U.S. Civil War Draft Riots of 1863: Summary & Facts

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

The draft riots in July, 1863 illustrate how racial, social and economic differences came to a head in New York City. In this lesson, learn about New York City prior to the riot, the events of the draft riot and the damage done in the riot.

Getting Drafted

Have you ever been so angry or frustrated that you forgot what even made you upset in the first place? Sometimes, someone might be offering you a legitimate solution to what initially made you upset, but you ignore it because you're so worked up. This is exactly what happened in the New York draft riots of 1863. As the Civil War progressed, there was a need for more soldiers than those who volunteered. Because of this, the first mandatory conscription law, the Conscription Act, was passed on March 3, 1863. This act required all men between the ages of 20 and 45 to register so that they could be put in a lottery and be drafted to fight in the Civil War. Let's talk about why New Yorkers were opposed to the draft, recount the events of the riots and discuss the outcome of the riots.

Setting the Scene

Even before the draft, New York City was divided on its opinion and support of the war. Merchants, bank owners and the mayor wanted to secede from the Union because of their financial relationships with the Confederacy. However, the poorer citizens of the city saw this as something that would continue to widen the economic gap and didn't want to secede.

In addition, there were three other factors that made New York City prone to violence in 1863. First, city politicians questioned if the bill was legal. If you were a person already wondering why you had to serve, politicians saying it might not even be legal could easily put you over the edge! Also, it had already been a violent year for protests in New York City; immigrant dockworkers violently protested having to work with African Americans. Finally, if you were wealthy, you could buy your way out of military service. For $300 (equivalent to $5,628 today), you were exempt from serving. African Americans were also exempt from serving because they were not yet considered citizens. What started as a riot against forced military service was actually an uprising about the social, racial and economic issues within the city.

Timeline of the Riots

July 11 & 12: The first day of the draft begins. There were no reported issues with the draft on the first two days.

July 13: Before the start of the workday, 500 men (many of whom were armed) arrived at the Provost Marshall's office to protest the draft. At first, their protest wasn't violent and had no real action. Around 10:30 am, the Black Joke Engine Company Number 33 (a volunteer fire department) arrived. They were angry because their fire chief had been drafted the day before. These men broke the windows of the draft building and destroyed draft equipment. From there, the violence spread rapidly. The next target of the protest was the pro-war press. Protesters went to the media district to cause havoc, but newspaper staff were prepared and shot at the protesters. From the media district, the mob went on to attack an armory and later the Colored Orphan Asylum (all children were evacuated by the staff first). At this point, many of the initial protesters withdrew from the violence because they were revolting against the draft, not against African Americans or the war itself.

July 14: The next day, protesters continued to rob and destroy businesses throughout the city. They even made barricades around the city to keep police out. Increasingly, the violent protesters targeted African Americans. Politicians didn't know how to stop the mob, so the mayor asked the War Department to send federal troops.

July 15: In an effort to stop the riot, the city passed a bill that allowed for a low interest loan to purchase draft exemption tickets (so that people other than the wealthy could purchase them). They also suspended the draft completely. However, these efforts did nothing to stop the riots! At this point, the rioters cared less about the draft and were consumed with the riot.

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