Editor’s Note: I have inserted an important discussion of the riot phenomenon in Footnote 1. You may want to read it before reading this article.
The New York Draft Riots began at 10:30Am on July 13, 1863 when a volunteer fire company unexpectedly smashed their way into the draft office on 47th Street and 3rd Avenue. A mob of 10,000 men, women and children, including large numbers of immigrants, that had been assembling for hours cheered the attack and aided in the destruction of the equipment used for the Draft Lottery. A small squad of soldiers soon arrived and the mob was ordered to disperse. When it did not, the soldiers fired blanks at the crowd. This only angered the rioters. A few soldiers reloaded without orders and fired deadly Minie balls. Several in the crowd were killed and wounded. Instead of dispersing, the shooting of civilians enraged the rioters who now attacked the badly outnumbered soldiers, Two soldiers were beaten to death and another was killed when he was thrown off a cliff over the East River.2
The smoldering ruins of the Provost Marshal’s Office after the riots. The Provost Marshal enforced the Draft law.
The mob burned the Draft Office and headed downtown. At 44th St. and 3rd Ave. they were met by 50 police commanded by Sergeant Robert McCredie. Not a man to back down in the face of overwhelming odds, McCredie ordered his men to charge the marchers using only their billy clubs. Incredibly, the tactic drove the mob back in disorder. Soon, though, with no reinforcements arriving, every single one of the policemen was brought down by the mob and severely beaten. McCredie himself was thrown through a door by rioters and was only saved when a German immigrant woman hid him from pursuers. When they burned her home to smoke him out, she carried him out on her back to safety.3
Before the riot started, the last order from police headquarters to be telegraphed was for all off-duty cops to report to their stations. Eight hundred police would soon be on duty. When the violence began, the rioters tore down the telegraph wires so that the police could no longer communicate between stations and so that city officials could not coordinate with the state and Federal governments. Over the next two days there would be no unity of command of the security forces and police stations and military posts would come under attack without hope of relief. Even police headquarters, with only fifty police on guard, was extremely vulnerable.4
This illustration shows rioters cutting the telegraph lines near the scene of the outbreak of the riots.
The immediate cause of the riot was resentment over the Draft, but once the disorder began, pro-Southern Copperhead orators fanned out to stir up the mob and broaden its agenda. John Anderson, a Virginia Copperhead, harangued the mob multiple times with overtly racist and pro-Confederate appeals to insurrection. Other speakers urged the mob to only pursue the suspension of the Draft and to limit violence to the destruction of Draft records. Still others told the rioters that their work was done. They argued that the protesters had demonstrated that there was broad opposition to the Draft and they should go home and await a response from the Lincoln administration. When the Draft was suspended an hour after the riot began, some in the mob did go home.5
Street orators took to the soapboxes throughout the riot. Some stirred up the mob, others urged rioters to return to their homes.
As some in the mob dispersed others joined it. Aware that the rioters were willing to kill soldiers and police whom they encountered, the police retreated to their station houses and fortified them. When the rioters discovered that the police had abandoned the streets to them, some looting began. It would be limited at first, but by Monday night it was widespread. Many who had not participated in the political phase of the riot would join mobs as a way to steal property.6
Limited looting took place early in the riots, but it became widespread as night fell on the first day.
The term “the mob” is a misleading phrase. With no central command and no organized structure, groups of men and women would argue on street corners about what to do next or even over what their goals were. People who participated in one aspect of the riot would fall out of the mob when they felt they had made their point, or when they became concerned about the escalating violence, and go home. Some who participated in the demonstration at the Draft Office on the first day, joined anti-riot patrols on the second. Others would join the mob after the riots began to pursue personal vendettas in which they thought they could enlist the aid of the rioters or simply to loot.7
The peculiarities of mob behavior were displayed on Monday afternoon when a mob began to attack St. Luke’s Hospital on 55th Street and 5th Avenue. While most of the rioters paused outside the hospital debating what to do, some members of the mob began to threaten Union soldiers being treated there. Other spoke out against harming wounded men. The hospital’s founder William Muhlenberg was allowed to address the mob. He explained that the hospital claimed medical neutrality and said that he intended to treat injured police and rioters alike. The mob listened and agreed that St. Luke’s was not a legitimate target. A number of rioters were detailed to stay at the hospital to make sure that any other mobs that decided to destroy it would be stopped.8
St. Luke’s Hospital 1863 Source: New York Public Library
What happened at St. Luke’s echoed an earlier occurrence at the scene of the riot’s origins. When the fire at the 47th Street Draft Office began to burn out of control and threatened apartments nearby, the mob that had set it and the Black Joke fire company that had precipitated the riot decided to try to put out the fire. A second mob arrived at the scene and fought the firefighters!9
At 12:30 PM a Downtown mob began to gather. So far, all the violence had been in what was then called Uptown, the area now called Midtown. The mob crowded the area now called City Hall Park. Across the street were the headquarters of the most influential newspapers in the United States. Copperhead orators urged the crowd of several thousand to attack the offices of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune on Park Row. The mob decided to protest peacefully instead, at least for now.10
New York’s City Hall dates back to 1812. The city’s newspapers were located across the street from City Hall on Park Row, nicknamed “Publishers’ Row” or “Newspaper Row.”
At the same time, the Uptown mob was listening to John Andrews urge them to attack the state armory which had 500 rifles stored in it and a nearby gun factory with 4,000 rifles in it. Several thousand rioters marched to the 2nd Avenue and 21st Street armory and to the Union Steamworks rifle factory.11
John Andrews urging the mob towards violence. Many immigrant women participated in the riots.
Only 32 police officers guarded the armory. When several thousand rioters reached the armory, they paused. A few tried to storm it, but the police inside fired at them, killing several. After repulsing the rioters several times, the police finally abandoned the armory. Soon after the rioters broke inside, they set fire to the building. When 100 police arrived and began killing the rioters, some ran back into the building only to be consumed in the fire.12
In the afternoon, small groups of men, many of them Irish immigrants, began attacking blacks. Later, larger groups attacked institutions identified with African Americans. At 4:00 PM a mob reached the colored orphan asylum which housed 233 children. Some began calling out “Burn the Nigg—s nest.” The terrified children inside began to pray that their lives be spared, but they did so with tears in their eyes. Some fires were set while the children were in the orphanage, but firemen braved assault by pushing past the rioters to put them out.13
The girls’ play area at the Colored Orphans’ Asylum
When the staff tried to lead the orphans out of the soon to be burned down building, Some in the mob called for the children to be beaten. An Irish immigrant in the crowd begged them not to attack children. He called out “If there is a man among you, with a heart within him, come and help these poor children.” His pleas delayed the worst in the mob from snatching up the boys and girls, but he was himself beaten.14
As the orphans fled, twenty of them got separated from the staff. They were saved by “a young Irishman named Paddy McCaffrey” who, along with four transit workers, risked life and limb to save them. A six year old who was also separated, was rescued by an Irish construction worker who wrapped him up and carried him like he was a bundle. The orphanage was destroyed, but the children were saved.15
The Orphans’ Asylum in flames
At 6:00 PM a gang of men who had been assaulting blacks came upon an African American man walking on Clarkson St. in what is now the West Village. The men were angry because during a previous attack one of their number had been shot by a black man defending himself. They revenged themselves on their victim by beating him and then lynching him from a tree. They then set his body on fire. This was the first of a dozen lynchings during the riots. Many would include the torture of the victim and the mutilation or burning of his body.16
The first lynching occurred at the end of the first day of rioting. This illustration shows that lynching on Clarkson St.
While some street orators called for attacks on blacks, describing slavery as the cause of the war, others saw the racial violence as a distraction from the real enemy, the wealthy Republicans. One orator told the crowd protesting near City Hall “What’s the use of killing the Nig—-s? The Nig—-s haven’t done nothing. They didn’t bring themselves here, did they? They are peaceable enough.” Instead, he said, they should restrict themselves to elite targets.17
By Monday night, the Black Joke joined other fire companies in trying to put out the fires they had played a role in igniting. Leaders of the city’s skilled labor movement were urging their members not to participate in the riots and to end the general strike against the Draft. In German neighborhoods, men who had participated in the Draft Office riot now formed patrols to keep mobs from entering Little Germany on the Lower East Side.18
Even as the organized working class abandoned the riot, the unemployed and underemployed swelled the ranks of the mob. With darkness, police stations around the city received more and more reports of attacks on black men and that mobs were driving black families out of whole blocks. African Americans began fleeing up north of the city to villages like Harlem and over the East River by ferry to Brooklyn. An internal forced migration had begun that night that would leave New York City significantly whiter than it ever had been before.19
VIDEO: The Draft Wheel used for the 1863 Draft Lottery in New York
Sources and Notes:
1. Generals give orders, courts issue decisions, congresses legislate. Mobs leave no coherent record of the purposes behind their actions. While soldiers might publish memoirs, rioters try to erase the memory of their participation in a disturbance soon after its ends.
Individual rioters might engage in one aspect of a riot and absent themselves from others. They might encourage a mob at one point and try to restrain it another. While a mob might be made up of members of a particular community, it rarely includes a majority of that community.
The 1992 Los Angeles Riots provide a modern case study. Disturbances began about a half hour after the not guilty verdict was delivered in the trial of Los Angeles police for the beating of Rodney King. The original confrontations involved only a few hundred people and seemed to have a political motivation regarding police conduct and police relations with the African American community. When police retreated in the face of a growing crowd, looting began in some parts of Los Angeles. The looting was not directed at the police, but at targets of opportunity. Most of the looters appeared unconnected to the original protests.
One of the most publicized acts of violence was against Reginald Oliver Denny, a white truck driver dragged out of his cab and badly beaten. A few minutes later a Guatemalan immigrant named Fidel Lopez was set upon at the same intersection and also beaten. These two attacks involved a handful of attackers. Later in the riot, stores owned by Asian immigrants became targets.
Post-riot interpretation reflected the preconceptions of the analysts. Some saw this as a race riot by blacks against Asians, others as a protest against police abuse that got out of hand, and still others as a symbol of modern urban lawlessness. The riots meanings are still being assessed. But what is clear is that the original protesters were not the men who nearly killed Reginald Denny and that many of the looters had no particular interest in Rodney King.
The 1863 Draft Riots had the incoherence characteristic of most large scale riots. They had a specific immediate cause, the Draft Lottery drawing in New York City, but, once the mob saw the forces of law abandon the streets, violent acts against a variety of targets proliferated.
2. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 byEdwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace (1998); The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 131-132; The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War published by Oxford University Press (1990); Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder published by Simon and Schuster (2001); The Tiger: The Rise And Fall Of Tammany Hall by Oliver E. Allen published by De Capo Press 1993; Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (1984);SPEECHES, MESSAGES, PROCLAMATIONS, OFFICIAL CORRESPONDENCE, AND OTHER PUBLIC UTTERANCES OF HORATIO SEYMOUR; FROM The Campaign of 1856 to the Present Time COMPILED AND EDITED BY THOMAS M. COOK and THOMAS W. KNOX (1868); New York Times; New York Irish-American; Harpers Weekly; New York Tribune.
3.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 132-133
4.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 134
5.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 135.
6.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 135
7.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 135
8.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 134
9.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 135
10.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 135
11.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 136
12.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 141
13.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 147
14.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 148
15.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 148
16.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 150
17.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 158
18.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 169
19.The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America by Barnet Schecter (2007) p. 158
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites