Nearly 150 years ago today, on July 11, 1863, in the direct aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln needed to reinforce his troops as the war dragged on.
A draft of able-boodied Northern citizens was set up in the City of New York, erupting into violence when New York residents, primarily Irish Catholics, but consisting of other immigrant ethnic groups, objected to being forced into service to aid a Republican government.
One problem with the draft was it contained a $300 exemption clause that would enable wealthy citizens to avoid service, forcing the poor to risk their lives for a government they didn’t believe in.
The draft offices were set up at 1190 Broadway near Twenty-ninth Street with another office at 677 Third Avenue near the corner of Forty-sixth Street. According to historian Stewart Mitchell: “The neighborhood was very much uptown in 1863, not by any means respectable, and more than three miles as the crow flies from city hall, then situated at the centre of New York.”
Enrollees were chosen by lot from each district of the city from a list of eligible men. The plan was to call up 20 percent of the men on these lists.
But James McPherson points out: “There were numerous opportunties for fraud, error, and injustice in this cumbersome and confusing process.”
Because of the means available for men to avoid actual service, only 7 percent of those chosen served in the Union military. However, the draft proceeded without incidence the first day.
But according to historian David Long: “that evening and on Sunday, in pubs and on street corners of the city’s tenement districts, groups of working-class men imbibed alcohol and anti-black rhetoric in generous doses. Their mood grew increasingly ugly. By Monday, the ugly mood was incendiary.”
William O. Stoddard, one of Lincoln’s aides, had taken leave from Washington to recover from malaria and overwork. He and his brother entered the city unaware of the riots. For him it began, in his own words: “…I saw a cart, driven furiously, on which lay a Negro, while a small mob of
ruffians appeared to be trying to drag him off. In another direction a Negro was being chased and maltreated, and the air was full of dire exclamations and prophecies.
“At first I did not understand the matter, but the truth dawned on me as my blood rose hotter, and I went back to my room. There was my pistol belt, knife and all, and the weapon was of heavy calibre. Henry had none, so I
gave him mine, and we went hastily to Maiden Lane, where the gun stores were, to get me a new outfit. I was just in time, for hardly had I buckled on my longer-barreled, heavier shooting iron, when all those stores were closed by order of the police, and by the fear of their owners that they would soon be
looted if they were open…”
Many of the rioters weren’t able bodied-men seeking to avoid the draft, but women and children. Women wanted their men to “die at home” and protect their community rather than go off to die on some Southern battlefield. An enraged female mob beat U. S. Eleventh New York Volunteers, also known as the Fire Zouves. Colonel Henry O’Brien’s face was beaten to pulp. He was then dragged through the streets by the mob to his own home, stipped naked and had “the most atrocious volence on the body” inflicted from which he died. But the gruesome process lasted six hours.
The New York City draft rioters sought to protect their own communities and evict Republican symbols, wanting to improve the predraft/prewar Irish and white laborers status quo for both men and women, young and old.
For more on the New York Draft Riots, visit these sites:
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