Wednesday, July 17, 2013

TIME MACHINE: The New York City Draft Riots



The week of July 13-16 marks the 150th anniversary of the infamous New York City Draft Riots. The series of violent disturbances, which occurred during the third year of the U.S. Civil War, not only formed the largest civil insurrection, but also the largest race riot in United States history. 

New York City's economy had been tied to the Southern states for decades. In fact, nearly half of its exports were cotton shipments by the 1820s and the State of New York possessed many textiles mills that process cotton. New York City not only possessed many Southern sympathizers, but was also a main destination for immigrants, especially Ireland and Germany. The Democratic Party, which controlled New York's Tammany Hall political organization made great strides in enrolling immigrants as U.S. citizens - especially the Irish. During the country's antebellum period, these same politicians and many of the city's journalists claimed that working-class blacks - especially those who came from the slave-holding states - posed a threat to employment for the white working-class, regardless of whether they were American-born or immigrants. these journalists also published sensational accounts directed at the working class - especially white immigrants - on the "evils of interracial socializing and marriages" and wrote derogatory portrayals of African-Americans. By the beginning of the Civil War, free black men and immigrants competed for low-wage jobs in the city.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as the 16th U.S. President in November 1861 featured the rise of the political power of the new Republican party nationally. It also brought about the secession of Southern states from the Union and the formation of the Confederacy. Due to New York City's economic ties to the South, then Mayor Fernando Wood proposed to the Board of Aldermen in January 1861 that the city should secede from both the State of New York and the United States. Despite the city's strong Southern sympathies, Wood's plans never came to fruition, due to the outbreak of the Civil War, following the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861. The first two years of the war proved to be difficult for the Union. In order to produce more troops for the Army, Congress passed a law to establish a draft for the first time. The Confederate government had already established a draft for their army, the previous year. The country's male immigrant citizenry discovered they were expected to register for the draft. However, black men were excluded, because they were not considered citizens. And wealthier white men could pay for substitutes. In New York City and other locations, the new citizens learned that they were expected to register for the draft to fight for their new country. Black men were excluded from the draft as they were not considered citizens, and wealthier white men could pay for substitutes. 

The first drawings for the draft occurred on July 11, 1863 with peaceful results. The second drawing was held on July 13, 1863, ten days after the Union victory at Gettysburg. This time, an enraged crowd led by the Black Joke Engine Company 33, attacked the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street; where the drawings for the draft were taking place. Many of the rioters were Irish laborers who feared having to compete with emancipated slaves for jobs. Although the outbreak of violence was originally an expression of anger at the draft, the protests turned into an ugly race riot, with the white rioters, mainly Irish immigrants, attacking or killing blacks of all classes, wherever they could be found. However, they were not the only victims. Mobs also attacked wealthy whites and looted their homes, because they were financially able to avoid the draft; white abolitionists and any other whites who had formed some kind of connection with the city's black population. But the main victims proved to be African-Americans. At least 100 black people were estimated to have been killed. One of the most notorious incidents occurred on July 13. A mob burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. Fortunately, the orphanage's occupants managed to escape the fire, thanks to the efforts of the New York City Police. 

On July 15, the draft was suspended. On the last day of the riot, conditions in the city had became so grave that U.S. Army Major General John E. Wool, commander of the Department of the East, stated that "Martial law ought to be proclaimed, but I have not a sufficient force to enforce it.". At least 800 Union Army troops reached New York City by the beginning of the riot's second day. General Wool also gathered cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. By July 16, there were several thousand Federal troops in the city. A final confrontation between troops and the rioters occurred on July 16, near Gramercy Park. It is believed that at least twelve people died on the last day of the riots in skirmishes between rioters and the police and army. They included one African-American male, two soldiers, a bystander and two women. 

As a result of the violence against blacks, hundreds of them left the city, moving to Williamsburg, Brooklyn (which was still a separate city) and New Jersey. The city's white elite organized to provide relief to black riot victims, helping them find new work and homes. The Union League Club and the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People provided nearly $40,000 to 2500 victims of the riots. By 1865, New York's total black population had dropped to under 10,000, the lowest it had been since 1820. The white working class riots had changed the demographics of the city and exerted their control in the workplace; they became "unequivocally divided" from blacks. The U.S. government re-instated the draft on August 19, 1863. It was completed within 10 days without any violence. New York City's support for theNew York banks eventually financed the Civil War, and the state's industries were more productive than the entire Confederacy.

For more detailed information on the New York City Draft Riots, check out the following book:

*"The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War" by Iver Bernstein

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