were nowhere to be seen at their workplaces. Something was amiss. A mob gradually formed outside an office in the Nineteenth Ward. There, selection for the United States Army draft –imposed due to the mounting casualties of the ongoing Civil War – was to be carried out that day.


The measure’s unpopularity was no secret, but few expected the shocking events that would ensue. The (predominantly Irish) crowd stormed the office and brutally attacked police officers, forcing them into retreat. Over the next four days, rioting would engulf the city. Buildings, businesses, and infrastructure were destroyed; Republicans and Black New Yorkers were attacked and killed. With the situation out of control, the military was called in to quell the rioters, and peace eventually returned on the 17th.


The above event has been described by Laurence Hauptman as “the greatest civil disturbance to date in United States history.” This article will briefly narrate the historical context and critical moments of the New York City Draft Riots. Then, we will try to understand why they took place and what made them so deadly.


The Historical Context: the US Civil War

civil war battle of bull run
Battle of Bull Run, July 21st, 1861 by Kurz & Allison, c.1889-1890. Library of Congress. This was the first major battle of the American Civil War; via History


With the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12th, 1861, the secession of the Confederate States of America turned into a full-scale civil war. It would last until the Spring of 1865, ending in the defeat of the southern secessionists. Numerous factors led to the civil war, the most prominent being the controversy over the issue of slavery. This conflict accompanied the United States ever since independence and often morphed into a North-South divide, but it was further exacerbated in the 19th century.

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The Second Great Awakening, Britain’s abolition of slavery in the 1830s, and the westward expansion of the fledgling nation were only some of the reasons why this debate became increasingly polarized. This culminated in the presidential election of 1860, won by Abraham Lincoln and the anti-slavery Republican Party despite winning virtually no votes in the South. Fearing they could no longer influence federal politics and protect their interests, Southern politicians opted for secession. The rest is history.


The Enrollment Act of 1863

wanted substitute enrollment act draft riots 1863
Wanted a Substitute. Illustrated sheet music cover, Oliver Ditson & Co, 1863. Library of Congress. The cover criticized the socio-economic inequities of the Enrollment Act’s substitution provisions (see text below); via Yesterday’s Papers


Despite the North’s superior resources and manpower, dogged Southern resistance prolonged the war. Faced with mounting casualties and desertions, the Union passed the Militia Act in July 1862, which allowed states to implement a draft if they could not meet their militia quotas solely by relying on volunteers. This largely failed to supply the necessary men, and the Lincoln administration instituted the Enrollment Act in March 1863, which shifted enlistment infrastructure from the states to the federal government. This Act made male citizens aged 20-45, as well as immigrants who had applied for citizenship, eligible for the draft. However, it allowed men to avoid the draft if they produced a substitute (substitution) or paid a fee of $300 (commutation).


Opposition to the Act was fierce in New York City, where the Republican party was already unpopular among the large immigrant population, especially the Irish Catholics. The Democratic Governor of New York, Horatio Seymour, openly opposed the draft and even attempted to suspend its operation. But since the presidency and mayor’s office were under Republican control, the Democratic Party could not actually shield New Yorkers from conscription. On Saturday, July 11th, selection for the draft began in New York City without notable violence. But, come Monday, things would change.


New York in Flames

burning colored orphan asylum new york city Draft Riots
The riots in New York – the rioters burning and sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum. Harper’s Weekly, August 1863. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, via The New York Public Library


On Monday, July 13th, protesters gathered outside the Nineteenth Ward draft office. Judging from Saturday’s calm, the police did not expect serious disturbances. They were wrong. Shortly after selection began, the crowd stormed the office and burnt it, along with the draft papers and neighboring buildings. Toby Joyce stresses the role of volunteer fire companies, which vocally opposed the draft and shared membership with violent gangs, in starting the riot. Indeed, two leading firemen who had been selected for the army on Saturday led the way.


The mob proceeded to beat up policemen, chasing them away. With the city and state militia deployed in Pennsylvania for the Gettysburg operations, few military forces were available to face the crowd. A few soldiers of the Invalids Corps were sent in to quell the unrest, but the rioters responded with increased violence, killing two soldiers.


Lacking effective opposition, the mob spread out, burning and looting as it went and destroying telegraph and railway infrastructure. It also turned on New York’s Black inhabitants, even burning the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue while rioters shouted, “Burn the n*****s’ nest!” (fortunately, the children had escaped).


governor seymour speech new york city draft riots
The Meeting of the Friends by H.L. Stephens, 1863. Satiric depiction of Governor Seymour’s attempt to placate the mob, addressing them as “My Friends,” while the latter lynches Black New Yorkers and besieges the building of the abolitionist New York Tribune: via Library of Congress


The crowd shrank on the second day, and many tried to restore peace, with vigilance committees forming and Democratic politicians as well as Catholic priests stepping in to prevent violence. But the rioters had not said their last words. They resumed attacks on Black New Yorkers, killing some, while abolitionists and the affluent were also targeted. Officials struggled to get a hold of the situation, and police attempts to engage the mob resulted in a few civilian deaths. Governor Seymour, who had been in New Jersey on the 13th, returned to New York and attempted to plead with the crowd on the City Hall steps. Accounts differ on whether Governor Seymour greeted the crowd as “fellow citizens” or “my friends.” Regardless, he reminded them that he, too, opposed the draft and had sent a representative to Washington to request its suspension, asking them to be patient.


The Governor’s efforts were not enough to prevent yet another day of rioting. Still, the 15th proved to be a turning point. On the one hand, the draft was suspended, thus placating many rioters. On the other, it marked the arrival of local troops recalled from Gettysburg, where the Union had won a crucial victory earlier in July, to crush the uprising. Although the soldiers themselves came from similar socio-economic (and even ethnic) backgrounds as the rioters, they unleashed lethal force on the mob, at one point even deploying artillery. The rioters responded in kind, shooting the soldiers and wounding many, but they were now clearly losing ground.


militia returning to quell new york draft riots
N.Y.M. returning over South Mtn by Alfred R. Waud, 1863. Library of Congress. Depiction of the New York Militia returning to quell the draft riots; via Wikimedia Commons


Clashes and deaths continued on Thursday the 16th but gradually petered out. By the 17th, violence had ceased. But by then, “Deeds were done and sights witnessed that one would not have dreamed of, except among savage tribes.”


It is difficult to know precisely how many people died in the riots. Adrian Cook informs us that contemporaries’ estimates were very high. Judge Barnard referred to 800 deaths, Governor Seymour shared a police estimate of around 1,000 deaths, and a War Department detective brought the tally up to 1,462. Some scholars accept figures of over 1,000 deaths, while Cook maintains that, according to official sources, only 105 deaths can be conclusively proven. Studies since Cook’s 1974 book tend to agree with his estimate of slightly over 100 deaths, with Hauptman writing of at least 119 people, Bernstein agreeing with Cook’s 105 figure, and Rutkowski and Joyce putting the death toll at over 100.


What Caused the Riots?

new york draft riots burning provost marshal office
Burning of the Provost Marshal’s Office. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, via The New York Public Library


To understand the causes of the New York City Draft Riots, we must first understand their nature. Virtually all historians – as well as contemporary New Yorkers – identified the mob as predominantly, although not exclusively, Irish. Cook’s sources show that, of the 184 rioters whose origins can be traced, 117 were born in Ireland. There is also widespread agreement with Bernstein’s view that the targets of the riots reveal their dual nature: a forceful lower-class protest against the Republican wartime administration and its policies on the one hand and a race riot targeting Black New Yorkers on the other.


This perspective received additional confirmation with Hoehne’s 2018 geospatial analysis of the riots, which concluded that there were two distinct clusters of violence. First, the mostly anti-government uptown riots, which were mostly perpetrated by industrial workers and involved extensive attacks on infrastructure, government forces, and the elite. And second, the mostly race-based downtown riots, led by longshoremen and quarrymen, mostly eschewing direct confrontation with the police and military and focusing on vulnerable targets, such as Blacks and brothels.


Having identified the nature of the riots, we can turn our attention to their main causes. These can be divided into two broad categories: first, the socio-economic conditions of the Irish in mid-19th century New York, and second, the political events of late 1862 and early 1863.


Irish Life in Mid-19th-Century New York

irish emigrants leaving queenstown for new york
Emigrants leaving Queenstown (Ireland) for New York. Harper’s Weekly, September 1874. Library of Congress; via Maclean’s


The United States experienced massive waves of Irish immigration in the first half of the nineteenth century. The number of Irish immigrants skyrocketed as a result of a famine of nearly apocalyptic proportions in Ireland in 1845-1849.


But those who escaped starvation in Ireland would face new challenges as they arrived in America’s growing and industrializing cities. Coming from a predominantly rural society, the Irish found that their skills and knowledge in agriculture were of little use in New York’s industrializing economy. Ryan Keating points out that, although the Irish fared decently in the labor market of smaller towns such as New Haven and Milwaukee, they faced great difficulties in New York, with more than 70% of Irish working in low-paying, unskilled jobs. As recent immigrants to a sprawling city with corrupt and inefficient local authorities, they had to live in packed, unsanitary neighborhoods in a city ridden with crime and gang violence.


The desperate and precarious conditions under which Irish immigrants lived in New York also fueled political clientelism and “machine politics,” as they overwhelmingly turned to the Democratic Party for material and political support. Naturally, this only further widened the gap between the Irish and the Republican Party. The former was loyal to the Democratic Party and the Catholic Church – both of which were wary of the abolitionist movement. Conversely, the Republicans were a predominantly Protestant party with nativist undercurrents and a strong opposition to slavery.


boss william tweed
William Magear “Boss” Tweed. Library of Congress. “Boss” Tweed was the face of Democratic political clientelism in mid-19th century New York; via Ghosts and Murders Blog


Of course, the Irish were not the only group to face such problems in New York. The city was teeming with multiple, overlapping social conflicts: between rich and poor, native and immigrant, Protestant and Catholic, Republican and Democrat. This is not to mention the conflicts between rival gangs, losers and winners of early industrialization, and more.


Rioting was a frequent phenomenon in nineteenth-century New York, as these tensions erupted into mass violence, with Cook counting 16 instances in the period 1834-1874. And indeed, the Irish featured prominently in some of them, notably in the 1834 anti-abolitionist riots. Seen in that context, the 1863 Draft Riots were not a totally unprecedented and inexplicable orgy of violence but rather part of a well-established tradition of violent social protest and conflict.


Nonetheless, all this fails to answer key questions regarding the Draft Riots. Most importantly, why were these riots so much deadlier than earlier outbursts? For perspective, the unusually violent 1849 Astor Place Riot resulted in 22 deaths, as opposed to the Draft Riots’ more than 100 victims. Additionally, why did the riot continue for days and even persist in the face of lethal fire by battle-hardened military units?


To answer these questions, we must turn to the specific political events that transpired in late 1862 and early 1863, resulting in unusually heightened tension in New York.


Unpopular Republican Policies

general george mcclellan
George Brinton McClellan by Julian Scott, 1888, via the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC


Irish New Yorkers had more grievances than usual in the summer of 1863. The war’s end was not in sight. In fact, the Confederate armies performed strongly in the Civil War’s eastern frontier throughout 1862 and early 1863, even launching an attack on northern soil in June 1863 before suffering defeat at Gettysburg. But beyond general war weariness, Hoehne sees three specific events in late 1862 and early 1863 as pushing New York’s Irish to revolt. The first was the removal in November 1862 of the cautious General McClellan from the command of the Army of the Potomac (the Union’s main army on the eastern front). While this removal probably helped the Union in the long run, it marked a turn to more aggressive commanders and higher casualties. Indeed, extensive losses at the battles of Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg dashed New Yorkers’ hopes that casualties could remain limited.


The second factor was the Emancipation Proclamation, issued provisionally on September 22nd, 1862 and coming into effect in January 1863. Poor white New Yorkers, among them many Irish Catholics, feared that emancipation would lead to a mass migration of newly freed enslaved people to the North, further depressing their already meager wages. Moreover, abolitionism was closely associated with Protestant and even nativist reformers, whereas, although Catholic doctrine opposed abolitionism, it still maintained that slavery could be acceptable under specific conditions.


the emancipation proclamation
Emancipation Proclamation. Lithograph by L. Lipman, 1864, via Library of Congress


The third event, which proved to be the last straw, was, of course, the March 1863 Enrollment Act, which would lead to additional sacrifices and coercion. To make matters worse, the commutation provisions disproportionately placed the conscription burden on the poor, including the Irish.


All of the above combined to convince the Irish that it was worth risking their lives in protest over measures that, to them, seemed to be destroying their communities. As the rioters put it, “Better to die at home than in Virginia.”


Why The Racial Violence?

lynching clarkson street new york city draft riots
New York – hanging and burning a negro in Clarkson Street. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library; via Historia Para no Dormir


The above socio-economic and political causes easily explain why Republicans and affluent New Yorkers were targeted. It becomes easier to understand why the rioters besieged the offices of the abolitionist New York Tribune, forcing the editor, Horace Greeley, to escape. But they also hold the key to understanding why the rioters targeted their Black neighbors, too.


Albon Man reminds us that Black New Yorkers were seen as key economic rivals of the Irish Catholics, as they competed over similar unskilled jobs. The confrontation was especially acute over longshore employment, with employers replacing striking Irishmen with Black strikebreakers in December 1954, leading to a wave of racial violence. The pattern was repeated in March 1863, just a few months before the Draft Riots. Of course, it is debatable whether Black labor really was the main problem for the Irish or simply a convenient scapegoat; either way, it was seen as a major threat.


new york draft riots battle first avenue
The riots in New York: conflict between the military and the rioters in First Avenue. Illustrated London News, 1863. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, via the New York Times.


Apart from labor competition, Black New Yorkers were associated in the minds of many with the Civil War, abolitionism, and the Republican administration, all unpopular with the city’s Irish Catholics. Moreover, since the draft only applied to citizens or immigrants applying for citizenship, African-Americans were mostly exempted from the draft, compounding feelings of hostility. Thus, we see that anti-Republican and anti-Black acts had different targets but were motivated by the same grievances.


new york draft riots reign of terror
Three days reign of terror by Ellen Leonard, 1867. Contemporaries tended to see the riots as a “reign of terror”; via Library of Congress


The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 were an especially brutal episode in the city’s history. But what might initially seem like an inexplicable eruption of blind violence becomes more intelligible once we put the events in perspective. The historical context of the Civil War and of Irish life in nineteenth-century New York can help us understand – though not condone – the events of that week.

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By Christos KonstantopoulosMPhil Politics: Comparative Government, BA HistoryChristos is a historian and social scientist with a keen interest in the history of health and in the influence of experts on political decision-making. He holds a BA in History from the University of Cambridge and an MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford, where his MPhil Thesis focused on how advocates of eugenics interacted with policy-makers in Edwardian Britain.