Backlash against civil and social reform has been a shameful aspect of political life in the United States. The worst civil insurrection or backlash in American history happened on today’s date in 1863. The chaotic violence is collectively known as “The New York City Draft Riots”.
The triggering event of the riots was the enactment of new laws that called for the military drafting of more men into the U.S. Army. The new statutes mostly affected working class immigrant workers.
Much of the industry of New York City relied upon the cotton economy of the Southern States, so the workers were already radicalized. The economic impact on them was increased as open hostilities began in the Civil War. In fact most of New York’s entire industrial class had a vested interest in maintaining slavery and the Southern System.
The men who could afford to hire a substitute or to pay the government $300 might avoid enlistment. Blacks, not considered citizens, were automatically exempt from the draft.
In June of 1863, anti-civil war newspaper editors published inciteful attacks on the draft laws highlighting the unfair methods of draft selection. The articles were targeted towards the white working class.
Whites unfavorably compared their economic value to that of the slaves in the South. The going price of a negro slave was around $1,000. The price of exemption of a white man from military duty was $300. This fueled the belief that white status and political power was in crisis because blacks seemed to be gaining power.
The first lottery of the draft laws was held on Saturday, July 11, 1863. The streets remained quiet and peaceful. However, on Monday the 13th, the first of the Civil War Draft Riots began. The mobs attacked military and government buildings because of their displeasure. That afternoon, most of the rioters turned their attention on the black population. Their resentment over the appearance of social, economic, and political power was vented on symbols of the black community.
At 4:00PM that afternoon, some of the mob attacked a four story orphanage for black children. The 233 children and their caretakers were able to escape to a nearby police precinct building. Meantime the crazed mob, armed with brick bats, entered the orphanage and stole bedding, clothes, food, and other items. They then ignited the building. Firefighters were not able to save the building.
The rioters continued their violence by torturing and/or killing many blacks. Lynchings were also reported. Dockworkers destroyed bording houses, tenements, brothels, and dance halls that catered to black people. The clothing was stripped off the white owners of the businesses.
A heavy rainstorm fell on New York that evening which helped to quell the fires and sent many rioters scurring home. However, more violence continued the next day. New York Governor Horatio Seymore arrived in town and spoke in an effort to calm the crowds. He was accompanied by about 800 troopers from area forts. The Governor also ordered militias to action in New York City.
News of the suspension of the draft appeared in area newspapers. This caused many rioters to stay home. However, some rioters were determined to continue their violence. The newly arrived militias clashed with the rioters using harsh methods. Order was finally restored on Thursday. State militias and several thousand federal soldiers were also stationed in the city. There was a last stand Thursday night near Gramercy Park during which twelve people were killed.
The final tally of the New York Draft Riots has only been approximated. About 120 civilians were killed, including about eleven black men killed by lynching. About 2,000 people were wounded. At least $4,000,000 in total property damage was reported. That would be around $60,000,000 in today’s values. The Colored Orphan Asylum, two protestant churches, and 48 other buildings were burned to the ground.
By December, 1863, the Union Legue Club received permission to raise a regiment of black soldiers. The men were outfitted and trained. The 1,000 black soldiers were paraded through the city in March of 1864 through a crowd of perhaps 100,000 onlookers.
Finally, Southern sympathies declined in New York, and support for the Union cause improved. Before the end of the Civil War, over 450,000 New Yorkers had enlisted in the U.S. military. As much as we’d like to see a happy ending, it didn’t really happen. After the war, were the problems of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. New Yorkers didn’t unify over the racism problem. Black freedom had to wait until the Civil Rights movement.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the outcome of the riots resulted in more democratic reforms in New York City and the nation at large.
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