On July 13, 1863, the deadly and destructive Draft Riots, the largest civil disturbance in the nation’s history, shook New York City. Despite its name, the newly passed , which instituted a draft lottery with exemptions in place for the wealthy, was not the root cause of the four-day rampage. Rather, the law acted as the spark that ignited the pent-up resentment and anger of polarized New York citizens. The majority of the rioters were working-class Irish laborers, whose embitterment towards African Americans and Republicans stemmed from politician-produced paranoia, as well as increased difficulties caused by the wartime economy.

The Turning of the Labor Tide

New York City, the largest urban center in the United States, was the arbiter of the nation’s cultural aesthetics as well as the industrial and economic capital of the country. After one million people died during the Great Hunger Famine in Ireland (1845-1852), a surge of Irish immigrant refugees entered the city’s port. An economic depression and a failed 1848 revolutionary war in Germany increased the presence of German immigrants to sixteen percent within the city’s limits.  New York City’s population in 1850 skyrocketed to more than half a million.  In order to afford a tenement in an over-saturated urban housing market, the unskilled immigrant farmers turned industrial workers could not support their families on a single wage and had to allow their wives and daughters to enter factory labor, often competing with free black men.  New York City entered an era of radical racial competition and gender reform that would last until the onset of World War I. The Irish immigrant constituents of the riot largely immigrated to New York between the 1830s to the 1850s. Although they later rioted against competition from black workers, in many cases, these immigrants had taken jobs from free blacks residing in the North. For decades, black men worked menial and lower-skill jobs for middling wages as “longshoremen…brick makers, whitewashers, coachmen, stablemen, porters, bootblacks, barbers, and waiters in hotels and restaurants,” while black women made up the majority of “domestic maids, cooks…laundresses and seamstresses.”  The 1846 Irish Potato Famine, coupled with political persecution by the British, pushed large groups of Irish immigrants to America’s northern states. Between 1847 and 1851, approximately 848,000 Irish immigrants sought refuge in America. With no funds to move west and farm, most found themselves stuck in New York City, and by 1860, 200,000 of the city’s 800,000 residents were Irish.

The Five Points District, was a notorious multiethnic and immigrant heavy Manhattan slum comprised of the five intersecting corners of then Anthony, Orange, and Cross streets.

The Five Points District in New York City
The Five Points District in New York City


It was a working-class neighborhood infamous for its gang violence, as depicted above in dramatized fashion. Many Irish immigrants settled here alongside poor free blacks.

The influx of job seekers coupled with desperation to find work led many newcomers to take menial jobs for lower wages. As a result, many immigrants not only took the place of black laborers, but also significantly drove down wages. As Frederick Douglass noted, “Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title in the place.”

Tug of War For the Immigrant Vote

This sudden influx of poor and, to the horror of Protestant citizens, Catholic immigrants resulted in an upsurge in nativist sentiment in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

A caricature compares Florence Nightingale, nurse and the ideal “white” woman, with a heavily stereotyped Irish immigrant, showing the brewing nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment thriving in American cities.
A caricature compares Florence Nightingale, nurse and the ideal “white” woman, with a heavily stereotyped Irish immigrant, showing the brewing nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment thriving in American cities.


Nativism refers to a resentment of immigrants, particularly those who were not white Protestants, and was often tied to beliefs of white American racial superiority. Irish immigrants were viewed as being part of a distinct, inherently inferior race, due to the nineteenth century definition of the race as “forms of ethnic and national identity.” Nativists gathered in fraternal clubs that would occasionally make forays into politics; the most prominent was the Know-Nothing party, a secretive organization with a nativist and anti-Catholic platform that reached its peak in 1855. It blamed Catholic immigrants for social and economic problems plaguing America and called for a restriction on their citizenship rights.

Amidst such anti-Irish resentment, Democrats realized the asset this large Irish immigrant population could provide any party able to court them, since most immigrants became voting citizens. In anticipation of Irish votes, the Democrats attempted to have a direct impact on immigrant’s lives in order to curry their favor. These favors ranged from providing business licenses to direct employment in public construction, municipal services, or the police force.

The Irish would be easier to bring over to the Democratic Party if they had a strong reason to fear a Republican victory. One contentious issue was the status of enslaved blacks in the South. As Republicans supported the abolition of slavery, Democrats provided the Irish political protection from potential black labor competition if emancipation occurred. In 1860, Congressional candidate James W. Gerard, a Democrat, warned the Irish that the election of Republican Party presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln would spell disaster for the immigrants: “Abraham Lincoln, if honest to his party, means to do his best that the free men of the North shall make free the laboring population in the South…I call upon all adopted citizens and stand up and vote against Abraham Lincoln, or you will have negro labor dragging you from your free labor.” He went on to warn the Irish that “to exclude” – or abolish – slavery would be to “exclude bread from their own table,” in effect making the debate over slavery a personal one for the Irish by instilling the fear of competition from blacks in their minds.  This anti-black and anti-Republican rhetoric appealed to Irish insecurities about their low social status, and, for created a resentment that would boil over in the eventual riots.

This bitterness towards Republicans can by explained by both the fear mongering speeches given by Democrats and the fact that many of their own employers within the industrial sector – the men who fired them, cut their wages, or hired blacks to work alongside them – were Republicans. Iver Bernstein, History professor at the University of Washington, wrote, “the industrialists did much to shape the rioters’ image of Republicanism as unjust and intrusive authority.”  Even those unaware of the debate between federal and local government, could use analogies from their own lives to understand what a strong centralized government signified. To them, it seemed to be an expanded, countrywide version of what they had encountered daily at their jobs, ruled by overseers and bosses.

The Emancipation Proclamation

On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln passed the , effective January 1st 1863, which freed all slaves in the rebelling confederate territories. In 1860, New York Herald Editor James Gordon Bennett echoed Gerard, warning working-class immigrant workers that if Lincoln were to be elected, “you will have to compete with the labor of four million emancipated Negroes.” The Emancipation Proclamation seemed to suggest that such predictions were coming true. These fears were ultimately unfounded, as a considerable increase in migrations to the North did not occur until World War I at the beginning of the Great Migration. Many newly freed slaves had little inclination to go North. The large Northern migrations in search of work would come in later years, as the post-Reconstruction South would begin to impose more restrictions and inflict further violence on blacks. In 1862, a study done by the Emancipation League, a New York-based organization that lobbied for emancipation and aided the emigration of slaves to the North found that “very few desire to go north, except for safety.” The Virginia Office of Contrabands, which oversaw the free slaves of the state and assisted them in obtaining work, noted, “I have had applications from large numbers [in the North] wishing servants, and offering good wages, lying over for months, because of the unwillingness of any to go.”

To those Northerners who had listened to speeches of freed slaves rushing to the North in droves to take jobs, even a small group of Southern arrivals was enough to ignite anger and fear that a large-scale migration movement was in effect. A number did make it to the North, and settled in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. This caused indignation that acted as foreshadowing of what was to come – in Philadelphia, for instance, rumors had falsely spread that blacks were arriving to take on jobs for ten cents an hour, led to a small crowd gathering by the docks and shouting angrily at any incoming migrants that came through.

Brewing Anger and the Wartime Economy

The withdrawal of Southern business during the Civil War and the resulting loss of jobs created alarm and consternation for working-class New Yorkers. The war raised prices on goods, but did not increase wages – in fact, because of decreased business many workers found their wages falling to new lows. The Legal Tender Act, signed by the Republican-controlled federal government in 1862, led to more inflation by allowing the government to pay its debts in paper money, which had less value than gold.  Dockworkers, for instance, found their wages decreased from 1.50 per day to 1.12 per day and went on strike, eventually settling for 1.25 per day. This job was also one that had seen considerable competition between Irish and black workers, and the hiring of some blacks as strikebreakers only enraged Irish longshoremen further. The squeeze in wages were felt not only by blue-collar workers, but skilled artisans as well. In 1862 and 1863, there were strikes among tailors, carpenters, cabinetmakers, and machinists, all of whom found it increasingly difficult to live with wartime inflation. The blame for these newfound economic difficulties fell on the Republicans and the presumed federal encroachment on local authority with the Legal Tender Act. Many workers believed such Acts came at their expense and were the result of  a general lack of sympathy for the plight of the common worker. The increase in strikes and small-scale disturbances leading up to the Draft Riots indicates that wartime resentment had been brewing for some time. One more point of contention could be enough to cause a large-scale riot.

The Draft: A Final Push

This spark came in form of a new draft law. The   drafted men between the ages of twenty and forty-five through a lottery system. The first lottery was set to take place on July 11th in New York.

Working-class whites were especially resentful of the commutation clause within the draft law. This clause allowed wealthy individuals to escape the lottery by either paying the federal government 300 dollars or by privately hiring someone else to take their place. Blacks were also exempt from the draft because they were not legal citizens. Immigrants who were subject to the draft took the news of the commutations and exemptions differently. Already anxious about their job security and facing economic inflation and taxation for a war that little affected them, many immigrants saw the commutations and exemptions to mean that the government was sending immigrants to war while purposefully keeping free blacks and the wealthy out of danger. Some immigrants complained that “they are sold for 300 dollars while blacks for 1000,” comparing the price of commutation to the price of a black slave.

This lecture by historian Barnet Schechter focuses the causes of the riots from a political standpoint.

A Timeline of the Riots

Day 1: Monday, July 12, 1863

  • Working-class laborers do not show up at work, and march to the Provost Marshall’s Office on Forty Sixth Street, where more names were to be chosen from the lottery on that day. The crowd cuts telegraph wires, harasses policemen, and gathers weapons along the way.
  • The second draft selection begins at 10:30 in the badly policed Provost Marshall’s Office, with only nine policemen present and fifty on their way. Pistols are fired and the crowd rushes to destroy the office.
  • Symbols of wealth, viewed as the vanguard of Republican power, are destroyed by individuals, including the homes of policemen, upper-class businessmen, several draft offices, and shops selling luxury goods
  • Mobs attack the offices of the Tribune, a newspaper run by prominent Republican Horace Greeley.
  • The Orphan Asylum on Forty-third street and Fifth avenue is burned
  • William Jones, an African American on his way to the store, was confronted and lynched by a small gang of rioters, becoming the first known victim of the riots targeted for his race.
  • Rioters divide into two camps: some who were primarily angry about the draft riots and felt their anger spent either dispersed or assisted in clean-up efforts. A fraction of the Monday rioters, however, felt that their frustrations were not fully released and became even more violent.

 Day 2: Tuesday, July 13, 1863

  •  Several rioters create barricades for their own neighborhoods with debris.
  • Lynching and attacks on African Americans continue.
  • Colonel Henry O’Brien, Commander of the Eleventh New York Volunteers is targeted and killed after giving a command to fire cannons over the heads of rioters attacking policemen, with some (historical sources claiming that several children were killed by the cannon fire).
  • Brooks Brothers, a large clothing store, is burned and looted, stealing $50,000 worth of clothing.
  • Rioters build street-wide barricades out of rubble to keep police certain areas.
  • New York Governor Horatio Seymour, a Democrat, arrives in the city to meet with Mayor George Opdyke and gives a speech to the rioters at City Hall, while Mayor Opdyke requests federal troops from the Secretary of War.
Day 3: Wednesday, July 13, 1863
  • Police and armed forces surround federal property, including City Hall, contain the riots to working class neighborhoods, called “infected areas” by the police.
  • Violence spreads to Staten Island and Brooklyn, where docks and granaries are attacked.
  • Tammany Hall Democrats propose raising $2.5 million through bond sales to pay for the exemption of all drafted New Yorkers.

 Day 4: Thursday, July 14, 1863

  • Governor Seymour writes a letter to Catholic Archbishop John Hughes, seen as the (head of New York’s catholic population), imploring him to “exert your powerful influence to stop the disorders now reigning this city.”
  • Four thousand federal troops arrive.
  • Streetcars around the city resume operation.
  •  The 1th New York Cavalry is attacked while patrolling the streets, rioters killing Sergeant Charles Davids, but troops manage to beat back the rioters.

 Day 5: Friday, July 15, 1863

  • The riot begins to dissipate as police and troops manage to subdue the rioters.

You can view complete timeline, along with maps, here.

The following lecture by Daniel Walkowitz, History Professor at NYU, provides an overview of the draft riots, with particular focus on the authenticity of its depiction in the movie “Gangs of New York”and on the actual “gangs” and societies the rioters were grouped into.

The first draft lottery was held on Saturday, July 11th, to little incident. Early on Monday, July 13th, however, as city inhabitants were waking up and beginning their workdays, mobs began to form. It is difficult to gain a proper sense on the minute details of the riots, as the few first-hand accounts that exist are from wealthy onlookers rather than participants. However, it appears that, early on the first day, the mobs only targeted federal property, such as telegraph lines, and the draft office, explicitly protesting the draft. When this destruction was accomplished, the mob appeared to split into two groups – those who were satisfied with what they had ransacked, and those who had become riled-up by the acts and escalated the destruction.

Shouts of “Jeff Davis!” rang from the mob as the rioters cheered the Confederate president.  Rioters were not necessarily pro-confederate, but cheered for the confederacy to show simultaneous opposition to free blacks and the Republican Party responsible for freeing them.

Many homes and establishments of free blacks, or even businesses that hired them or appeared to sympathize with them and bars and stores frequented by black workers, were destroyed in an attempt to destroy all “things symbolic of black political economic, and social power.” The majority of violence was targeted at poor black workers, particularly men, as their labor created the biggest threat to working-class white rioters. Black men were indiscriminately targeted on the streets or pulled out of their homes, violently killed by the mob, their bodies then often mutilated and either hung or dragged through the streets, both in deliberately public displays of intimidation towards the city’s black population. The estimates of casualties ran into the hundreds, and at least eleven men died by lynching during the five-day riot.

Hanging and Burning a Negro in Clarkson Street, an artistic rendering of the violence.
Hanging and Burning a Negro in Clarkson Street, an artistic rendering of the violence.


Perhaps the most infamous event to occur during the riots was the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum. The large building housed over 200 children and was  equipped with dormitories, a school, and a hospital.

The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum. Credit: NYPL Digital Gallery.
The Riots in New York: Destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum. Credit: NYPL Digital Gallery.


The mob set upon the asylum in the evening after the first day of the riots, as it was a “symbol of white charity towards blacks and black upward mobility.” The structure was stripped of bedding, food, and clothing, and then set ablaze. Fortunately, all of the children were discreetly ushered to safety by several Irish onlookers, and none were harmed.

Columbia University History Professor Kenneth Jackson also discusses the burning of the Asylum and gives a brief overview of the riots in a short video.

Police and military men sent to quell the violence were attacked with brute force; rioters saw authority figures as extensions of Republican authority over the city, and several police stations were burned. George Templeton Strong, a wealthy lawyer, witnessed firsthand the burning of several townhouses in his own primarily Republican, upper-class neighborhood. Fearing his own safety, Strong hid his most valuable possessions and slept in his daytime clothing for several nights, ready to flee in the event of attack. He had reason to take such precautions: looting became commonplace as the riot wore on, in wealthy homes as well as places of business. Known abolitionists were targeted, and even white onlookers who expressed sympathy for black victims were pounced on, including one Irish man who called out at the burning of the Orphan Asylum, “If there is a man among you, with a heart within him, come and help these poor children!”

The mobs finally quieted down and began to disperse on Thursday, from a combination of having burned off their fervor and from increasing military resistance. The city lay smoldering and in a state of shock. The rioters had succeeded in one respect: they had effectively scarred black New Yorkers who moved out of the city by the thousands. The black population dropped precipitously: by 1865, there were just under ten thousand blacks in New York, the lowest number since 1820.

Papers harshly criticized the riots as news of the violence spread throughout the country. Harper’s Weekly devoted a large portion of its August 1st issue to the riots, publishing editorials and, in the absence of photography, illustrations of its most infamous events, such as the burning of the orphanage. Some, such as wealthy lawyer George Templeton Strong, saw this as proof of the inferiority of the Irish. “I am sorry to find that England is right about the lower class of Irish,” he wrote in his diary. “They are brutal, base, cruel, cowards…” Most witnesses to the riots echoed Strong, dismissing the rioters as a violent, inhuman mob. However, when reading first-hand accounts of any event, the position of the writer should be considered; in the case of the draft riots, all existing accounts and contemporary newspaper articles were written by middle and upper-class men, many of whom could pay the 300 dollar exemption fee. As New York University History professor Daniel Walkowitz explains in the above video, this created a lack of understanding between the working class rioters and the people documenting the events (11:40).

Others, such as another writer for Harper’s Weekly, claimed that the riots did nothing to reflect on the Irish in particular, and that, though the events were heinous, they could have been perpetrated by any ethnicity. “Some newspapers dwell upon the fact that the rioters were uniformly Irish, and hence argue that our trouble arises from the perversity of the Irish race. But how do these theorists explain the fact that riots precisely similar to that of last week have occurred within our time at Paris, Madrid, Naples, Rome…and Vienna…” He also correctly recognized the countless Irish policemen and onlookers who assisted blacks in the riots, often to their own detriment.

Many recognized the role of politicians in riling up the poor workers who would eventually rise up in the riots. A broadside entitled “A Great Fraud” attacked pro-slavery, pro-confederacy Democrats who, “in the name of Democracy they have stirred up the laboring men and have filled the streets of New York with bloodshed, arson, and riots, and have disgraced us in the eyes of the world.”

It should be noted that even those who opposed slavery and showed great sympathy for free blacks targeted in the riots were not necessarily promoting their equality. “Proverbially a mild, affectionate, and docile people, they have received from us, who claim to be a superior rates, a treatment which of itself disproves our superiority,” wrote an anonymous columnist for Harper’s Weekly in the August 1st issue, echoing a sentiment not unlike those of religious leaders in the colonial Americas who denounced the harsh treatment of Native Americans on the grounds that they were a simple race who needed to be protected.

The Draft Riots of 1863 were a tumultuous moment in New York City history. In just four days, rioters destroyed a multitude of federal and private property, killed and injured hundreds of people, perpetrated and committed horrifying acts of racial violence, and  provoked many African Americans into fleeing the city. The Conscription Act was not the central reason for the riots. It had simply aroused a decade of simmering resentment from one constituency of the working class to another deemed even more racially inferior, and was used as an excuse to act out  racially-motivated aggressions. The large-scale violence, burning, lynching, and looting that took place could only have been perpetrated by those whose anger had been slowly simmering for years and now had a chance to burst free. Individual rioters most likely had their own motives for joining in the destruction – some had lost their job, others had gotten drafted, or were finding it difficult to cope with inflated prices – but what tied the rioters together was a collective blame, fueled by political rhetoric, placed on the shoulders of the black working class population for their problems.

For more information:

  1. Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860. New York: Knopf, 1986,44 
  2. Foster, George G., and Stuart M. Blumin. New York by Gas-Light and Other Urban Sketches. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, 3 
  3. Nash, Gary B. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. New York: Longman, 1998, 298 
  4. Man, Albon P. “Labor Competition and the New York City Draft Riots of 1863.” The Journal for Negro History 36.4 (1951): 376 
  5. Bayor, Ronald H., and Timothy J. Meagher, eds. The New York Irish. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, 9
  6. Man, 376
  7. Holt, Michael F. The Know Nothing Party. Northern Illinois University. Accessed June 25 2012. < http://dig.lib.niu.edu/message/ps-knownothing.html>
  8. Baylor and Meagher, 97 
  9. Man, 376 
  10. Bernstein, Iver. New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 162 
  11. Man, 387
  12. Bernstein, 101
  13. Harris, Leslie M. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. London: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 273
  14. ibid, 281
  15. Bernstein, 26
  16. Harris, 285
  17. ibid, 280 
  18. ibid, 282
  19. ibid, 285

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