Skip to Content

Lesson Learned? Considering the Draft Riots of 1863 for Today

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on July 16, 2020

The arrival of 4,000 Union troops in Manhattan on Thursday, July 16, 1863, marked the beginning of the end to four days of civic unrest and racial violence throughout New York City, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. That week, hundreds of buildings had been ransacked and burned. 119 people had been killed (although some estimates push that number closer to 500) including 19 African Americans, 11 of whom had been publicly lynched.

At the height of the Civil War, the events that came to be known as the Draft Riots ignited simmering class and racial tensions in a city–and country–spiraling in the wake of rapid demographic change and a growing social divide born from increasingly loud cries for the abolition of slavery. On this 157th anniversary, we look back at this grim local incident and consider the warning this history lays out before us today.

The first two years of the Civil War were fought by soldiers who had voluntarily enlisted, recruited to join regiments seeking “100 men” or “30 good men.” As the conflict dragged on and casualties mounted, the need for more fighting men became dire. In March 1863, the federal government passed the National Conscription Law, the first mandatory military draft in the nation’s history. It required all men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five to serve in the Union Army. However, a loophole in the law that exempted from service those who could pay $300 exacerbated existing tensions between New York’s working-class Irish American and free black communities, the region’s most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

"The rioters burning the Colored Orphan Asylum," Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War, 1863. Library of Congress

As New York City’s working-class Irish American population grew exponentially in the decades leading up to the Civil War, they found themselves frequently in competition with free black New Yorkers for jobs. Brewing resentments were stoked by white proslavery supporters within the city’s Democratic Party who argued that emancipation of enslaved Southerners might lead to an increase in New York’s free black population, increased labor competition, and a loss of Irish American political and economic leverage. That the draft lottery on July 11 inordinately targeted the white working-class and forced them to fight a war they felt they had no stake in pushed them to a breaking point. On July 13, white New Yorkers took to the streets “in five days of mayhem and bloodshed,” their ire focused on African Americans whom they argued were responsible for their current plight and the war at large.

Over the course of the week, working-class white men turned from mass protest to full blown riot as they attacked public and government buildings and the residences of individuals, businesses, and organizations at the heart of African American life in Manhattan. The mob attacked the Colored Sailor’s Home and set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum.

"Attention! Merchants, Bankers and Merchants' Clerks and Others..." Broadside, circa 1863; M1975.386.1, Brooklyn Historical Society

Violence against property gave way to violence against individual black men and women, including twenty-year-old coachman Abraham Franklin, who was cornered, beaten, and hung from a lamp post. Hundreds of African Americans fled Manhattan that week, some finding safety among German American and free African American communities in Brooklyn. Many who fled the violence never returned to Manhattan, contributing to the decline in New York’s black population from just over 16,000 in 1840 to just under 10,000 by 1865. Today, the Draft Riots remain one of the largest urban insurrections in United States history.

Supposedly part of the rope used to lynch Abraham Franklin; M1985.475.1, Brooklyn Historical Society

Supposedly part of the rope used to lynch Abraham Franklin; M1985.475.1, Brooklyn Historical Society

Violence against property gave way to violence against individual black men and women, including twenty-year-old coachman Abraham Franklin, who was cornered, beaten, and hung from a lamp post. Hundreds of African Americans fled Manhattan that week, some finding safety among German American and free African American communities in Brooklyn. Many who fled the violence never returned to Manhattan, contributing to the decline in New York’s black population from just over 16,000 in 1840 to just under 10,000 by 1865. Today, the Draft Riots remain one of the largest urban insurrections in United States history.

This year, this grim anniversary falls amidst a new chapter in the fight for racial justice in America. 157 years later, a new generation of black and white activists are making progress against the behemoth of systemic racism in the United States. Eerily, however, this battle for racial justice is evoking familiar responses. Vandalism in recent weeks against numerous Black Lives Matter murals visually represents the simmering racial divide in this country. The public’s increasingly loud cries for the government to address systemic racism are giving rise to anxiety among some that solutions like police reform might endanger white communities or diminish their power. At this critical juncture it is vital that we listen to each other rather than cave to fear baiting. From the Draft Riots to the Civil Rights Movement to the present, American history has shown us that the fight for racial justice and the threat of racial violence can go hand in hand. Let us hope that this history might help us apply the hard won lessons of the past to the present.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked