Blood in the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2003, 2010, All Rights Reserved

The New York City Draft Riots of July 13-16, 1863, were by some measures the most bloody and devastating riots in American history. At a time when the Civil War was raging on battlefields, rivers and oceans, violence and terror ruled the streets of our largest city, and battle-weary troops had to be rushed from Gettysburg to help restore order. What began as a protest against the Federal draft quickly degenerated into a racial and social struggle as ugly as any in the Deep South – far more Jim Crow than Big Apple.

New York historian Edward Robb Ellis wrote, “The Draft Riots…stand as the most brutal, tragic, and shameful episode in the entire history of New York City. Politicians encouraged mob violence. Law and order broke down. Mobs seized control of America’s largest city. Innocents were tortured and slaughtered [and] the Union army was weakened.”

Broadway in 1860

The riots began because of attempts to enforce the first Federal conscription act, and because of the economic hardships, political ideology and social pathologies of the city’s large Irish immigrant underclass. The great majority of them had welcomed neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the draft. “They were furious,” wrote historian Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., “at being conscripted into a war [by then] dedicated to freeing slaves.” In Ellis’s view, “The infamous Draft Riots… were so well led that they constituted an organized insurrection, rather than a spontaneous mob uprising. Definite strategy may be seen in the efforts to cut off approaches to the city, to sever communications, to capture forts, to seize armories and munitions works with all their weapons and ammunition, and to plunder banks and Federal treasury vaults.” Carl Sandburg wrote, “Never before in an American metropolis had the police, merchants, bankers, and forces of law and order had their power wrenched loose by mobs so skillfully led.”

The Civil War was a particularly troubled time for New York City. The city was growing fast, but it was not growing better. Its population doubled, on average, every twenty years before the Civil War. It quadrupled between 1825 and 1855. In the 1860 census, New York had a population of about 814,000; Philadelphia was the country’s second-largest city with about 565,000; Brooklyn, at that time a city in its own right, was third with about 267,000, while Cleveland, with about 43,000, was only the 21st-biggest U.S. city. New York was not just the biggest city in the country, but in the entire Western Hemisphere.

6th Ave Looking South from Waverly St (1860)

It was also among the poorest and most class-ridden. By 1855, more than a quarter of the population of both Manhattan and Brooklyn was Irish-born. By 1860, 47% – almost half – of New Yorkers were foreign-born, and most of them were Irish. By the time of the Civil War, New York City was the largest Irish community outside of Dublin. As historian Marion R. Casey wrote, “The public began to associate Irish nationality and Catholicism even though Protestant Irish emigrants continued to settle in the city. Continued ties with Ireland were often seen by outsiders as alien or even insular. At intervals during the nineteenth century, nativist swings in popular opinion led to acts against the city’s Irish that ranged from discrimination in hiring (typified by the frequently posted sign, ‘No Irish Need Apply’) to attacks by mobs on Catholic property.” One bitter joke had it that the Declaration of Independence had been modified in New York City to read, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of Irishmen.” The Irish community closed ranks, with its own clubs, schools, sporting groups, social organizations and entertainments. The song “Dixie” was first performed by an Irish minstrel group, The Bryant Brothers, in blackface, ironically enough, in New York City in 1859.

Excluded from open land on the north of Manhattan Island and more attractive housing, the Irish tended to settle in slums and “succumbed by the thousands to the ill effects of long-term poverty, such as crime, insanity, domestic violence, prostitution, and alcoholism….” British historian James Bryce was blunt: “There [was] a disposition in the United States to use… immigrants, and especially the Irish, much as a cat is used in the kitchen to account for broken plates and foods which disappear… [but] New York was not an Eden before the Irish came.” It was no coincidence that the Know-Nothing Party was particularly strong in New York State.

Between 1815 and 1915 about 35 million people immigrated to the U.S. from all over the world, and three-quarters of them came through the port of New York. Two million came through in the decade of the 1850s alone. As historians Carol Groneman and David M. Reimers noted, “A large number of them were Irish…and German Catholics, and their presence in a city that was still strongly Protestant and Anglo-Saxon led to conflicts over temperance, city government, and the religious orientation of public education. Nativism, strongly influenced by anti-Catholicism, became an organized political movement through which James Harper was elected mayor in 1844 [and] gangs of nativist brawlers fought often with the Irish.”

By 1863, the city’s rapid increase in population had overwhelmed its infrastructure and glutted its labor market. Crime was rampant; the notorious Five Points district (portrayed in the 2002 movie The Gangs of New York) was synonymous with murder, mayhem, prostitution and robbery, and it was an epicenter of the Draft Riots. Five Points was named for the intersection of five streets: Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth) Street, Cross (now Park) Street, Orange (now Baxter) Street, and Little Water Street (which no longer exists). From 1830 to 1855, the population of Five Points nearly doubled. Individual tenements gained names like Gates of Hell or Brickbat Manor. “Decaying houses, taverns catering to sailors, and shacks remained along the narrow, unpaved streets… [a nearby brewery] soon became the most squalid and most dangerous establishment in the neighborhood,” wrote New York author Michele Herman.

Five Points (George Catlin, 1827)

Around 1830, the New York Mirror described the area as a “loathsome den of murderers, thieves, abandoned women, ruined children, filth, drunkenness, and broils [brawls].” After visiting, frontiersman Davy Crockett said, “I would rather risque myself in an Indian fight than venture among these creatures after night.” In 1858 the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor lamented, “Our city, operating like a sieve, lets through the enterprising and industrious, while it retains the indolent, the aged, and infirm, who can earn [their] subsistence nowhere.” Just three years after the Draft Riots, a bishop complained that prostitutes were as numerous in the city as Methodists. He should have known; he was a Methodist. One crusading minister said that New York City had become “the modern Gomorrah.” You know, the more things change, the more….

What Herman called “infamous Irish gangs, each several hundred strong,” included the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits, the Short Tails, Shirt Tails, Daybreak Boys, Swamp Angels, Slaughter Housers, and the Roach Guards, but also anti-Irish, nativist gangs like the Bowery Boys. Among these gangs’ leaders were such colorful but dangerous men as Bill “the Butcher” Poole, “Red Rocks” Farrell, “Slobbery Jim,” “Sow” Madden, “Piggy” Noles, “Suds” Merrick, “Cowlegged Sam” McCarthy, “Eat ‘Em Up Jack” McManus, and even some women like “Hell-Cat Maggie,” last name unknown, who was said to have filed her front teeth into points and worn brass fingernails “to lacerate her adversaries,” according to historian Fergus Bordewich. Ellis wrote that for the gangs, “Every battle was a fight to the finish – no quarter asked and none given. Gang leader ‘Dandy Johnny’ Dolan stuck blades in the soles of his boots to enhance the gore when he trampled an enemy. Dolan also invented copper wedges, which he wore on his thumbs to make it easier to gouge out eyes.”

Some historians have recently questioned the accuracy of author Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York, which inspired director Martin Scorsese’s movie, suggesting that it was either exaggerated or overly influenced by the sensationalist “penny press” tabloids of 19th-century New York. However, there can be no doubt that it was a dangerous city, and that there were areas such as Five Points that you entered at your peril. The number of murders almost doubled in 20 years, rising from 2.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in the late 1840s, to 4.4 by the early 1860s. In 1862, the year before the Draft Riots, nearly one-tenth of the city’s total population had been arrested on one charge or another. In the 1860s, it was estimated that 15,000 sailors were mugged each year on Cherry Street alone. The city had an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 criminals.

Horace Greeley
New York Tribune Editor

Overcrowding, poor sanitation and deteriorating housing stock were endemic. Seepage from cemeteries and privies contaminated the water supply, and cholera often swept the city. In late 1832, an epidemic killed nearly 4,000. Those who could afford to, fled the inner city. Few remember that it was during the Panic of 1837, which led to a six-year recession which economically devastated New York City, that Horace Greeley wrote his timeless advice, “Go West, young man!” He wasn’t singing the praises of the American frontier as much as he was despairing of the city’s future.

Hard as it is to believe today, the illicit slave trade was booming in New York City in the years just before the Civil War. Horace Greeley called the city a “nest of slave pirates.” The roughly 12,500 blacks in the city faced pervasive discrimination. Segregation was common; blacks were excluded from white churches and theaters. From the time the first horsedrawn streetcars began running, blacks were barred from riding in them. When a court in 1855 affirmed their right to use public transport (in a case brought by a young lawyer named Chester A. Arthur), most streetcar companies simply ignored the ruling. In 1860, city voters rejected a bill that would have given blacks the right to vote without meeting property qualifications. When war broke out, three regiments of black volunteers offered their services to the Governor of New York, with all expenses to be paid by the black community. The Governor declined.

Abolitionism was, with few exceptions, hated and feared by the city’s business elite, who had many commercial interests in the South. New York bankers and merchants were more than a bit anxious about the $150 million in long-term crop loans they’d made below the Mason-Dixon line. They were “the city’s key economic actors,” wrote historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, “the shipowners who hauled cotton, the bankers who accepted slave property as collateral for loans, the brokers of Southern railroad and state bonds, the wholesalers who sent goods south, the editors with large Southern subscription bases, the dealers in tobacco, rice, and cotton [who] all had come to profitable terms with [the] slave economy….[and many of the city’s] workingmen [who] believed that New York’s economy, and thus their jobs, depended on a southern connection that Republicanism endangered.” Abolitionists had sometimes been attacked in the city, their homes stoned. The Times once explained attendance at abolitionist meetings this way: “People go to hear them just as they would go to a bull-baiting or rat-killing match, [as] if these were respectable.” The Herald denounced the 1850 convention of the American Antislavery Society in the city as “the annual congress of fanatics,” and ten years later warned, “Irish and German laborers! If Lincoln is elected today you will have to compete with the labor of four million emancipated Negroes.” Many city clergy were actively hostile towards abolitionism. One New York minister cited Scripture and sermonized, “Slavery is a divine institution.” An abolitionist blurted out from his pew, “So is Hell!”

Historian Edward Robb Ellis wrote that as the war went on and Northern morale slumped, “New York became the nest of [those] snake-named conspirators,” the Copperheads. The editors of A Short History of New York State argued that “from the election of 1860 to Appomattox [the city] provided more moral support to the Confederacy and more opposition to the war than any other important section of the North.”

Many felt they had good reason to. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the average New York City worker earned just 85 cents a day. The city suffered from another recession in early 1861 after Southern businessmen repudiated their debts, but within a year, as the industrial and production might of the city was unleashed, it was prospering like never before. Yet it was a very uneven prosperity. Some profited enormously as Federal spending flooded into the city, but inflation, paper money, profiteering and economic upheaval made many of the poor even poorer. Rents went up by as much as 30%; food became more expensive. Prices rose, but wages lagged about 20% behind after 1861. Greeley noted that rents were already higher in the city than anywhere else in the world.

As Ellis wrote, “The city’s social fabric was torn by the excitement of the times, the grief of separation and death [of soldiers and sailors who had left], easy money, and increased tension between rich and poor. Morals degenerated. Broadway teemed with women of easy virtue. Saloons were crowded [while] luxury shops and restaurants catered to the newly rich….” Hostility towards Lincoln and blacks was especially strong among Irish longshoremen. Their strike in June 1863 had been put down by Federal troops summoned to protect freed black strikebreakers. As Geoffrey Ward wrote, “the immigrant Irish of the … slums… feared the blacks with whom they competed for the lowest-paying jobs, and for whose freedom they did not wish to fight.”

New York’s streets had a long and violent history by the time of the Civil War; riots were almost traditional. Even before the American Revolution, residents clashed with British garrison troops over the Stamp Act, the Townshend Duties and the Boston Port Bill. In April 1788, the so-called Doctors’ Riot began when 5,000 people marched on New York Hospital to protest the rumored theft of corpses for dissection. There were riots aimed at bawdyhouses in 1793 and 1799; immigrant Catholics clashed with native-born Protestants on Christmas Day 1806; and there were violent strikes by stevedores, weavers, and stonecutters between 1825 and 1829. Gilje wrote, “Many regard 1834 as the city’s worst year for riots because of election violence between Whigs and Democrats…and mob attacks on abolitionists and blacks…..Both these disturbances and several others in the 1830s were marked by intense physical violence.” After the Panic of 1837, rioters went on a rampage, breaking into warehouses when rumors swept the city that a small group of speculators was buying up all the flour in town.

Then there was the Astor Place Riot of May 10-11, 1849, which began – oddly enough – when supporters of American actor Edwin Forrest interrupted a performance by his English rival, William C. Macready. Protests over this brought out the police and militia, who killed at least 22 and wounded another 48 when they fired into a crowd that refused to disperse; between 50 and 70 policemen were wounded when the crowd fought back. Another twelve New Yorkers died in early July 1857 in further bloody clashes between Catholic and Protestant gangs.

Why weren’t the police able to maintain law and order? Well, the city police were by no means “New York’s Finest” as we know them today. In June 1857 there had been a police riot, when the state-controlled Metropolitan Police had violently clashed with the thoroughly corrupt but locally-raised Municipal Police, “each of equal strength and each regarding the other as an outlaw force,” as Ellis wrote, over who would rule the streets. The worst fighting was on the steps of City Hall, leaving hundreds bruised and bloody, twelve seriously injured, and one crippled for life.

Fernando Wood
US Congressman & former New York City Mayor

With few exceptions, the city’s political leadership was also not up to the challenges of the Civil War. Just before the outbreak of war, the mayor was Fernando Wood, a native of Philadelphia, who had grown rich as a real-estate speculator and businessman. He had been convicted of defrauding investors during the Gold Rush. Wood was described by historian Edward Robb Ellis: “Twinkly were his blue eyes, and soft was his voice. A slender graceful man standing five feet eleven inches, his head crowned with a shock of dark-brown hair, [he] was as handsome as a Greek god… the underworld was for him. Saloonkeepers were for him. Tarts were for him. Abortionists were for him. And enough decent, but hoodwinked, people were for Wood to elect him mayor, although he [also] bought votes.” Edward K. Spann wrote that “Wood was the most remarkable mayor in New York’s history, a man of bold ambitions and limited conscience….”

Wood was a Congressman in 1863, still influential after two terms as mayor from 1855-57 and 1859-61. He and other Peace Democrats in the city exacerbated the fears of Irish workers of competition for jobs by freed blacks, and they blasted the draft at every opportunity, often through the newspapers. The New York World, a newspaper partially controlled by Wood, criticized the draft as “profoundly repugnant to the American mind.” Wood’s brother Benjamin headed the Daily News, which wrote, “The people are notified that one out of about two and a half of our citizens are to be brought into Messrs. Lincoln & Company’s charnelhouse. God forbid!” The proslavery Journal of Commerce insisted that the war had become a means for “evil-minded men to accomplish their aims.” The Daily News charged that the Federal draft was a deliberate attempt to reduce the number of Democratic voters in the city. On June 3, 1863, Wood chaired a massive “Peace Convention” at the Cooper Union where, as Burrows and Wallace wrote, “…orators pounded home the ideas that the war was a rich man’s fight, that it was undermining the Constitution, and that it would flood the North with Southern blacks.”

Fernando Wood was openly hostile to blacks, denouncing them as inferior and expressing his sympathy towards the slaveholding South. Before Ft. Sumter he declared, “The profits, luxuries, the necessities – nay, even the physical existence [of the nation] depend upon the products only to be obtained by continuance of slave labor and the prosperity of the slave master.” On January 7, 1861, two months before Lincoln was even sworn in, Mayor Wood proposed in a message to City Council that New York become a “free city.”

Ellis wrote that Wood “believed that the breakup of the … Union was inevitable. He felt that the city should not jeopardize its profitable trade with the South by taking an anti-Southern stand. He hoped to free the city from domination by the state legislature. He schemed to capture the rich customs duties…pouring into the city and being absorbed by the Federal government. ‘If the [Union] is broken up,’ Wood argued, ‘the government is dissolved, and it behooves every distinct community, as well as every individual, to take care of themselves.’ The mayor’s proposal did not win favor even among members of his own Democratic party. [Influential newspaper publisher Horace] Greeley blasted him: ‘Fernando Wood evidently wants to be a traitor; it is lack of courage only that makes him content with being a blackguard.’” At that time, before the introduction of a Federal income tax, import duties collected in the city yielded nearly two-thirds of national revenues, so secession by New York seemed at least economically feasible. Still, when Lincoln heard of Wood’s bizarre proposal, he told a New York visitor with a smile, “I reckon it will be some time before the front door sets up housekeeping on its own account.”

After the fall of Fort Sumter, Wood noted the surge of patriotism which swept the city. The fort’s 33-star flag was brought to the city by Major Robert Anderson for a huge April 20 rally in Union Square, where it was flown from the equestrian statue of George Washington, and the mayor blandly urged everyone to obey the law of the land. George Templeton Strong wrote in his journal, “The cunning scoundrel sees which way the cat is jumping and puts himself right on the record in a vague general way, giving the least possible offense to his allies of [the South].” Mushkat wrote that Wood always “walked a fine line between loyalty and treason, eventually becoming the city’s leading Copperhead.” Wood forbade the U.S. flag to be flown over City Hall on Lincoln’s inauguration day, not long before he himself left office.

It was a former New York police officer, Sgt. Peter Hart, who had helped save the Union flag when Ft. Sumter’s flagpole was damaged by a Confederate shell. The President’s initial call for volunteers brought forth a flood of patriotic men, in the city and throughout the North. As Union battlefield losses grew, however, recruiting suffered, and on March 3, 1863, the National Conscription Act, the first Federal draft, went into effect (the Confederate draft began almost a year earlier, in April 1862). All able-bodied Northern white males between the ages of 20 and 45 were eligible. A controversial clause permitted a drafted man to either find a substitute, or pay a “commutation fee” for $300. Few unskilled workers – a description which fit most immigrants – could possibly afford this. It lent credence to those who said it was a “rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.”

Among those New Yorkers purchasing $300 commutations were both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s fathers; later in life, the warlike T.R. was embarrassed by his father’s decision. Among those paying for a substitute were financier J.P. Morgan, businessmen John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, and a young Erie County assistant district attorney named Grover Cleveland. Cleveland, his family’s principal wage-earner, paid a 32-year-old Polish immigrant $150 to take his place in the ranks. Substitution was not unprecedented; it had existed in Europe, during the American Revolution, in the pre-Civil War militia, and in the Confederacy. Particularly in New York City’s case, however, as Iver Bernstein noted, the draft law was “biased against the poor, magnif[ied] white racial fears… involv[ed] the Federal government as never before in local affairs [and thus] galvanized ongoing conflicts in the city.” Bruce Catton wrote, “The government could hardly have devised a worse law. It put the load on the poor man and gave special favors to the well-to-do, and it brought some very poor material into the army…[overall, the draft law] was an atrocity.”

Horatio Seymour
New York Governor

New York Gov. Horatio Seymour thought so, too. He was a Peace Democrat and no friend of the Lincoln Administration, and he challenged the Federal government’s right to conscript citizens at all. He protested the quota assigned to the state (which most historians now concede were, in fact, unfairly high), and postponed the first local draft lottery. On Independence Day, 1863, he gave what Ellis called “one of the most inflammatory speeches ever uttered by [an American] public official.” Seymour told a New York City crowd, “Remember this! The bloody, treasonable and revolutionary doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government!” Having lit the fuse, the Governor promptly left on vacation.

The first draft lottery in New York City was quietly held on Saturday, July 11, 1863. The city was divided into districts, each having an enrollment office, where the names of eligible men were written on white slips of paper and drawn from revolving lottery wheels – “wheels of misfortune,” said the Daily News. Col. Robert Nugent of the 69th New York was appointed by the War Department as chief provost marshal to oversee the lottery. Nugent was a prominent Irish Democrat, and officials in Washington hoped that his leadership would assure the city’s immigrants that the draft would be conducted fairly.

The city was, at that point, almost empty of soldiers. With Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Lincoln asked Gov. Seymour to send 20,000 men for 30 days, and 19 regiments of the state militia had been rushed to the front. Only between 550 and 1,900 troops remained in the city – estimates vary – and the police force was only about 2,300 strong, of whom only 800 were on active duty at the height of the riots, and just 17 of whom were plainclothes detectives.

The newspapers printed the names of the first men drafted. A correspondent for Leslie’s Illustrated wrote, “It came like a thunderclap on the people, and as men read their names in the fatal list the feeling of indignation and resistance soon found vent in words, and a spirit of resistance spread fast and far. The number of poor men exceeded, as a matter of course, that of the rich, their number to draw being so much greater, but this was viewed as a proof of the dishonesty of the whole proceeding.” Ironically, news of the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg may have exacerbated anti-draft feelings. Despite the Union’s twin triumphs, casualties had been heavy. If the Civil War was almost won, after all, who wanted to be drafted and risk being killed in its waning days?

On Sunday, July 12, 1863, there were angry public meetings about the draft’s commutation and substitute clauses. After dawn on Monday, July 13, laborers carrying “No Draft” placards beat up several police officers and marched uptown to a draft office on Third Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street. They stormed it midmorning after the draft selection resumed, smashing the selection wheel, destroying documents and furniture, and setting the building on fire. The War Department staff fled out the back door, covered by a small contingent of police. The fire spread to an adjoining building, and the mobs – which included volunteer firemen from the Black Joke Engine Co. No. 33 – prevented loyal firemen from putting it out. The entire block from Forty-Sixth to Forty-Seventh street burned down. A contingent of the U.S. Army’s Invalid Corps, many still recuperating from battlefield wounds, arrived just then, but were vastly outnumbered when the mob ran into them at Third Avenue and West Forty-Second Street. One soldier was killed and six others injured. A first volley of blanks only seemed to incite the mob, and a second volley of live rounds killed or wounded six men and a woman. The mob went wild, killing several soldiers – some estimate as many as 20. The Invalid Corps troops fled, leaving behind their wounded, some of whom were then mutilated by the mob.

The day was hot and humid; one New Yorker later recalled that the weather made one feel “as if you had washed yourself in molasses and water.” Mobs surged out of the slums of the Lower East and West Sides, gathering bricks, stones, clubs and other weapons as they went, and calling on workmen to join them. A woman wrote that she saw “thousands of infuriated creatures, yelling, screaming and swearing… the rush and roar grew every moment more terrific. Up came fresh hordes faster and more furious: bare-headed men, with red, swollen faces, brandishing sticks and clubs…and boys, women and children hurrying on and joining with them in this mad chase up the avenue like a company of raving fiends.” An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 took part in the riots, and some individual mobs numbered as many as 10,000.

Maj. Gen. John E. Wool
Commander of the
Department of the East

The riot quickly spread through adjoining parts of the city, with rioters attacking leaders of the Republican Party and their property, as well as “such symbols of privilege and power as police stations, arsenals, and the homes and shops of the wealthy,” Gilje wrote. The offices of abolitionist New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley were attacked twice. The New York Times was defended by its staff, who wielded several Gatling guns borrowed from the Army. Manning one of the Gatling guns was millionaire speculator Leonard Walter Jerome, Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather and a major investor in the paper. Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy sent officers to protect draft offices and arsenals, when possible, but he and his men were simply too few, and were soon overwhelmed. The top Federal officer in the city and commander of the Department of the East, Maj. Gen. John E. Wool, was 74 years old, “muddleheaded and indecisive,” as Ellis wrote.

John A. Kennedy
NYC Police Superintendent

George Opdyke had the misfortune to be Mayor of New York City at the time of the riots. The Republican Opdyke had won office with barely a third of the vote in the fractured election of 1861, leaving him politically weak. A wealthy clothing manufacturer, banker and state assemblyman, he had a reputation as a reformer; during the war, he would also make a fortune as a secret partner in a munitions firm. Learning from Superintendent Kennedy of the growing mob violence, Mayor Opdyke called out all militia units remaining in the city, and urged Gov. Seymour to return from his holiday in Long Branch, N.J., two hours away by carriage.

George Opdyke
New York City Mayor

As yet unchecked, the mob swept across the city. Several stores, such as Brooks Brothers at Catherine and Cherry streets (which made uniforms for Grant, Sherman, Sheridan and Hooker), were ransacked. A search of nearby slums later turned up $100,000 worth of new clothing; one building was found to conceal 50 stolen suits. Most stores throughout the city closed, but most saloons stayed open, fueling the rioters’ rage with alcohol. Rioters chopped down telegraph poles, hampering official communications. They halted horsecars in the streets, blocking police and troop movements. At 9am Monday, Superintendent Kennedy instructed all police stations by telegraph: “Call in your reserves and hold them at the station house[s] subject to further orders.”

Thousands of rioters marched down Eleventh Avenue and destroyed property of the Hudson River Railroad. When Kennedy went out, in plainclothes, to get a look for himself, he was recognized and viciously beaten. John Eagan, a respected citizen, came to help him, and miraculously convinced the crowd that the unconscious and badly-bleeding Kennedy was already dead. Eagan was able to put the Superintendent in a wagon, cover him with gunnysacks, and carry him to Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, where a surgeon counted 72 bruises and more than 20 cuts on his body.

President Lincoln was informed of the riots by a telegram from Sidney Howard Gay, managing editor of the Tribune. At 11:45am, the War Department ordered the draft offices closed, but the violence continued. With Kennedy out of action, police command fell to commissioners John C. Bergen and Thomas C. Acton. Bergen took charge in Brooklyn and Staten Island; Acton took command in Manhattan, the epicenter of rioting. Bergen did his best to organize the police response, working continuously from Monday through Friday afternoon, answering more than 4,000 telegrams and neither bathing nor sleeping for those five days.

A mob menaced the home of Mayor Opdyke, but a Tammany Hall politician dissuaded them from attacking it. The Mayor had his hands full at City Hall, where he called an emergency meeting of City Council, but only a half-dozen aldermen appeared, and he could not get a quorum. When Opdyke issued a proclamation ordering the rioters to disperse, a mob approached City Hall, and the Mayor’s advisors suggested he seek safer ground in the St. Nicholas Hotel, at Broadway and Spring Street. Discretion being the better part of valor, the Mayor took their advice. “By Monday afternoon,” Ellis wrote, “the city was mob-ruled.”

The West New Brighton neighborhood in Brooklyn had several black residents, and was known for its abolitionist sympathies. A “station” of the Underground Railroad was rumored to be in operation there, and before the war a slave maid had been kidnapped to freedom from her visiting Southern mistress there. During the Draft Riots, a mob trampled and stoned to death several free blacks in the neighborhood, causing others to flee. The riots even spilled over onto Staten Island, where a number of prominent abolitionists fortified their homes, maintaining day and night watches against the mobs.

The Colored Orphan Asylum was on the west side of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, taking up the entire block between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. More than 200 black children under age 12 lived there, along with 50 matrons and attendants. When rioters began gathering and shouting threats on Monday afternoon, its administrator barred the front door, and directed an evacuation out the back. The mob then broke in, vandalized it, and set fire to it. Some cheered Confederate president Jefferson Davis. One little girl, overlooked during the evacuation, was found by the rioters hiding under a bed. She was pulled out and savagely beaten to death.

At least eleven black men were “murdered with horrible brutality,” according to Bernstein, and their corpses mutilated. “Kill the damned Nigger!” was a constant shout of the mobs, noted the Tribune. Ellis wrote, “Fires were set here, there and everywhere. [Blacks] were chased and cornered…strung up and tortured. Irish [women] knifed the flesh of the hanged [men], poured oil into the wounds, set fire to the oil, danced under the human torches, and sang obscene songs.” The mobs burned down black boardinghouses and a black church. Small boys marked the homes of some middle-class blacks by breaking their windows with stones, and later returned with adults to drag the occupants into the street for beatings, or worse. There were several reports of black sailors or longshoremen found along the waterfronts being beaten or killed, their bodies thrown into the East River.

One mob looted and burned a block of elegant houses on Lexington Avenue near Forty-Sixth Street; another set fire to the draft office on Broadway near Twenty-Ninth Street. Other rioters extorted money or liquor from merchants or saloonkeepers. When detectives heard rumors of a looming attack upon the Treasury vaults on Wall Street, two warships were dispatched from the Brooklyn Naval Yard, their cannon covering the lower end of Manhattan. Many tried to flee the mob violence, but the trains stopped running at noon Monday after tracks were sabotaged in northern Manhattan. Ellis wrote, “…panic-stricken people jammed ships and boats and vehicles of every sort to get away. By evening it was impossible to hire a rig [horse and carriage] of any kind.” Some civic-minded men made their way to City Hall, where about 400 were deputized for the duration of the emergency.

When Police Headquarters itself was menaced by a mob of about 10,000 rioters, police from other stations were sent in plainclothes to help – uniformed officers were at too great a risk in the streets. Commissioner Acton led 125 police officers in confronting a mob at Broadway and Amity (now West Third) Street. When a uniformed officer seized an American flag from a huge man who was leading the rioters, the storm broke. Ellis described the scene: “The mob let go with a storm of bricks and stones and opened up with firearms. Several cops slumped to the pavement. The rest closed ranks and charged, their clubs rising and falling, tattooing skulls on all sides. It was hand-to-hand combat, no quarter given, with the thud of nightsticks and the crunch of breaking bones, the howls of fury and shrieks of pain, sweaty bodies thudding against one another, blood and sweat dripping down weary arms and legs. For fifteen minutes all was confusion. Then the rioters broke and ran. The dead and dying and disabled littered the street and sidewalk. Gone was the threat to Police Headquarters [but it]… was an island of success in a sea of defeats.”

Police battle rioters outside the offices of the New York Tribune
(Harpers Weekly, August 1, 1863)

Mayor Opdyke and Gen. Wool deferred to each other in declaring martial law, neither wanting to take responsibility for so drastic a step, until Opdyke finally wired the War Department, asking that New York regiments at Gettysburg be returned to the city as quickly as possible. He also asked the governors of adjoining states to make troops available. Shortly before midnight that night, a heavy rainstorm broke over the city. Observers saw rioters dancing beneath the corpse of a black man who had been lynched on Clarkson Street near Hudson Street. Many Protestant clergy courageously gave refuge to blacks fleeing the mobs, and merchant families often protected their servants.

The second day came: Tuesday, July 14. Before dawn, a black man was attacked at Washington and Leroy streets. He was knocked to the ground, held there and beaten to death by a mob leader wielding a 20-pound rock. Fires were set and raged throughout the city, too many for the exhausted firemen – those not actually setting the fires, or in sympathy with the mobs – to put out. As Burrows and Wallace wrote, “Far from being random anarchic outbursts, the [rioters’] attacks focused on those in command of the new industrial and political order. Rioters swept the streets clear of wealthy individuals – readily identifiable by their clothes and bearing. (‘There goes a $300 man!’ ‘Down with the rich men!’) They attacked genteel homes and trashed (more often than stole) the fancy furniture.” Mobs built street barricades around the Union Steam Works rifle factory on Second Avenue just below Twenty-Third Street, the longest of which stretched a mile.

As always, the many local newspapers reflected the divisions of their city: the New York Times, loyal to the Lincoln Administration, ran a large editorial headlined simply, “CRUSH THE MOB.” The Democratic Herald somewhat disingenuously noted that there had been “Popular Opposition to the Enforcement of the Conscription,” and several Copperhead papers circumspectly referred to the rioters simply as “the people.” That day, “the people” set fire to the Eighteenth Precinct House as Gov. Seymour finally arrived at Mayor Opdyke’s temporary office in the St. Nicholas Hotel. With the Mayor and Democratic Party boss William M. Tweed at his side, Gov. Seymour addressed a huge crowd near City Hall, some of whom were almost certainly rioters and murderers, calling himself their “friend,” informing them that the draft had been suspended in the city, and that the state would meet its military enlistment quota by volunteers alone. The governor urged everyone to peacefully go home and obey the law.

Some did, but not all, and of course not all the rioters heard his speech, even had they been inclined to listen. Looting and fires continued throughout the day. Rioters mutilated and lynched the colonel of the 11th New York, Henry F. O’Brien, who was of Irish ancestry, after he used a howitzer to clear Second Avenue, killing a female bystander and her child. That night, several bordellos were attacked and the women beaten or raped. The New York Times blasted Seymour for his speech, particularly for calling the rioters his “friends”: “No civilized government could in decency maintain relations of amity with a community of cowards, bullied by cut-throats and governed in their greatest straits by hordes of thieves.”

The third day, Wednesday, July 15, opened with a downpour of rain, and was the hottest, steamiest day of the riots. Fighting was reported in Brooklyn, where a mob set fire to grain elevators and displayed a banner reading, “No $300 Arrangements With Us.” Three black men were lynched at the corner of Thirty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue, their flesh slashed by frenzied women with knives as men cheered. A quorum of City Council finally assembled at City Hall, denounced the draft, and appropriated $2.5 million to pay the commutations of any city residents who asked. At about 6pm, rioters fought for 20 minutes at Nineteenth Street and First Avenue with Federal troops, utterly routing them. Several wounded soldiers were beaten to death by the mob.

But now the tide was about to turn. About four hours later, troops of the 74th New York reached the city, followed by a Buffalo regiment and, at 4am on Thursday, July 16, the famous 7th New York. The 8th and 152nd New York infantry arrived later that morning. Ellis wrote, “All told, 10,000 veterans of the Battle of Gettysburg poured into the city, [which] was divided into four military districts. Soldiers relieved police who had been fighting almost without pause since Monday. Nearly every policeman had been wounded, and the few who escaped injury were so bone-tired that they could hardly lift their arms.”

“The Riots in New York: Conflict Between the Military and the Rioters on First Avenue”
(Illustrated London News, August 15, 1863)

The veterans of the Army of the Potomac imposed a hard peace. Burrows and Wallace wrote, “Troops assaulted ‘infected’ districts, using howitzers loaded with grapeshot and canister…to mow down rioters, and engaged in fierce building-by-building firefights. Rioters defended their barricaded domains with mad desperation. Faced with tenement snipers and brick hurlers, soldiers broke down doors, bayoneted all who interfered, and drove occupants to the roof, from which many jumped to certain death below.”

On Thursday morning, July 16, the fourth and final day of the riots, a proclamation by Mayor Opdyke appeared in all the newspapers. He urged all citizens to open their stores and factories and return to work; most streetcar, train and omnibus lines resumed operations. On Thursday evening, after clashing with rioters who’d been looting fine homes in the neighborhood, Federal troops encamped in the private and previously-sacrosanct Gramercy Park. Armed cadets from West Point arrived in the city to bolster the military presence. By midnight Thursday the Draft Riots were at an end, and the city began to pick up the pieces. Police and military sweeps of the slums in the weeks after the riots collected almost 11,000 firearms, bludgeons and other mob weapons, as well as tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen property. “Every person in whose possession these articles are found disclaims all knowledge of the same, except to say they found them in the street, and took them in to prevent them being burned,” the Times wryly noted.

George Templeton Strong
Lawyer & Financier

George Templeton Strong spoke for many of the city’s elite: “[I] never knew exasperation so intense, unqualified and general as that which prevails against these rioters and the politic[al] knaves who… set them going, Governor Seymour not excepted. Men who voted for him mention the fact with contrition and self-abasement, and the Democratic party is at discount with all the people I meet.” Then again, the wealthy and well-connected Strong probably knew very few Democrats in the first place.

Gov. Seymour asked Archbishop John Hughes, long a titan of the Irish Catholic establishment in New York City, to speak to the city. Some 4,000 mostly-Irish poor gathered outside his home, and Hughes urged them to conduct themselves peaceably, as proud sons of Ireland, “that has ever been the mother of heroes and poets, but never… of cowards!” Some observers wished that Hughes had given the speech a few days earlier. He might have taken a lesson from “one brave old priest,” Ellis wrote, who “broke up a Five Points riot by wading into the melee with a stole about his neck and a missal [prayerbook] in his hand.”

Three regiments of the Second Vermont Brigade came through town on July 20, soon after the riots and just days away from mustering out at the end of their terms of enlistment. Gen. Wool appealed to the Vermonters for assistance in patrolling the streets. The commanding officer of the 14th Vermont asked his men if they wished to help. They quickly declined, and by the next day the regiment was back home in my wife’s hometown, Brattleboro, Vt. The colonels of the 15th and 16th Vermont didn’t ask their men’s opinions, but simply volunteered them. As historian Howard Coffin wrote, “The disgruntled troops went into camp on the Battery for two days while their officers were regally entertained at the Union Club uptown.”

Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln soon reversed the War Department’s temporary suspension of the draft. He also refused Gov. Seymour’s request for a permanent suspension in New York State, writing, “We are contending with an enemy who… drives every able-bodied man he can reach, into his ranks… as a butcher drives bullocks into a slaughter-pen. This produces an army… with a rapidity not to be matched on our side, if we first… re-experiment with the [now-failed] volunteer system.” However, Lincoln agreed to Seymour’s request to lower New York’s quota from 26,000 to 12,000 men. He also relied on “Boss” Tweed and the Democrats of Tammany Hall to conduct the next draft selection, on August 19. Some 20,000 Federal troops and three batteries of artillery were in town to keep a lid on things, and the draft resumed peacefully. Lincoln relieved the ineffectual Gen. Wool from command of the Department of the East, replacing him with Gen. John Adams Dix, a financier and a Democrat of impeccable reputation. A month later, the President read to his Cabinet a statement defending the draft law: “I do not say that all who would avoid serving in the war are unpatriotic, but I do think every patriot should willingly take his chance under a law made with great care in order to secure entire fairness.”

Of the four national draft calls of 1863-64, 776,829 names were drawn. Of these, only 46,347 – less than one-seventeenth – were sworn into service. Spann noted that, of the 158,000 men whose names were drawn in New York State, only 3,210 were actually drafted; the rest either volunteered or paid for substitutes. Big-city political machines like Tammany Hall distributed money to hire substitutes, solidifying their support in the slums; businesses bought exemptions for drafted workers; “draft insurance societies” offered $300 policies for premiums of just a few dollars a month; quack doctors happily provided disability statements for a fee; bounty brokers gladly accepted payments for men whom everyone knew would desert at the first opportunity. Historian James M. McPherson wrote, “It was not conscription at all, but a clumsy carrot and stick device to stimulate volunteering.” Bruce Catton agreed, “It was still a volunteer’s fight.” In 1864, Congress rescinded the draft law’s hated $300 commutation and substitute clause. Surprisingly, later studies showed virtually no correlation between social class, personal wealth and the prevalence of commutation.

Although records are incomplete, the overall death toll of the Draft Riots is usually estimated at between 105 to 1,000, with one common figure being 125. By contrast, 53 died and about 2,400 were injured in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the best-known recent example of American civil unrest. Gov. Seymour, who had good reason to minimize or downplay the death toll, told state legislators that “more than a thousand” had been slain. Police Superintendent Kennedy, after recovering from his wounds, told George Templeton Strong that he believed 1,155 people had been killed. Social historian Herbert Asbury estimated 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded, the vast majority of them rioters. Adrian Cook and James M. McPherson support an estimate of 105 dead, with another dozen or so deaths which “may have been linked to the rioting.” By Cook’s calculations, 11 black people were killed, as were 8 soldiers and 2 policemen; the rest of the slain were rioters. I believe that this is an extremely conservative estimate.

The difficulty in settling upon an exact figure lies in the fact that many died in fires, were drowned in the rivers and washed away, or had their bodies buried privately by fellow gang members or family. Many of the wounded probably didn’t seek or receive hospital treatment. Property losses are estimated between $1.5 to $5 million in 1863 dollars. More than a hundred buildings were burned down, and about two hundred others were damaged or looted. An estimated one-fifth of the city’s black populace fled for good. George Templeton Strong wrote in disgust, “This is a nice town to call itself a center of civilization!” Smaller but still bloody riots had broken out around that time in Boston and Troy, New York, as well.

The Federal government investigated the New York riots but took no other action. Carl Sandburg wrote, “So delicate and combustible was the subject that neither party cared to go into details about [the] riots, the Democrats because their record was so lawless and shameful, the Republicans because they were still conducting the draft [throughout] the country.” No one was ever identified as a leader or planner of the riots. Only 19 people were tried and convicted, none of whom were ringleaders, and they served an average of just five years in prison. Although there wasn’t political violence in the city on a scale to compare with the Draft Riots for the rest of the Civil War, partisan strife continued, and Democratic presidential candidate George B. McClellan beat Lincoln in the city’s 1864 presidential vote by more than two to one, 78,746 to 36,673, even as Lincoln was swept to a great victory nationwide.

In time, the city’s wounds healed. The Union League sponsored a black infantry regiment, the 20th U.S. Colored Troops, which paraded through the city and boarded ships for New Orleans on March 5, 1864. New York’s anti-Lincoln fervor also cooled. After the President’s assassination, his body briefly lay in state in City Hall. Most buildings were draped in black. In the week after his death, the number of arrests in the city for drunkenness and disorder was lower than in any week for many years. Wrote Ellis, “Men and women sobbed…even the poorest of New York’s poor spent 25 cents for a tiny flag with a scrap of crepe attached.”

New York City’s record during the war was as maddeningly contradictory as the city itself. On the one hand, there was its rampant Copperhead and pro-Confederate sentiment, and the devastation and savagery of the Draft Riots. On the other hand, Ellis wrote, the city “supplied the Union Army with 15,000 soldiers and contributed $400 million to the war effort.” Bruce and Naomi Bliven noted, “New Yorkers produced the most supplies [of any city] for the North and paid the most money to the cause in taxes, bond purchases, and donations.” Eight all-Irish regiments came out of New York City to fight gallantly for the Union. Also organizing regiments in the first flush of patriotism of early 1861 were the city’s Germans, Poles, Italians and Scots. City firemen established a Zouave regiment; the 69th New York Highlanders wore kilts or tartan pants. Having volunteered for three years of service, however, they mutinied after three months.

Gov. Horatio Seymour lost his reelection campaign that fall to Republican Reuben Fenton; Seymour would also be defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the 1868 presidential campaign. Editor Horace Greeley, in turn, lost to Grant in the election of 1872. George Opdyke finished out his term as mayor but, “thoroughly soured on politics,” as historian James McCague put it, “never ran again for anything.” Fernando Wood lost his race that fall to be reelected to Congress, but won again a few years later; he would die in Hot Springs, Arkansas (a future haunt of the young Bill Clinton) on Valentine’s Day, 1881, having been elected to represent the city in the U.S. House of Representatives another six times after leaving City Hall. He died a Congressman.

What did it all mean? What lessons, if any, can we draw from the Draft Riots? To historian Iver Bernstein, “What began… as a demonstration against the draft soon expanded into a sweeping assault against the local institutions and personnel of… [the] Republican Party, as well as a grotesque and bloody race riot… [and] gave sudden focus to controversial questions that Northerners intent upon sectional unity would have preferred to ignore.” Burrows and Wallace wrote, “The draft riots would leave long-term scars, but in the short run their impact was overridden by the war boom, which roared on unabated, offering countless ways of making fabulous amounts of money.” As the city grew and evolved, Five Points changed beyond all recognition. A five-block replica of it was created on a giant soundstage in Cinecitta Studio in Rome for Scorsese’s movie The Gangs of New York. Ironically, given its violent and crime-ridden past, most of the Five Points area is now covered by courthouses, including the United States Courthouse at Foley Square.

Even the recent tragedy of 9-11 connects us with the Civil War-era history of New York City. Lost in the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center were 850,000 artifacts from an early 1990s archeological excavation of a block of the Five Points neighborhood, which had been stored in a sub-basement room at 6 World Trade Center. Only 18 artifacts, on loan to the South Street Seaport Museum, survived.

New York City has endured the Draft Riots, terrible fires, labor and racial unrest, epidemics, the Great Depression, the horror of 9-11 and many more crises during its long history – but every time, it’s emerged stronger than ever. Love it or hate it, I believe that it will undoubtedly overcome whatever challenges lie ahead.

Bibliography (Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Bernstein, Iver, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford University Press, N.Y. 1990)

Bliven, Bruce Jr. and Naomi Bliven, New York; The Story of the World’s Most Exciting City (Random House, N.Y. 1969)

Bordewich, Fergus M., “Manhattan Mayhem,” Smithsonian (December 2002, pp. 44-54)

Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (The History of New York City) (Oxford University Press, N.Y. 1999)

Butterfield, Roger, The American past;: A history of the United States from Concord to Hiroshima, 1775-1945 (Simon and Schuster, N.Y. 1947)

Catton, Bruce, American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (1960, repr. by Bonanza Books, N.Y. 1982)

Coffin, Howard, Full Duty: Vermonters in the Civil War (Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vt. 1993)

Ellis, Edward Robb, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History (Kondansha International, N.Y. 1966)

Gody, Lou, ed., The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York (1939, repr. by Random House, N.Y. 1992)

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed., The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale University Press, New Haven 1995)

Jaeger, Katherine, “Lost Gangs,” Smithsonian (February 2003, letter, p. 11)

Kane, Joseph Nathan, Facts About the Presidents (H.H. Wilson Co., N.Y. 1989)

Kunhardt, Philip B. Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Lincoln, An Illustrated Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y. 1997)

McCague, James, The Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Dial Press, N.Y. 1968)

McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States) (Oxford University Press, N.Y. 1988)

O’Malley, Michael, “When Lincoln paid a visit to our town,” The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, February 17, 2003, pp. C1, C3)

Spann, Edward K., Gotham at War: New York City, 1860-1865 (American Crisis Series) (Scholarly Resources, Wilmington, Del. 2002)

Ward, Geoffrey C., Ric Burns and Ken Burns, The Civil War: An Illustrated History (Knopf, N.Y. 1990)

Waugh, John C., “Life at the Point: Gone Fightin’,” Civil War Times Illustrated (May 2002, p. 34)