‘The Grimy Slur on the Republic’s Faith’: How New York City’s Bloody Draft Riots Began

Hot time in the old town tonight.

From July 13–17, 1863, New York City tore itself apart from within. Protests by white laborers and wage workers against the federal Conscription Act escalated into a sweeping attack on local Republican figures and institutions, African-Americans, and public property. By the time Union Army regiments arrived from Gettysburg to quell the violence, on July 16, many lives and millions of dollars’ worth of property had been lost. This week of violence would soon become known as the New York City Draft Riots.

Contemporaries found themselves aghast at the scope of the riots’ destruction, estimating over twelve hundred people killed. While modern scholars place the number of dead at closer to one hundred, the Draft Riots remain the deadliest civil disturbance in American history. By comparison, fifty-four people died in the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

For the three days before Union troops arrived, the fate of the city hung in the balance. The Metropolitan police, representing the city’s major line of defense against civil disturbance, found themselves outnumbered by the mobs. Police superintendent John A. Kennedy was incapacitated after being beaten by rioters on Monday, July 13. The only Union soldiers present in the city, the Invalid Corps, were unwilling to fire on the crowds and subsequently overwhelmed.

In addition to attacking police and soldiers, the rioters assaulted Republican Party symbols and personnel throughout the city. The Irish-American laborers, immigrants, and other workers who made up the bulk of the rioters were overwhelmingly Democratic and opposed not only to the Conscription Act but also what they viewed as Republican-sponsored attempts at abolition. Some scholars have theorized that these Irish-Americans feared that emancipated African-Americans would migrate north to usurp their positions within the social hierarchy; many Irish-Americans already competed fiercely with the city’s free African-Americans for stevedoring, laboring, and dock positions.

The rioters burned the draft offices, beating the employees and destroying equipment. They attacked the homes of prominent Republicans and abolitionists. They destroyed American flags and threatened to raze the offices of Horace Greeley’s Daily Tribune and the Times, newspapers with Republican and abolitionist sentiments. Crowds savagely attacked African-Americans, eventually murdering eleven of them, and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue. Given the focus of this destruction, it is easy to see how many people at the time could believe that the riots were a countermovement in support of the Confederacy.

The riots brought all commerce and manufacturing in the city to a virtual standstill. In protest of the Conscription Act, which they felt unfairly targeted them, white laborers and artisans also stopped working, store-owners closed their shops, and factory workers left their posts. As the violence intensified throughout the week, crowds looted any stores not protected by armed guard. They burned factories and raided armories for the guns. They destroyed city infrastructure, including railroads, ferry slips, gas factories, and telegraph poles.

New York City was the city most vital to the Union war effort. Its various industries produced uniforms, medical equipment, weapons, ships, and food. Its immigrants and natives swelled the soldiers’ ranks. The city dominated the East Coast, both financially and in terms of trade; if it shut down for even a limited period, or permanently turned against the Republican administration, the Union war effort would lose perhaps its most invaluable source of goods and money, and consequently be crippled.

In order to prevent that from happening, the Federal government could have declared martial law over New York City, suspending habeas corpus and imposing military government and laws. These military governors would have then acted on the orders of their commanders, beyond the control of local officials. Such martial law was often synonymous with brutality; during the infamous 1862 occupation of New Orleans by Union troops, General Benjamin F. Butler arrested scores of belligerents for trivial offenses, and made defacing or even lowering the American flag an offense with severe punishment.

But while Lincoln and his Republican administration imposed martial law on many other draft-riot districts, as well as regions recaptured from the South during the course of the war, they never forced military rule on New York City during that hot July, either during the Draft Riots or afterwards. A common explanation for this, and certainly a valid one, is that Abraham Lincoln and his advisors believed martial law would have likely promoted more violence and resistance. But something as complex and thorny as the application of martial law, particularly during a situation like the Draft Riots, demands deeper exploration.

Many books have been written about the riots, but only a few have discussed the role of martial law in the crisis. Most focus on a straightforward narrative of riot week, largely leaving open the question of why the Republicans declined to declare martial law at such a crucial juncture.

Indeed, Iver Bernstein’s The New York City Draft Riots, arguably the most comprehensive study of the incident, provides only a few paragraphs’ discussion of martial law during the riots. Bernstein’s brief passages focus on the Democratic opposition to martial law and, simultaneously, Republicans welcoming the prospect of military rule.

Bernstein shows how Lincoln and other federal officials believed that implementation of military rule would force “a withdrawal of conservative support for the restoration of order, followed by desertions from the army and an escalation of mid-week violence.” But in the end, the administration rejected the idea of martial law, leaving the local Democratic elite to restore order. Bernstein argues that the Republican refusal to implement martial law, while preventing the draft riots from escalating, “not only confirmed New York as a Democratic city but suggested that there were strict limits to Republicans’ national authority even at this early juncture.” (However, the military would be used to maintain order when the draft was conducted a second time in August.)

Adrian Cook’s The Armies of the Streets states that “to such appeals [for martial law during the draft riots], Lincoln sensibly replied that he thought New York authorities were performing competently, and he would not intervene unless it became obvious that they could not keep order.” This is not a totally satisfying explanation; such brief descriptions, even from comprehensive sources, beg for further elaboration. What factors led to the Republican administration refusal to declare martial law, as it had so many previous times during the Civil War?

Certainly there was pressure to bring down the hammer: Many influential New York Republicans, including the members of the famous Union League Club, clamored for bloody federal intervention. Without martial law, a draft within the city might have been impossible to conduct, which would have deprived the Union of desperately needed troops, and sent a message to the nation that the administration was weak and ultimately incapable of running the country.

But declaring martial law would have been self-defeating. The Democratic Party held the city’s economic and governmental reins. Challenging their hold would have exacerbated the same grievances that had caused the Draft Riots, which were sparked by anger over encroaching Republican policies. If the Republicans wanted to conduct the draft and keep the city firmly on the side of the Union, they had few alternatives but to negotiate with the local Democratic Party.

Although New York City was not the only state, territory, or city to protest the draft, it seems to be one of the only ones to which the Republicans were willing to grant concessions. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton might have been hard on other states’ requests for exemptions and special arrangements, but not on New York’s. Certainly, he was acutely aware of the city’s position as a Democratic stronghold and as a most important gear in the national war machine.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the crisis, the Republicans assumed an almost subservient position to the Democratic power structure. The administration appointed General Dix, a moderate Democrat, to help secure the city and conduct the draft, instead of a staunch, hard-line Republican like General Butler. This was clearly done as a concession to the city’s Democratic powers.

(Had the Republicans declared martial law in New York in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, there would have been a tide of blood. By arresting rioters en masse and wresting power away from local politicians who guarded their political territory fiercely, the administration would have provoked an swell of anger that could have easily transformed into a resumption of rioting and violence. With this violence would have come a longer shutdown of New York’s manufacturing and trade, which would have harmed the war effort. Even if, in this hypothetical situation, the army were indeed able to repress this intensified violence, the city’s economy would have been irrevocably damaged.)

With the commencement of the Civil War in 1861 had come a wave of volunteers to both the Union and Confederate Armies. Thousands of men, gripped by patriotic fever, flooded recruitment stations throughout the North. By 1862, people seemed enthusiastic for war. Within a week of the first shots on Fort Sumter, New York City held a massive rally (described as “a red, white and blue wonder”) in support of the Union cause, its centerpiece a bronze statue of George Washington wrapped in an American flag.

Yet morale among Union troops and civilians alike dropped precipitously as the number of casualties and lost battles mounted. Over 100,000 soldiers deserted the Union ranks, and the number of those volunteering decreased. Despite the Union’s size and strength, the situation seemed increasingly dire, leading Lincoln to issue a call for 300,000 volunteers in July 1862.

That measure failed. In a letter to Count A. de Gasparin, dated August 4, 1862, Lincoln wrote: “Our great army has dwindled rapidly, bringing the necessity for a new call [for men] earlier than was anticipated…. Be not alarmed if you shall learn that we have resorted to a draft for part of this.”

Many in Congress agreed with the president about the need for a draft. “The ranks of our wasted regiments cannot be filled again by the old system of volunteering,” Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, a Republican, announced to his colleagues. Democrats on the other side of the aisle concurred: “I agree with [Wilson] that it is necessary to fill up the ranks of our army; and that it is necessary there should be a conscription bill,” Senator Richardson of Illinois said.

In the early months of 1863, Lincoln proposed two critical acts of legislation that boosted the Union Army’s strength. The first, the Emancipation Proclamation, allowed these freed slaves to be “received into the armed service of the United States.” The second, the Conscription Act, was an “Act for enrolling and calling out the national forces and for other purposes,” authorizing Lincoln “to call at his option, as many persons between the ages of twenty and thirty-five, for a first draft, and those between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five for a second.” In addition, the Conscription Act had provisions for the arrest of deserters. Service could be avoided by paying a fee of $300 for a substitute to be sent in one’s place.

On March 3, 1863, Congress approved the Conscription Act. Since Lincoln and other high-ranking members of the administration had vocally forwarded the measure, the issue of Conscription became irrevocably linked to the Republican Party. The very existence of the Union seemed to depend on rapidly acquiring more men for the war’s multiple fronts; resistance to the draft would therefore be tantamount to resistance to the Republican administration and the Union cause. And if the draft were to be outright rejected, it would cripple the Union Army and, by extension, the Republican administration.

New York City greeted news of the Conscription Act with anger. Poorer residents felt that the $300 exemption, well beyond their means, doomed them to the front. Subsequently, massive protests erupted in the streets. Despite that action, Lincoln (according to a member of his inner circle) was “wholly satisfied that the New York demonstrations [over the Conscription Act] are Pickwickian, and that his head will not be brought to the block.”

He would soon be proven wrong on that first point.

In the 19th century, New York was a city of industry and immigrants. It was a heavily Democratic metropolis, to the point that the Republicans had written it off as a lost cause even before the 1860 elections.

By the start of the 19th century, New York had acquired economic and financial dominance over the rest of the nation. It was the major port city on the Atlantic coast, both in terms of trade and shipbuilding. A constant flood of German and Irish immigrants fueled its expanding industries. Everywhere from New England to the South fell under its commercial sway.

The city’s prosperity lay in this diversity of interests. A 1860 New York Times article on the stock exchange demonstrated that, even as the “Southern trade” softened with the approach of war, the city did an enormous amount of business in grain, railroads, canal investment, and shipping. And until the first shots of the war, the South was responsible for an enormous amount of economic activity: Ships out of New York carried cotton north and goods south; bankers, dealers, and wholesalers all made money on buying and trading tobacco, cotton, indigo, and rice; brokers negotiated southern bonds and loans; financial institutions accepted slaves as collateral.

The Democrats’ pro-South stance aligned with that of all the businessmen, shippers, and bankers who made their money from the Southern trade. New York Democrats elected to Congress, such as the notorious Dan Sickles, tended to vote with their Southern colleagues in the name of New York interests.

As the Republican Party rose to prominence, both nationally and in New York, they attacked the Democrats’ endorsement of the Southern trade as pro-slavery. In an 1860 rally, various Republican speakers, including Henry Winter Davis, denounced the New York Democrats’ dealings with the South while simultaneously positioning themselves as opposed to the local Democratic corruption in Tammany Hall. Meanwhile, those Republicans gathered a good deal of their support from the city’s upper social tiers: The Union Club, an establishment created in 1836 for distinguished citizens and members of the city’s established families, soon became a Republican bastion, vocal about the need for martial law during the Draft Riots.

Republicans earned pieces of New York’s political pie by luck or negotiation. In order to elect some of their own councilmen during the 1860 election cycle, party leaders had to unite and negotiate with Tammany Hall for votes. When George Opdyke, a Republican, ended up being elected as mayor in 1862, it was only because the votes of the Democrats and their allies were split between multiple candidates (Opdyke only won by 613 votes).

And while Mayor Opdyke may have been titular head in the city, the real power lay in the hands of various Democratic party bosses and neighborhood politicos. That the mayor’s office was Republican did not weaken the Democratic hold on power, as the continual prominence of Tammany Hall throughout the period demonstrated.

The last census before the Draft Riots, in 1860, placed the city’s population at 813,699, with 386,345 of them foreign-born. This translated into a powerful voting bloc, complete with its own issues and interests that the Democrats targeted directly. To attract the immigrant vote, particularly that of the Irish, the Democrats relied on everything from political parades and outdoor meetings to outright street fighting. They were also helped by their political opponents’ hostility to foreigners.

More important, however, was the political philosophy that the Democrats would produce in order to incorporate the Irish into their fold, a philosophy that would have widespread ramifications during the Civil War. Beginning in the 1830s, according to David R. Roediger in his book The Wages of Whiteness, “Democrats appreciated the ways in which the idea that all Blacks were unfit for civic participation could be transmuted into the notion that all whites were so fit.”

The Democratic Party, in essence, rejected the nativism of the Whigs and decided to include the Irish into American society, placing the Irish safely beneath the umbrella of “whiteness.” The Irish reciprocated by coalescing into a large voting block devoted to the Democratic cause, one that grew steadily as Irish stepped off boats and immediately went to work within the city’s infrastructure, in the factories and mills and on the docks.

Once they knew their way around, the Irish became low-level Democratic leaders, or joined one of the volunteer fire companies that also doubled as gangs and political units. They had a vital hand in New York’s various interests, and they owed their allegiance to the Democrats.

The Civil War and the Conscription Act threatened to erode this voting bloc and challenge the supremacy of the New York Democrats on their own turf. The Conscription Act, many felt, targeted these white poor; it also aggravated the aforementioned white racial fears that, once liberated, African-Americans would flood North and compete with the Irish and others in New York’s very fluid labor market.

Throughout the summer of the riots, Democratic officials denounced the Conscription Act in speeches and pamphlets. Despite these protests, the draft went forward. The Republicans had no choice; the fate of the army and the legitimacy of the Republican administration were irrevocably bound with a successful implementation of the Conscription Act.

General Fry of the Provost Marshal General’s Office, which organized the draft, wrote to Opdyke that “with a view to uniform and harmonious execution [of the draft], it has been deemed best to assign an officer of this Department of Rank to duty at the city of New York.” That was in April. Lincoln had called for men and his orders would be carried out, no matter how the Democrats protested. The first drawing of draftees in the city took place on Saturday, July 11, with little incident. Another drawing was scheduled for Monday, July 13.

In the days leading up to the riots, various city officials had “inklings of a disturbance.” Fry himself later wrote that “rumors of popular dissatisfaction were heard on every side, trouble was apprehended, and the police were notified to hold themselves in readiness for any emergency.” Metropolitans were dispatched to guard the Provost Marshal’s office during the actual draft. But as Monday dawned, neither the police nor the government had any idea about the scope of violence about to explode.

This is a three-part series. Click here for PART TWO: The Riots Erupt.

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

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