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Background Essay on the New York City Draft Riots

The worst episode of large-scale urban violence in American history, the New York City draft riots were sparked by the passage of conscription laws which made thousands of male New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 45 eligible to be drafted into the Union Army. Poor and working-class New Yorkers, many of them Irish immigrants, were especially resentful towards the draft law. Their anger was further inflamed by an exemption in the law that allowed those who could afford to pay $300 for a substitute to avoid the draft. But the city's African-American population was the main target of the rioters' anger during four days of looting, lynching and burning. The drafts were finally quelled by Union Army troops, but only after nearly a hundred people had been killed.

By 1860, one of every four of New York City's 800,000 residents was an Irish-born immigrant. While many labored in several of the city's skilled trades, the vast majority of Irish immigrants worked as unskilled laborers on the docks, as ditch diggers and street pavers, and as cartmen and coal heavers. In several of these occupations they competed directly with the city's African-American workers. The city's African-American community, which dated to before the Revolutionary War, grew during the first four decades of the nineteenth century, establishing and sustaining churches, newspapers, literary societies, and free schools. Black workers lived in close proximity to white workers in racially mixed communities that dotted the lower half of Manhattan. Increased immigration from Europe after 1840 diminished employment opportunities for black New Yorkers. Working-class African Americans competed directly with immigrants, especially newly arrived Irish, for unskilled jobs, a competition that often turned ugly and violent in the years before the war.

When the Civil War began in 1861, large numbers of New York City's white workers did not embrace the fight to preserve the Union. Many resented the war effort, which brought economic hardship and increasing unemployment to the city's working-class neighborhoods, especially following a sharp economic downturn in the war's first year. Competition for jobs between Irish and black workers, already intense before the war, increased dramatically in the conflict's early years and racial tensions mounted in work places and in working-class neighborhoods throughout the city. Even the return of wartime prosperity in 1862 did not lessen these tensions, as living costs rose faster than wages, further undercutting working-class living standards. In spring 1863, in the midst of a strike of Irish dock workers, strikers attacked and beat African-American strike-breakers before federal troops arrived to protect the black workers.

In New York, implementation of the National Conscription Act on July 11, 1863, triggered four days of the worst rioting Americans had ever seen. Violence quickly spread through the entire city, and even homes in wealthy neighborhoods were looted. Both women and men, many of them poor Irish immigrants, attacked and killed Protestant missionaries, Republican draft officials, and wealthy businessmen. However, New York City’s small free black population became the rioters’ main target. Immigrants, determined not to be drafted to fight for the freedom of a people they resented, turned on black New Yorkers in a rage. Rioters lynched at least a dozen African Americans and looted and burned the city’s Colored Orphan Asylum. Leading trade unionists joined middle-class leaders in condemning the riots, but to no avail. The violence ended only when Union troops were rushed back from the front to put down the riot by force. At the end, over one hundred New Yorkers lay dead.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on the New York City Draft Riots,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/524.

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