Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
New York Draft Riots
In July of 1863, antiwar newspapers in New York City began to inflame their readers (largely Irish Catholic working class and white) against fighting for the emancipation of blacks. One of the major complaints was the ability of wealthy individuals to buy a surrogate for $300, so that they themselves need not fight.
The riots erupted after the names of the drafted men appeared in the local New York City press on July 13, shortly after the newspapers had reported the tremendous loss of life at Gettysburg. Although the draft was universal, it was possible to pay a "commutation fee" to escape service, thereby excluding the wealthier classes from the hazards of war.
In response, some 50,000 people, particularly impoverished Irish immigrants, rioted, smashing store windows and attacking people, mainly African Americans, on the street. Telegraph offices and wires were attacked to disrupt communication, indicating organized leadership.
The riot began with the burning of a draft office. Members of the fire department stood by and watched, angry that they had lost their exemption to the draft. Targets of the rioters were initially draft offices and police stations, but soon spread to black property and organizations, and white sympathizers. An orphanage for black children was burned but the children were rescued. The Chief of Police was captured by the mob and badly beaten before he escaped. The office of abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley was destroyed.
The New York police forces proved unable to quell the riots. The police were badly outnumbered and had to focus on minimising losses and rescuing those which they could. Control of the city was not re-established until the hasty arrival of the 7th New York Infantry from Pennsylvania after a forced march. By the fifteenth the mob still controlled scattered portions of the city. By the morning of the sixteenth there were nearly 4,000 federal troops in the city and the riot subsided.
The exact death toll is unknown, but at least 100 people were killed and at least 300 more injured; property damage was about $1.5 million. The Guinness Book of World Records cites it as the bloodiest riot in history, costing approximately 1,200 lives.
- Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld
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