July 07, 1863

Abraham Lincoln’s Order That Sparked the New York City Draft Riots of 1863

Document Signed
1 page
SMC 1084
"New York, in its earlier history, stands preeminent among the cities of the country for the frequency and violence of her riots. But up to the year 1863 — with the Doctor's Mob of 1788, the riots of 1834, 1835, 1837, 1849, and the 'Dead Rabbits' exploits of 1857, not to mention Mayor Wood's performances with his 'own' police in the same year, all garnishing the record — New York is not easily excelled. In 1863 she added to that record the worst, bloodiest, most destructive and brutal riot of all. It goes by the name of the 'Draft Riots.'"
                           -Daniel Van Pelt, Leslie's History of Greater New York.  (1899)
The second largest civil insurrection in American history took place in the middle of the largest, when, during the Civil War, the city of New York erupted into three days of race riots, brought on by Lincoln’s draft call for more New Yorkers to fight for the Union. The City, which had already furnished too many soldiers at the beginning of the war, was by the summer of 1863 furnishing too few, and so was susceptible to the first conscription act in United States history, passed March 3, 1863, authorizing the President to draft citizens between the ages of 18 and 35 for a three-year term of military service. If, however, a draft-eligible man could pay $300 – the equivalent of $5,000 today – he could procure an exemption from service.

To the New York Irish working class population eligible for conscription, this exemption meant that there was an element of privilege in play – which soon enough, ignited the passion of class warfare. Mobs of outraged laborers attacked, on the morning of July 16, the Provost’s Office, and then moved on fashionable homes and hotels.  

From hatred of those “better-up,” it was but a skip and jump to hatred of those “lower-down,” and African Americans, whom many immigrants viewed as competition for scarce jobs, became the mob’s target. Adding to the incendiary nature of the riot was the fact that the militia was at the Front, and the City – with its armory – lay open to the marauding rioters. With the police outnumbered and the troops absent, the mob held sway, its savageness culminating in an attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum and subsequent clubbing to death of a nine-year old girl hiding under her bed. Altogether some 120 people died, many horribly, during the three days of rioting, before order was restored – by the returning troops, the suspension of the draft, and rain.
When the violence had subsided, there was talk of the President appointing a special commissioner to investigate the causes of the riots. Lincoln demurred. “One rebellion at a time,” he said, “is about as much as we can conveniently handle."
Document Signed, as President, partially printed and accomplished in manuscript; 1 page, quarto, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., July 7, 1863.
View American Civil War Manuscripts.
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