Tag Archives: Draft

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.