This week in 1863 …

… The Draft Riots were consuming New York City (from July 13 – 16, 1863).

It was an ugly chapter in New York City history. The spark was a strict new draft law empowering the President to draft all males between ages 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. It also established a loophole whereby a man who paid $300 (or paid a substitute to fight for him) could exempt himself from the service — a natural sore point for those lacking money to buy their way out.

It was a short step from resenting the draft to resenting the city’s African American population. Modern scholars see the riots as a boiling point for a big, noxious stew of tensions — white laborers resentful of black laborers’ competition in the marketplace; decades’ worth of sensational journalism decrying the supposed evils of  interracial socializing and marriages. The mob also targeted so-called “amalgamationists,” which mostly meant white women married or cohabiting with black men.

When it was all over, at least 120 citizens were dead (some estimates put the toll much higher), and 50 buildings were destroyed, including, infamously, the Colored Orphan Asylum, whose children were moved to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island for safety. African Americans bore the brunt of the mob’s fury: citizens were seized by the crowd to be stabbed, lynched, and beaten to death, and the homes of several prominent black citizens were burned.

The Draft Riots have retained a vivid life in the imaginations of novelists and filmmakers. A notable recent example is Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York, which draws heavily on Herbert Asbury’s 1928 account. (More recent scholarship has disagreed with aspects of Asbury’s study, including casualty figures.)

With the Civil War raging, the Draft Riots were a destructive and disturbing convulsion — “equivalent to a Confederate victory,” wrote scholar Samuel Eliot Morrison. Order was restored after three days of violence, but the scars remained in permanent rifts between the black and white working class, and a widespread exodus of black families from once-thriving African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan.

The City University of New York provides a summary of events on its site. Also, this page contains a list of Civil War officers involved in military interventions during the riots.

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