The 1863 Draft Riots: New York City Under Siege

Essay by griffellyUniversity, Master'sB, May 2005

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For five days in July 1863, armed mobs interrupted enforcement of the first federal conscription and struggled with authorities on the streets of New York City. What began as a demonstration against the draft expanded into a sweeping assault against Republican Party notables, moral reformers and reform institutions, war-related industries, tax collectors, policemen and soldiers, urban transportation and communication lines, and waterfront brothel keepers (to name only some of the targets) as well as a bloody and grotesque race riot. (Bernstein, What Did the New York City Draft Rioters Think They Were Doing? pg. 271).

There were many contributing factors and pre-existing stresses in New York City in the 19th Century. There was a class struggle, as the poor working-class resented both the middle and upper classes. New York had gained the only Democratic majority in the United States, which caused animosity between Democratic New York and the Republican states.

Democrats achieved their majority largely through the working-class and immigrant populations, consisting of many Irish Catholics. Most Republicans were made up of the middle and upper-class Protestants, which the working-class immigrant groups despised. There was also racial discrimination due to more and more Blacks moving to New York. To the working-class white population, Blacks were seen as job competition. The height of the tensions came when President Lincoln enforced the Conscription Act in July 1863. This Act drastically added to the authenticity and violence of the Draft Riots.

Civil War was declared in 1861 under the Republican Party. A fight to protect the Union began as volunteers rushed to answer President Lincoln's request for troops. By 1862 it became clear to Lincoln that preserving the Union would be a longer process than originally thought, and a larger amount of manpower was necessary. Iver Bernstein's article What Did the...