Joe Bruno on the Mob – The Civil War Draft Riots of 1863

Never in the history of New York City, or any place on this planet, has there been a more brutal mass insurrection than the New York City Civil War Draft Riots of 1963.

The seed was planted for these riots, when in March of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation, called The Conscription Act (or Enrollment Act), stating he needed 300,000 more men to be drafted into the Northern Army, to beat back the Southern Rebels in the Civil War. This act required that every male citizen between the ages of twenty and forty be drafted into the war. Each man who joined was given a bounty of up to $500 to enlist, but the gravest inequity was that for the sum of $300, a man could buy himself out of being drafted. The rich could afford the $300, but the poor could not, which led to the Civil War being called “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

New York City (which was only Manhattan at the time) had over 800,000 citizens, of which more than half were foreign. Of that half, half again were poor Irish, who had no desire to fight in a war to end the slavery of Negroes, whom they intensely despised. These poor, low-class Irish people settled in the Five Points and Mulberry Bend areas in downtown Manhattan. And also in the 4th Ward, near the East River. In these slums, gangs like the Plug Uglies, the Bowery Boys, Roach Guards and Dead Rabbits committed atrocious crimes, and this is where the Irish draft rioters began their bloodthirsty march.

Lincoln announced that Draft Day in New York City would commence on Saturday July 11th. On that day, with only minor disturbances throughout the city, 1,236 men were drafted, and it was announced that the draft would continue on Monday morning. Yet the seeds of discontent were planted during the rest of the weekend, spurred on by an article in Saturday evenings “Leslie’s Illustrated,” which stated, “It came like a thunderclap on the people, as men read their names in the fatal list, the feeling of indignation and resistance soon found vent in words, and a spirit of resistance spread fast and far. The number of poor men exceeded that of the rich, their number to draw from being that much greater, but this was viewed as proof of the dishonesty in the whole proceeding.”

As Monday morning drew near, the poor slum-living Irish populace began planning how to voice their displeasure, and it wouldn’t be pleasant. At 6 am Monday morning, men and women started spilling out of the downtown slums and they began their vicious march to the north. At every street more discontents joined their forces and the group became so huge it split into two groups. It is estimated that eventually 50,000 to 70,000 people took place in the four-day Draft Riots, and the New York City Metropolitan police had only 3000 men to beat the rioters back.

As the rioters moved north along Fifth and Sixth Avenues, they finally turned east and made a beeline toward the main draft office at 46th Street and Third Avenue. Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy, realizing trouble was brewing, dispatched 60 police officers to guard the Third Avenue draft office and another 69 to guard the draft office at Broadway and 29th Street. The rioters on Third Avenue were led by the volunteer firemen attached to Engine Company 33, known as the Black Joke. They consisted of members of the Plug Uglies street gang, who had now stopped traffic completely and were pulling people out of their carts. Signs in the crowd were held saying “NO DRAFT!!”, when suddenly someone in the crowd shot a pistol up into the air and the riots commenced.

The mob threw bricks and stones at the draft office, breaking all the windows in the building. Then they surged forwards, thousands of them, while the 60 cops tried in vain to hold them back. The rioters stepped over the unconscious police, and as draft officials jumped out rear windows, the mob set fire to the building.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Kennedy had left Police Headquarters at 300 Mulberry Street, wearing civilian clothes as a disguise. He took a horse carriage to 46th Street and Lexington, but when he saw the smoke, he jumped out of the carriage and proceeded on foot. He was immediately recognized and beaten to a bloody pulp, until he was unconscious. A good Samaritan saved him, when he announced to the mob that Kennedy was dead. Kennedy was covered by a gunny sack and put in a wagon, which drove him to Police Headquarters. When he was examined by doctors, Kennedy was found to have 72 bruises on his body, and over two dozen cuts.

The rioters then attacked the Colored Orphans Asylum on Fifth Avenue and 46th Street. As the rioters stormed the building, 50 matrons and attendants snuck 200 Negro children out a secret back door. The mob rush in, stole blankets, toys and bedding, then set fire to the building. One little Negro girl, who was accidentally left behind, was found hiding under a bed. She was dragged out and beaten to death.

All through the streets of New York City, angry Irish mobs chased Negroes, whom they blamed for the drafts in the first place. The Negroes, who were caught, were beaten to death and sometimes hanged. As their dead bodies hung from trees and rafters, mad Irish woman, glee in their eyes, stabbed the dead Negroes’ bodies, while the mad crones danced under lit touches and sung obscene songs.

Finally, Mayor George Updyke wired the War Department in Washington for help. During the next three days of unspeakable mayhem, while hundreds of buildings were being burned down, innumerable business looted, and Negroes killed for no other reason than the color of their skin, the United States Militia, armed, trained and 10,000 strong, stormed New York City to quell the riots. On Tuesday, July 14th, New York Governor Horatio Seymour, stood on the steps of City Hall and said to the assembled crowd, “I have received a dispatch from Washington that the draft is now suspended.” He was booed and jeered, and the riots continued for two more days.

It is impossible to estimate how many people were killed in the four days of riots. The New York Post reported that the bodies of the rioters were shipped across the East River and buried quietly under the blanket of darkness. Police Superintendent Kennedy put the dead total at 1,155 people, but that did not include those buried secretly at night. Of the tens of thousand of rioters involved, and despite the brutal murders of scores of Negroes, only 19 people were tried and convicted of any crimes. Their average prison sentence was a mere five years.

Diarist George Templeton Strong summed up the disgrace of New York City when he wrote, “This is a nice town to call itself a center of civilization.”


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