July 13th 1863: New York Draft Riots begin
On this day in 1863, riots broke out in New York City in protest of Congress’ passage of a conscription law to enlist all men aged between 20 and 45 to fight in the Union army during the Civil War. Violence began on the second day of military officers randomly selecting names for the draft, when a notoriously aggressive volunteer fire department arrived and began a brawl. The majority of rioters were poor members of the working classes, as they were particularly aggrieved by the law’s $300 commutation clause which allowed richer men to pay their way out of enlistment. Over the following days, the riot became less about the draft and more about general grievances, and many of the initial rioters backed away from the ugly turn the revolt had taken. Anger at the Republican government was expressed though attacks on symbols of their power like railroads and telegraph lines and the headquarters of Republican newspaper the New York Tribune. This led some contemporary observers, like diarist George Templeton Strong, to see the riot as a pro-Confederate plot. Racial tensions also came to the surface as Irish workers, who had long competed with African-Americans for jobs, took out their anger by attacking black citizens and burning a black orphanage. The riot only ended on July 16th when federal troops, many fresh from the fields of Gettysburg, intervened and quashed the riot; the riots remain the largest civilian insurrection in American history, bar the Civil War itself.
“We are the poor rabble, and the rich rabble is our enemy by this law. Therefore we will give our enemy battle right here, and ask no quarter. Although we got hard fists, and are dirty without, we have soft hearts, and have clean consciences within”
- a letter from one of the rioters, published in the New York Times