The New York City Draft riots

Instructive history for the living of these days

by Ken Sehested

July 2022

“Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. They made the weather, then they stand in the rain and say, ‘Shit, it’s raining.’” —lines by Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) in the Civil War-era movie “Cold Mountain”

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This week is the anniversary of our nation’s largest, longest, and most deadly race riot that began on Monday 13 July 1863 and continued throughout the work week before finally being suppressed by Union army military units and New York militia.

However, few US citizens have ever heard about it. Partly because historians have named this 1863 episode of insurrection as the “New York City Draft Riots,” since the triggering event, following congressional approval of our nation’s first military draft law, was the lottery rollout in Manhattan.

On 3 March, President Lincoln signed into law Congress’ “Act for enrolling and calling out the national Forces,” which required all male citizens between the aged of 20 and 45 to enroll.

Both racial and economic class status factored into the mayhem. President Lincoln’s earlier Emancipation Proclamation escalated the fears of white working class (most of them Irish immigrants) laborers’ fear of competition with the newly-freed African American population. Tensions between white and Black workers had flared since the 1850s. Months before the draft riots, white longshoremen attacked Black coworkers.

Another harsh feature of the draft law was a provision that allowed a draftee to pay $300 to be exempted from military service. Since laborers at the time made between $1-$2 per day, it was obvious that the law favored the wealthy. The draft law also excluded African Americans, who were not considered citizens.

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On May 14, 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, the New York Tribune editorialized that “this War is in truth a War for the preservation of the Union, not for the destruction of Slavery; and it would alienate many ardent Unionists to pervert it into a War against Slavery. . . . We believe that Slavery has nothing to fear from a Union triumph.” —quoted in “The Unsteady March: The Rise and Decline of Racial Equality in America,” Philip A. Kinkner

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The first drawing of names for enlistment went without incident on Saturday, 11 July. But mid-morning of the second day, Monday 13 July, a mob of 500 white men attacked the provost marshal’s office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft selection was taking place.

The mob violence quickly morphed from an attack on city and federal government buildings to a focused assault on African Americans and the businesses that served them.

One of the first targets was the Colored Orphan Asylum, founded in 1836 by Quaker women. Rioters first looted the building, carrying away bedding, clothes, and food, and then set the building on fire. The 233 children housed there, plus their caregivers, managed to escape through the back door without harm.

Soon mobs were wrecking havoc in various parts of the city.

The total number of death of African Americans caused by the riots is unknown; but most historians estimate the number in the hundreds. About 100 buildings were destroyed; many more were damaged. At least 11 Blacks were mutilated, hung in the streets, and their bodies burned.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that the riots were “equivalent to a Confederate victory.”

Several key ingredients in this volatile context are also little known.

New York City’s economy was deeply intertwined with that of Southern slavers. Nearly half of its exports were cotton produced in the South. New York’s numerous textile mills depended on Southern plantations. New York bankers provided financing and insurance companies sold coverage to slave shipping.

The city had long since closed its own slave market. But entanglement with the slave economy lived on.

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“To the flag we are pledged, all its foes we abhor. / And we ain’t for the n*****, but we are for the war.” —popular rhyme in Northern cities upon the outbreak of the US Civil War

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Early in 1861, New York City Mayor Fernando Wood, a Democrat, petitioned the city’s Board of Aldermen to “declare the city’s independence from Albany (New York’s state capitol) and Washington” in order to maintain the city’s lucrative economic ties to the South.

The abolitionist movement was vilified in the South; but it wasn’t exactly popular in the North, either, with many considering it a reckless, utopian idea. The famous abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass alluded to the frailty of the movement when, after Ft. Sumter came under attack, he said “Thank God! — The slaveholders themselves have saved our cause from ruin!”

Many abolitionists held opinions similar to Abraham Lincoln, who said in an 1858 presidential campaign speech, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

In the second year of his presidency, Lincoln wrote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

Along with a number of abolitionists, he preferred the policy option of colonization: freeing Black slaves and sending them to Liberia.

We often forget, too, that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became law on 1 January 1863, was not a human rights statue but a military tactic. Slaves in “border” states, which had not joined the Confederacy, were exempt from the decree.

Another of our repressed memories is that the slave-freeing 13th Amendment to the Constitution nearly codified its opposite. In late February and early March, both the House of Representatives and the Senate narrowly approved an amendment (also known as the “Corwin Amendment”) legitimating slavery in those states where it was legal.

“No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any state, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.”

Although presidents have no formal role in the constitutional amendment process, outgoing President James Buchanan signed the measure in a desperate effort to halt the march to war. Shortly after Lincoln was inaugurated, he sent the amendment to the states, with a letter saying “I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable.”

Those Southern states that had already declared their secession ignored it; and within weeks Confederate troops in Charleston, SC, began its bombardment of Union troops in Ft. Sumter.

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“Show me who makes a profit from war and I will show you how to stop war.” —Henry Ford

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History is messy and more complicated than we wish it to be. That includes you and me.

The unflattering comments noted above about President Lincoln does not detract from his significance as, in the judgment of most US historians, the greatest president in our nation’s history. His views on race evolved—and likely would have continued to evolve if he had lived longer.

My views have also evolved. Probably yours, too.

Just so, admitting the relative unpopularity of the abolitionist movement in the antebellum North does not diminish the passionate courage of those in that headstrong movement. Admitting our exaggerated memory of these and other episodes is what inhibits white understanding of, and response to, continuing systemic racism and privilege in the US.

When doing historical analysis, our greatest need is to wade through the temptation to sentiment until we reach the solid ground of substantive facts. Which typically involves following the money. In considering social conflict, the question is not who started what and why. Rather, it should be: who profits form the conflict?

The New York Draft Riots pitted two racial-ethnic minorities against each other. (And a significant number of the police who confronted the rioters were also Irish.) But who profited from the conditions that provoked this conflict?

Surely the Civil War was a conflict over slavery. But the conflict between the North and the South was not so much a matter of human rights as it was the competing economic demands of an industrial-scale manufacturing economy with that of an industrial-scale agricultural economy.

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“If I love you, I have to make you conscious of things you do not see.” —James Baldwin

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Odd as it may sound, there is a proper evangelical edge to contemporary insistence to be more than not-racist. The altar call is to become anti-racist. White virtue signaling in the racial solidarity movement is the equivalent of hypocrisy in the church’s moral witness.

The goal is not to be pure. The goal is to read history rightly (to “read history from below,” from the vantage point of the abused); debate and assess remedial and reparative action, including short and long-term goals; and join ourselves with diverse coalitions to bring focused public pressure for morally renewed public policy.

To be sure, truth telling will involve a measure of discomfort and displacement. Occasionally, a lot. As Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Privilege will not easily, noiselessly relinquish its grip on power. It will vigorously insist its status is earned or destined as part of the natural order.

In the end, though, what fuels the quest for the Beloved Community is not the exertion of heroic willpower. Over the long run—and it will be a long run—what is needed is some semblance of a beatific vision for a flourishing community with a table of abundance available to all, spirit and sinew, soul and soil alike, rooted in neighborhoods and reaching the nations, fostering kindred relations in every direction.

It’s not complicated: As Maya Angelou counseled, when you know better. But you must vigorously pursue the knowing.

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