July 13, 1863: New York City Draft Riots (Worst Riot in US History)

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A Brief History

On July 13, 1863, New Yorkers angry about military conscription (draft) started 3 days of rioting that would go down in history as the worst US riot ever.

Digging Deeper

White New Yorkers, largely poor Irish immigrants, could not afford to buy their way out of the draft like rich people could.  Nor could they afford to pay someone else to take their place, and they cared little one way or another about the issue of African slavery.  African Americans were not subject to the draft, further inflaming rage against them.

With the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, the white immigrants were also concerned that freed black slaves would flock north and take jobs from the whites.

Beginning as a protest to the draft, the demonstration quickly turned into a riot with looting and with African Americans being attacked on sight.  Abolitionists, Protestant churches and public buildings were also targets of angry rioters, with many of these buildings burned.  Homes of African Americans were burned, as was the Colored Orphan Asylum.

New York police were powerless to stop the mobs, and the police superintendent was beaten to a pulp while mobs overwhelmed the outnumbered cops.  Federal Army troops were summoned, but could not arrive fast enough to prevent the violence and damage, arriving a full day after the riot started.

Meanwhile, a hotel that refused to provide alcohol to the mob was burned, but when the rioters threatened the New York Times they were met with Gatling Guns and wisely chose to not be gunned down.  By the third day order began to be restored and by the fourth day the riot was over.

The heavy handed methods used by the troops resulted in many deaths and injuries to rioters, which combined with deaths and injuries caused by rioters amounted to at least 120 dead and 2000 wounded, although other historians place the number much higher, perhaps as many as 2000 dead.

On August 19, 1863, the draft resumed without further rioting, much of the anger allayed by far fewer men drafted than the rioters had feared.  African Americans left the city in droves, driving the black population down to its lowest level since 1820.  The African Americans that remained were given assistance from rich white people and from other African Americans that could afford to help.

The events surrounding this riot have been memorialized in books and film, especially in the 2002 movie, Gangs of New York (with major stars appearing in the cast).

The US would not have further troubles over the drafting of soldiers until the Viet Nam War  100 years later.

Question for students (and subscribers): Should the government draft young men for the military?  Should the military be strictly volunteer?  Please tell us what you think in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bernstein, Iver.  The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War.  Bison Books, 2010.

The featured image in this article, a depiction of the Draft Riots in 1863 from The Illustrated London News, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.