The bloodiest riot in American history. The rioters were working-class white men, mostly Irish-Americans. They were rioting against a new draft law put into place by President Lincoln, but they were angry about much more than that, and the draft law was just the final straw.
It was a terrible summer, hot and muggy, during the height of the Civil War. Rich New Yorkers were making money off the war, but poor people were even poorer than usual. There was huge inflation, and when people did manage to afford staple goods, they were often contaminated – sand mixed into sugar, or sawdust into coffee. Working-class immigrant New Yorkers had signed up in high numbers to serve in the Union Army, and many had died; those who did make it back alive were often wounded and could no longer provide for their families. Unemployment was high. Workers kept going on strike, but the strikes were broken. The sensational newspapers of the day published stories blaming all this misery on Lincoln, black people, and the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation. The newspapers warned working-class white people that black people would be moving up from the South in huge numbers and stealing their jobs. They published hateful pieces claiming that black men were breaking the strikes, and that they were staying home and seducing white women while white men fought.
Lincoln was desperate for more soldiers – men were dying at a faster rate than volunteers were enlisting. So he and Congress authorized the nation’s first draft law, and on Saturday, July 11th, the lottery began, with a blindfolded clerk pulling names out of a hat. Unfortunately there was a major exception to this fair process: for $300 you could buy your way out of the draft. It was a fee only the rich could afford – the average New York City worker earned 85 cents per day. On Saturday, a number of firemen from the Black Joke fire company were chosen in the lottery. The next day, the firemen sat around in a tavern talking angrily about the draft, and they decided to protest. On Monday morning, they showed up at the draft office with their fire truck full of rocks they had collected from construction sites. They threw the rocks through the office windows, burned the draft records, and attacked the officers who were administering it.
By the time they were finished, thousands had gathered around them. The original motives of the anti-draft protesters were quickly eclipsed by the angry mob. The mob fashioned makeshift weapons and went on a destructive rampage through the city. They pulled up railroad and streetcar tracks, knocked down telephone poles, cut telegraph lines, lit buildings on fire, and attacked people. They targeted Lincoln supporters, abolitionists, and policemen. They destroyed Protestant churches and charities, and they attacked the newspaper offices of The New York Times and The New York Tribune – the Times’ editor and owner Henry Raymond actually defended himself against the rioters with a Gatling gun. Most of all, the mob targeted African-Americans. They destroyed businesses and community spots that were owned by blacks or catered to them, and set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum. The mob attacked countless black people, set their homes on fire, and brutally murdered at least 11 black men. The violence continued to escalate, and there were not enough federal troops in the city to do much about it, since they were all off fighting in Pennsylvania – the Battle of Gettysburg had ended just 10 days before the riots began. On Wednesday, July 15th, troops were hurried from Gettysburg to New York City to fight. By Friday, there were about 6,000 federal troops, and the riot finally died down. The official death toll was listed as 119, but was probably higher. Many African-Americans left New York City because of the riots, leading to a 20 percent decrease in the African-American population in New York City during the Civil War.
reposted from Writer’s Almanac.