EDITOR’S NOTE: In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, Waxahachie resident and amateur historian David Hudgins has written a column of historical facts relating to the War Between the States.
America has witnessed riots and civil unrest for decades, from civil rights issues to protest of wars, but never to the magnitude of the 1863 New York City Riot.
The Civil War had been going on for two years, and the North had only a few victories to show for its efforts.
The North called for 300,000 new volunteers, but the thrill of war had faded. New volunteers were not signing up to join the army even with a paid bonus.
President Lincoln called for Congress to pass the First Conscription Act — or the draft.
In 1863 New York City had a population of over 800,000. It was a financial center with major manufacturing and a trade hub for the United States.
Europe did not want American made goods but did need cotton and tobacco. New York was a major shipping point for these goods.
In January of 1860 the Mayor of New York City suggested that New York leave the Union with the South, because its port might be shut down. The idea did not receive enough support to be put to a vote.
Most of the shipping dock workers were free black men or Irish. These were some of the lowest paying jobs in the city.
New York had emancipated its slaves in 1827 due primarily to the high number of immigrants coming into New York. Most slaves were taken south to be sold before the deadline for emancipation.
The Irish men took the dock jobs, because they were just about the only offers they received.
Irish women and children got jobs in factories, because they could be controlled and would work long hours for low wages. This would become known as “Wage Slavery.”
It would not be brought to the public’s attention until 1906 when Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” about immigrant labor practices.
The federal government would not address child labor and wage slavery until 1938.
New York City did not have a paid fire department, but many Irish men helped form volunteer fire companies throughout the city.
The Irish dock workers feared the black men because they believed blacks would take their jobs on the docks, and if freed in the South, they would come looking for jobs in the North.
Congress passed the 1863 Conscription Act. President Lincoln then added some concessions for the wealthy. Men could pay the government $300 to avoid the draft or pay someone else to take their place.
The conflict then became known as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
President Lincoln’s oldest son Richard Todd Lincoln tried to join the army while he was in college, but his father refused to sign his paperwork. In February of 1865 when he became of age to join the army without his father’s permission, he did so. President Lincoln had him moved to General Grant’s office as an adjutant general over volunteers, away from any fighting. The President said that if Todd was killed in battle, it would be too much for the family to accept.
On Saturday, July 11, 1863 the draft began in New York City with 1,200 names drawn, mostly Irish.
The draft was not held the next day, a Sunday. Many Irishmen in pubs and bars began to talk about the draft and became angry.
On Monday the draft resumed. Several volunteer firemen demanded to be exempted from the draft, but this request was denied. The firemen became angry and set fire to the building where the draft was being held.
Soon five blocks were on fire.
An angry mob started to grow and would soon grow to an estimated 85,000.
The city of New York had only about 800 policemen and many were Irish. Oddly enough they beat and shot into the Irish mob.
By late afternoon the mob turned to innocent blacks in the city. In one noted case a black man was walking out of a bakery after purchasing some bread to take home. He was beaten and hanged. His body was set on fire. Any black person then became a target for the mob. A black orphanage was burned to the ground. Luckily the children were able to exit from the rear of the building. Black tenement buildings were set on fire and then the rioters turned to looting major stores and wealthy homes.
There were other riots protesting the draft in Ohio and Massachusetts, but none as violent the one in New York.
On Wednesday, July 15 the city Alderman appropriated two and one half million dollars to pay for any male that did not wish to be drafted. Archbishop Hughs of New York’s Saint Patrick Church pleaded with the Irish rioters to stop.
On Thursday, Federal troops were sent into the city to enforce marshal law, but the riot was over.
In August the draft started again in New York with President Lincoln calling for 80,000 men; however only 2,300 men entered the army due to payment of the $300 exemption by the city or receipt of a doctor’s excuse.
Only 67 men of the estimated 85,000 rioters were convicted of any crimes. Most of those received short jail time.
Over one third of the black population moved out of the city because of the incident.
It is not known for sure how many people were killed in the riot, but it was estimated to be in the hundreds.
Rioters that were killed were taken home and buried in the yard or alley way without a record. Blacks recovered their dead and buried them without any record or report to the police.
After the Civil War, the city of New York did away with all volunteer fire companies and created a fully paid fire department for the city.
David Hudgins is a member of the Ellis County Museum Board of Directors and co-founder of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Committee. He also serves as Chaplin of the O. M. Roberts Camp #178, Sons of Confederate Veterans. For more information, visit www.omroberts.com.