New York City Draft Riots

New York City Draft Riots

In March 1863, the United States legalized a strict draft law. For the first time, the Federal government would require all men from the ages of 20 to 35 to enter into a lottery that determined who would join the Armed Forces of the Union.[1] Anti-draft newspapers promptly responded with articles attacking the law and the practice of a draft lottery.  Many of the wealthier individuals were able to forego their draft if they could pay somebody to fight for them. This practice was particularly despised as it was a prime example of corruption.[2]

With the recent Emancipation Proclamation, Democratic opponents in New York declared that white men were being sold out in favor of freed blacks -that they were losing their political and economic advantage. They played on the fears of their white constituents that freed blacks would pose a threat to the labor market and the availability of jobs. Because of this, riots began that targeted African-Americans living in New York City. Initially the rioters targeted military and government buildings.  However, on the afternoon of the first day they began attacking African-Americans. By the end of the five days of rioting, 11 Black men were lynched and numerous businesses catering to blacks as well as their homes were lost.[3]

These riots were popularized in the film Gangs of New York (2002). However, despite what the film depicts the draft riots did not reach the notorious Five Points region of New York City.  As with many films that relate historical events – the writers embellished a great deal. These riots did have a profound impact on the New York City landscape as many of the images show.

Despite the violent reaction of New Yorkers to the draft, the draft would continue and remains a practice of the United States Government to this day. Learning from the lessons of the Civil War, paid substitutions were no longer allowed and several exemptions were allowed.  Since the Civil War, the United States has had drafts for World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Each time the draft has been used numerous protests occur against the action. Other famed protests besides the Civil War Protests are the protests surrounding World War I and the Vietnam War. Today the Armed Forces are made up primarily of volunteers. Though in the last presidential election, there was much discussion about implementing the draft. Is the draft an acceptable means of finding able-bodied soldiers? Do the protesters have a legitimate grievance against forced conscription?

[1] Leslie M. Harris In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) [Accessed June 28, 2012]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

  1. I had never thought about the consequences of the draft in the North for blacks. It’s obvious now after reading your blog that the draft would result in actions against blacks, as they were ultimately the cause of the war, especially at the time the draft was initiated. I’m assuming since there was no mention of whites being killed, that only blacks suffered casualties. I find it ironic that blacks were lynched in the abolitionist North during a war sought to end their oppression. Clearly not all northerners were abolitionists and not all welcomed blacks. I wonder to what extent did northerners harbor anti-black sentiments? Personally I agree with the draft but find it disheartening that there’s a need for one to begin with, especially in today’s America. Clearly patriotism only extends so far.

  2. Conscription is a tricky subject among Americans.
    Was your Dad called up? My Dad went ahead and signed up so he wouldn’t have to wait for the rath of the Vietnam War to consume him. Obivously he made it, or I wouldn’t be here to speak my mind.
    Conscription is a necessary evil when time calls for it.
    Would you sacrifice the oportunity that your currently have to speak your mind and learn in exchange for the lives of millions of American men?
    What are we fighting for today?

  3. charlesanselmo said:

    Genevieve, from what I have gathered, up to 1,200 total died (depending on the reports). Apparently, black neighborhoods were particularly targeted and from what I read an orphanage for black children was also the scene of mob violence. Numerous black families fled New York after the riots and did not return. Many anti-black sentiments (as I hinted at above) were based around the use blacks as cheap labor in competition with their white counterparts.

  4. charlesanselmo said:

    My father was in the navy during Vietnam. I agree generally that the draft may be a necessary evil from time to time. But, one has to wonder how the morale of those conscripted would be after they were drafted. Clearly the person did not volunteer to join the Armed Forces and it makes me wonder just how effective that person may be as a soldier, etc… In the novels we read it discussed numerous deserters. It makes me wonder if any of them were disenfranchised individuals that had been drafted.

  5. 10ectim said:

    The rioting in New York City gives us an insight to how complicated the northern population viewed the causes and purposes of the Civil War. Sometimes people get the idea that the majority of people in the North believed in the war to end slavery. The words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic proclaim “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Yet the riot in NYC depicts the opposition in North to emancipation and the hostility toward African Americans as they become scapegoats for the issuance of the draft during the war. Northerners were not united in agreement over emancipation and even those that favored it did so for a variety of reasons. Some favored abolition of slavery as a moral cause and a major cause of the war. Others viewed emancipation as a military strategy that would stretch the Confederate resources and keep England out of the war. Still others approved of ending slavery to punish the South for rebelling. Many favored emancipation with a combination of the above. But it is evident that many in the North did not desire that their sons and husbands die to end slavery. It also becomes clear after the war that a majority in the North may have been in favor of emancipation but did not support the granting of equality to African Americans.
    I do agree with the necessary evil of the draft when needed. The novel “The Black Flower” illustrated the results that may occur by drafting soldiers. In James McPherson’s “Battle Cry Freedom,” the author disputes the controversy and impact of the draft and purposes that the draft and the abuses and reactions to it have been greatly exaggerated. It is an interesting argument.

  6. jmmblog said:

    Very interesting blog. I’m still shocked to find out that the riots didn’t happen in Five Points. That’s where most of the movie takes place. I have the same feeling right now as when I first discovered that Santa was not real. I don’t want to believe it, but it doesn’t suprise me. As for the draft, I have mixed emotions about that subject. A part of me says it’s unconstitutional, but the other part says that under the right circumstances it may be necessary granted that it is a legit draft.

  7. drobnicker said:

    It’s interesting that you mentioned that payed substituions are no longer allowed, however, very few politicians’ sons served in Vietnam. One being George W. who somehow was commisioned into the Texas National Gaurd at the height of the Vietnam war in 1968. Having lived through the Vietnam Draft, I remember friends who were drafted and had to serve. I honestly don’t think everyone is cut out to be a soldier, but I admire those who are, and those who were drafted and came back to tell the story. In the case of the Civil War, this was different because it was defending home turf. However, Vietnam was a war without a cause, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

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