‘Blood, Rhetoric, and Negotiation’: Crushing the New York City Draft Riots

This is the third part of a three-part series on the New York City Draft Riots, the U.S. Civil War, and the use of martial law in the United States. Click here for part two and part one.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his army north in the early summer of 1863, hoping to strike a decisive blow against the Union. By the beginning of July, he engaged with Union forces near the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The battle raged; on July 3, having met only minimal success in driving his opponent back, Lee ordered General Pickett to charge at the Union center. The resulting slaughter was horrendous, and the Confederates retreated in wounded disarray. It was the beginning of the end for the Southern cause.

Union General Meade, to Lincoln’s frustration, hesitated to pursue the retreating Lee. Meanwhile, the draft tensions in New York reached a crescendo. So the riots erupted at the worst possible moment: Meade, in rushing to meet the Confederate threat, pulled virtually every Union soldier out of New York to reinforce his army.

Mayor Opdyke telegraphed Secretary of War Stanton for troops to quell the violence. Stanton, feeling that the danger of the Confederate army had ebbed with the victory at Gettysburg, ordered five regiments freed from the Army of the Potomac. “The retreat of Lee, now become a rout…will relieve a large force for the restoration of order in New York,” he wrote to Opdyke.

After being trounced throughout the first day of rioting, the Metropolitan Police barely managed to hold the line during the second. They had only 1,500 men to bear against the thousands of rioters. But the tide of battle began to shift with the arrival of the Union regiments from Gettysburg on the evening of the riot’s third day.

Morgan Dix provided a most evocative firsthand account of the soldiers retaking the city. “There was some terrific fighting between the regulars and the insurgents; streets were swept again and again by [grapeshot], houses were stormed at the point of the bayonet, rioters were picked off by sharpshooters as they fired on the troops from the house-tops.” Faced with superior firepower, the mobs generally broke and ran.

By the fourth day of the riot, the troops, armed with rifles and howitzers, managed to secure the city. Regiments occupied Third Avenue, Gramercy Park, and Stuyvesant Square, with pickets strung at other points. The omnibuses and horsecars ran for the first time in a week. Workers returned to their posts, and the city adopted some semblance of order. The largest civil disorder in American history had ended.

When the riots concluded, New York was filled with thousands of furious citizens and over six thousand federal troops, each side ready to explode again at the least provocation. With such levels of hostility and malevolence, the application of martial law seemed imminent, even prudent.

An opinion piece in the New York Times indirectly gives us an idea of the prevailing sentiments within the city in the aftermath of the violence. “The factionists [sic] of the day have clamored loudly about the encroachments of the Government upon personal liberty, and the fearful peril of military despotism,” an anonymous editor wrote. “They have never tired of bawling, ‘The liberties of the people are in danger! The liberties of the people are in danger!’ It was in this manner that the passions of the ignorant…precipitated itself in flame and blood.”

Even after the riots ended, the Democrats remained intractable about matters of the draft and the federal presence within the city. A Democratic Police Magistrate urged people to resist enforcement of the draft law. Democratic members of the Board of Aldermen and the State Legislature “demanded that the police and soldiers be withdrawn from their districts.” Democratic judges issued writs of habeas corpus for those arrested during the riots, and Democratic officials used their political power to free still others. (During the riots, Democratic Governor Seymour had stood before a large crowd at City Hall and pledged that he would either postpone or force an end to the draft, just in case anyone was wondering about his sympathies for the cause.)

New York Democrats also saved the rioters, who composed their power base, from punishment at the hands of federal authorities. Many who had been arrested by police and soldiers were “immediately freed through political influence, and were never brought to trial…politicians rushed to their aid and saved them from punishment.” Out of the thousands who rioted, only nineteen were eventually sent to jail.

There is no record of federal authorities contesting this mass pardon by city Democrats. In any case, they were more concerned with re-starting the draft. Lee’s army had been driven out of the north, but at enormous human cost. The same factors that had led Lincoln to initiate the Conscription Act still applied. The Union needed men.

Within days of the riots’ end, other states were clamoring for exemptions from the Conscription Act. Illinois and Ohio asked for postponement, and Massachusetts thought that drafted men should be eligible to collect a bounty. If Lincoln allowed New York to escape the draft, it might have set a precedent for other states, which in turn would have precipitated a chain reaction that would have harmed both the Union Army and Republican legitimacy.

Those within the administration realized the stakes involved in continuing the Conscription Act. As Stanton explained, in a letter to his friend James A. Brady: “The rebellion started upon the theory that there is no National Government, but only an agency determinable at the will of the respective states…. If [the governor of New York] is to be the judge of whether the conscription act…may be enforced or resisted…then the Rebellion is consummated and the National Government abolished.” If the Conscription Act did not go through, the Union might have, as Robert Maxwell wrote to Lincoln, “[gone] up in a blaze of States Rights.”

Despite the recalcitrance of the New York Democratic political structure, the draft needed to go forward. Yet imposing martial law would also have been counterproductive. In the national schema, New York was economically and politically a far more important city than New Orleans or Baltimore, and another draft would have likely caused major disruptions, which in turn would have unleashed wider negative repercussions for the Union as a whole. In addition, a second draft riot, or even a sustained but weaker period of violence, could have sent a message about potential Republican illegitimacy.

To the Republican administration, the horns of a dilemma had never seemed so sharp. If the Republicans wanted to conduct the draft and keep the city running in good order, they had no alternative but to negotiate with the New York Democratic Party. Members of the Union Club and other, more radical Republicans clamored for martial law, asking Lincoln to appoint General Benjamin Butler as military head of the city and to send in troops to make an example of all the “copperheads” in the city. Instead, cooler heads prevailed: the Republicans would negotiate.

The course of the negotiations can be traced out in the August 1863 correspondence between Lincoln, Governor Seymour, General Dix, and Stanton, supplemented by a few others. Throughout these talks, Mayor Opdyke positions himself as an advisor to the Republican administration, making little effort to guide events in a particular direction. On July 18, he wrote Stanton that “to prevent any miscarriage [of a second draft] and to avoid all danger, you should have at least 10,000 reliable troops, with a strong force of light artillery.”

The Saturday after the riots ended, General John Adams Dix arrived in the city to assume the post of Commander of the Department of the East. Besides having a long and distinguished career, Dix was also a moderate Democrat with connections within the New York Democratic power structure. It would not be unfair to presume that his politics factored into his appointment: The Republican administration might have thought the riots’ aftermath would be far less tense if there was a Democratic intermediary between them and New York’s Democratic power structure. By selecting a moderate, as opposed to a radical Republican like Butler, Stanton may have been sending a particular message of acquiescence to the New York Democrats: We wish to work with you on these matters, and to ensure that the whole process is peaceful.

Dix, in his letters to Seymour, adopted rhetoric in keeping with this message, praising the people of New York while couching any threats in obsequiously courteous terms. “I shall otherwise deem it my duty to call on the general Government for a force that shall…be adequate to insure the execution of the law,” he wrote. This stands in marked contrast to the blunt threats of execution or punishment delivered to the populace by the military commanders of Baltimore and New Orleans.

Dix may have been a moderate politically, but not when it came to his duty. Immediately upon assuming command of Department of the East, he ordered that live ammunition be used to quell any future riots, and that troops engaging such mobs were “to follow them up, and so deal with them that the same persons should never be assembled again.”

Dix was more compromising when it came to dealing with various New York officials. In his first letter to Governor Seymour, Dix made ample mention of deploying troops to “put down violations of good order, riotous proceedings, and disturbances of the public peace” during the draft, but he never mentioned applying martial law.

Although Seymour refused to accept the draft, he also promised Dix that he would protest the matter directly to the president. This promise of an orderly protest, versus the wild violence of a few weeks before, evidently sat well with Dix. The General wrote back on August 8, stating that the draft’s legality was unquestionable and that “it remains only for the people [of New York] to vindicate themselves from reproach in the eyes of the country and the world by a cheerful acquiescence in the law.” Nonetheless, Dix agreed to wait for Lincoln’s reply.

In a letter sent on August 15, Seymour also assured Dix that there would be “no violations of good order, no riotous proceedings, no disturbances of the public peace” during the new draft, and that the state, not federal, forces would be sufficient to keep the peace. Taking no chances, however, Dix had already requisitioned 10,000 infantry to protect the draft employees and apparatus. Lincoln, via Edward Stanton, had provided Dix with authorization to use deadly force if necessary.

On August 16, the day before Seymour’s reply arrived, Dix selected positions within the city for the incoming federal troops. He did so with the greatest reluctance, he later wrote Seymour, and only because he had not received the Governor’s letters assuring peace during the second draft. Dix, in openly wishing “that the draft in this state should be executed without the employment of troops,” and taking great pains to ensure that his troops were not an overt presence as the draft machinery reactivated, seemed to be seeking cooperation with New York, rather than trying to impose Republican will upon it. Not in the correspondence between Stanton and other states over the draft, and not in the Union’s conduct of martial law over other areas, do we see this level of acquiescence to local power.

On the other hand, Dix and others in the administration realized what Seymour was trying to accomplish. “There is little doubt that [Seymour] will do all in his power to defeat the draft, short of forcible resistance to it,” Dix wrote to Fry on August 12. Nonetheless, to avoid that “forcible resistance” from becoming a reality, Dix continued to tip-toe gingerly around Seymour; he allowed state forces, the majority of them Democratic officials, to guard the streets during the second draft.

At the beginning of August, Seymour appealed to Lincoln about the draft, asking that it be rescinded on the hope that the ranks could instead be filled with patriotic volunteers. Lincoln, who had once overridden the Supreme Court itself on the issue of martial law, chose to obey the governor, waiting from August 1–6.

On August 7, Seymour sent Lincoln a report that supposedly detailed the various injustices of the Conscription Act, including placing an undue burden for men upon various New York districts. Lincoln replied that he considered “time as being very important, both to the general cause of the country, and to the soldiers already in the field,” and therefore the draft needed to continue. However, he did lower the quotas for the districts that Seymour cited as unjust. Furthermore, he also allowed Seymour to apply for a large number of “credits” against the draft quotas. Credits were given, in the words of General Fry, “for all volunteers and militia furnished from the beginning of the rebellion, and fairness, as well as the terms of the law, called for an adjustment of accounts.” Credits reduced the number of troops that the federal government could demand, effectively culling the draft rolls.

Lincoln allowed these measures in spite of the Union’s pressing need for men, and despite the administration taking all measures to ensure that the draft progressed unimpeded throughout the rest of the nation. The administration could not risk losing a city as valuable as New York.

Seymour (and, by extension, the Democratic Party) had accomplished their aims. By lowering quotas and claiming credit, Seymour managed to convince the administration that the draft quota for New York should be lowered from twenty-six thousand men to twelve thousand, a reduction of over 50 percent. While the draft had not been canceled, this was a symbolic victory: Only by making concessions to the Democratic powers in New York could Lincoln achieve Republican aims.

A second draft, now totally defanged, was initiated with little difficulty on August 19. In a letter to Washington on July 28, General Caney had written that “the volunteer recruits in the neighborhood and the State militia furnish in numbers a sufficient force for this purpose, but it will be questionable how far the local troops may be relied on in the event of an outbreak.” These local troops, however, made sure that everything ran smoothly. The ten thousand federal troops in the city, camped along the city’s major arteries and thoroughfares, never had to move into action.

After all the blood, rhetoric, and negotiation, only 35,882 men went off to the war, out of 291,000 names drawn in New York. While this constitutes a sizable fraction of the 162,000 men drafted between July 1863 and December 1864, it is a pittance compared to the number of men that the Republican administration could have drawn upon, had the draft not been resisted.

The Republican Party was ready and willing to declare martial law in other parts of the country, from Baltimore to Wisconsin, with little fear of consequences. Their refusal to do the same in New York City in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, even with the city’s pugnacity and seditionist impulses, is an anomaly; but it also shows how local power can sometimes repulse something as powerful as a federal government.

Writer, editor, author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday' and 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club.'

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