The Draft Riots of 1863

New York City in the 1860’s was “a city characterized by extremes in wealth and poverty, by ethnic and racial diversity, by economic elites competing for political power, and by an unstable social-class system.” Poor white immigrants in New York lived in relative squalor and were faced with job competition – against their white peers and their free black neighbors – for (often temporary) jobs that required unskilled labor. Adding to the misery of poor whites in New York was the opulence by which the upper class lived. On main thoroughfare of Broadway in the center of the city, the lower and higher classes alike, as well as the free blacks of the city, were forced into a “dangerous mingling” that allowed them to observe how their urban peers lived. This daily observation of the disparity of wealth and status in the city lead poor whites to ask the question, “What sort of equality is that which keeps the largest portion of the people in want, while the smaller rolls in plenty?”

The New York Draft Riots – which occured July 13-16, 1863 – began as “a communal uprising against the power of an expanding and centralizing federal government.” Working class New Yorkers were being drafted to fight in the Civil War – at a time when they could not afford to leave jobs at home, and could not afford to pay the expensive $300 fee that would get them out of this obligation. The fact that the rioters initially only targeted military and governmental buildings – symbols of the unfairness of the draft – illustrates that their original motivation was to protest the draft by participating in group action. A first-hand observer remarked that the Draft Riot mob participated in a “defiant, law-contemning insurrection” in the spirit of the extralegal colonial mob. This was not an indiscriminately destructive mob, out only to wreak havoc upon the city; it was a mob structured in the tradition of the colonial political mob and concerned only with destroying the symbols of their grievances in an effort to make a political statement.

The original group of draft-resisting New Yorkers was corrupted very quickly by fringe groups with different – mostly racial – motivations for participating in acts of mob violence. “By afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power.” In addition to the many anti-black rioters that joined the Draft Riot mob, various other groups of people took advantage of the urban chaos, further watering-down the legitimate, politically-motivated group until it was nothing more than a band of thieves, arsonists, and murderers. “The idle, the vicious, the curious joined the throng, and the motives of the mob became as varied and diverse as its elements.”

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Looting of Brooks Brothers on Catherine Street, 1863.
From Dickinson College’s House Divided Project.

“Thieves and plunderers” took advantage of the lack of policing and the destroyed property that the legitimate mob action had caused, stealing the items of property that were easily available and further devaluing the original political mob. Although most primary accounts concede that “everything goes to prove that, in the outset, so far as the original active rioters were concerned, the draft was the immediate cause of the disturbance,” the Draft Riot soon lost most legitimacy by snowballing into a mob without a goal.

“Ye Old Willow Cottage” Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, 1880.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Within the first day, the Draft Riot mob devolved from a motive-driven, politically-conscious colonial political mob to a “wild frenzy of July.” The mob became a cold-blooded, racially-motivated group of violent and angry New Yorkers. The “center of operations” for the mob became a cottage (sometimes called Croton Cottage, sometimes Willow Cottage) on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street. The mob set fire to the Provost Marshall Office (the place names for the draft were being pulled) on Third Avenue and 47th Street. Then they continued wreaking havoc – destroying the city’s armories, looting and destroying businesses (such as the first Brooks Brothers store at Catherine and Cherry Streets), and attacking and killing citizens (particularly black men, at least two of whom were lynched by the mob that day).

View of the Distributing Reservoir & Colored Half Orphan Asylum from the Deaf & Dumb Inst.
View of the Distributing Reservoir & Colored Half Orphan Asylum from the Deaf & Dumb Inst., 1847.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

In (arguably) their most horrific act, the mob burned a Colored Orphan Asylum, on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd Streets, with 200 orphan children still inside (all of whom luckily made it out alive!). New York Historical Society has a fantastic blog entry about the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Over the course of a few days, the Draft Riot mob murdered at least 120 civilians (many of whom were free blacks) in cold blood, lynched 11 black men and forced hundreds of other black people to flee the city, plundered the city, caused at least $400,000 in property damage (some estimates put that number at $1.5 million) and committed various other vicious and unwarranted acts.

Murray Hill was the site of the final standoff between the mob and the government on July 16th. That day, 4,000 federal troops were finally able to get to the city – after having just fought in the bloody and exhausting Battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3rd. The troops, in combination with other factors such as a public plea for peace by the Archbishop (speaking to a mostly-Catholic mob), were finally able to stop the violence.

Most of the buildings associated with the Draft Riot are gone today, having been destroyed during the rioting. However, a walk from midtown Fifth Avenue to Murray Hill will take you to the sites of these places. If you open your mind, you can almost feel the tension – the anger, the racism, the fear – that characterized the mob.

Your Civil War buff,

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