Initially intended to express anger at the draft, the protests degraded into "a virtual racial pogrom, with uncounted numbers of blacks murdered on the streets". The conditions in the city were such that Major General John E. Wool stated on July 16, "Martial law ought to be proclaimed, but I have not a sufficient force to enforce it." The military suppressed the mob using artillery and fixed bayonets, but not before numerous buildings were ransacked or destroyed, including many homes and an orphanage for black children.
When the Civil War started in April 1861, New Yorkers quickly rallied behind the Union cause, including a massive rally at Union Square attended by an estimated 100,000 to 250,000. When Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to join the military and fight for the Union, 8,000 from New York City signed up within ten days. The First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 took a heavy toll on Union forces, including those from New York City, leading to declining enthusiasm and optimism. A large contingent of Democrats in New York City, known as Copperheads, were opposed to the war and favored negotiated peace. New York Governor Horatio Seymour was elected in 1862, running on an anti-war platform.
As the war dragged on, a military manpower shortage occurred in the Union. Congress passed the first conscription act in United States history on March 3, 1863, authorizing the President to draft citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. Copperheads were dismayed by the news. Their main objection was to national service of any kind, but in terms of rhetoric, they attacked the provision allowing men drafted to pay either $300 or supply a substitute as a "commutation fee" to procure exemption from service. This led to the derisive term "300 dollar man". In actuality, the draft was designed to spur voluntary enlistment, and relatively few men were formally drafted into service.
In practice, however, men formed clubs whereby if one was drafted the others chipped in to pay the commutation fee. Regardless of the intent of the $300 provision—as a means of securing some much-needed funding for the war effort or sparing the sons of the rich from serving similar to draft dodging—public perception among the middle and lower classes was that the war had become "the rich man's war and the poor man's fight."
The first drawing of names happened on Saturday, July 11 without incident. Names were put on small pieces of paper, placed in a box, and then drawn one-by-one. The names put into the drawing were mainly mechanics and laborers that had been published in newspapers. Though rioting in New York didn't commence yet, riots involving opponents of conscription broke out in other cities, including Buffalo on July 6, 1863. There was speculation about similar reaction in New York City to the draft, which coincided with the efforts of Tammany Hall (the base of Democratic power in the city) to enroll Irish immigrants as citizens so they could vote in local elections. Consequently, many such immigrants suddenly discovered they had to fight for their new country.
The New York State Militia was absent, having been sent to assist Union troops in Pennsylvania, leaving the police to deal with the riots. The police superintendent, John Kennedy, came by on Monday to check on the situation. Although he was not in uniform, he was recognized by people in the mob and they attacked him. Kennedy was left nearly unconscious, having had his face bruised and cut, an injured eye, swelled lips, his hand cut with a knife, and a mass of bruises and blood all over his body. In response, police drew their clubs and revolvers, and charged the crowd, but the crowd overpowered them. The New York City Police Department forces were badly outnumbered and unable to quell the riots, however, they were able to keep the rioting out of Lower Manhattan, below Union Square. Immigrants and others in the "Bloody Sixth" Ward, around the seaport, refrained from getting involved in the Draft Riots, having experienced more than enough violence in the 1830s and 1850s.
The Bull's Head hotel on 44th Street, which refused to provide alcohol, was burned. The mayor's residence on Fifth Avenue, the Eighth and Fifth District police stations, and other buildings were attacked and set on fire. Other targets included the office of the leading Republican newspaper, the New York Tribune. The mob was turned back at the New York Tribune office by staff manning two Gatling guns. Fire engine companies responded, however some of the firefighters were sympathetic to the rioters, since they too had been drafted on Saturday. Later in the afternoon, authorities shot and killed a man, as a crowd attacked the Armory at Second Avenue and 21st Street.
African Americans became a scapegoat and the target of the rioters' anger. Many immigrants and poor viewed freed slaves as competition for scarce jobs and African Americans as the reason why the civil war was being fought. Irish immigrants comprised a large portion of the rioters, though a large contingent of German immigrants, and other groups also participated. African Americans who fell into the mob's hands were often beaten, tortured, and/or killed, including one man that was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones, then hung from a tree and set alight. The Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, which provided shelter for hundreds of children, was attacked by a mob. The police were able to secure the orphanage for enough time to allow orphans to escape. However, a nine-year-old girl from the orphanage, who was found hiding under a bed, was clubbed to death.
Governor Horatio Seymour arrived on Tuesday and spoke at City Hall, where he attempted to assuage the crowd by proclaiming the Conscription Act was unconstitutional. General John E. Wool brought approximately 800 troops in from forts in the New York Harbor and from West Point. He also ordered the militias to return to New York.
Order began to be restored on Thursday as more federal troops returned to New York, including the 152nd New York Volunteers, the 26th Michigan Volunteers, the 27th Indiana Volunteers and the 7th Regiment New York State Militia from Frederick, Maryland, after a forced march. In addition, the governor sent in the 74th and 65th regiments of the New York state militia, which had not been in federal service, and a section of the 20th Independent Battery, New York Volunteer Artillery from Fort Schuyler in Throgs Neck. By July 16, there were several thousand Federal troops in the city. A final confrontation occurred on Thursday evening near Gramercy Park, resulting in the deaths of many rioters.
While the rioting mainly involved the working class, the middle and upper-class New Yorkers had split sentiments on the draft and use of federal power or martial law to enforce the draft. Many wealthy Democratic businessmen sought to have the draft declared unconstitutional. Tammany Democrats did not seek to have the draft declared unconstitutional, but would help pay commutation fees on behalf of poor who were drafted.
The Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York (2002), set around the time of the Riots, was an inaccurate depiction of conflated events, attempting to depict "the birth of Manhattan and the way the different waves of immigrants have shaped [New York City's] evolution". According to author and journalist Pete Hamill: "...[T]he Irish hoodlums established the nexus between New York crime and New York politics that would last more than a century. A path was established among the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, the Bowery B’hoys that continues all the way to today’s Latin Kings, Crips and Bloods."
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