New York City Draft Riots, July 1863
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, transforming Lincoln’s war to preserve the Union into a war to end slavery as well. Two months later, Congress passed the Enrollment Act, instituting a military draft.
Neither act sat well with many residents of New York City, which had been a stronghold of Copperheads (the North’s name for Confederate sympathizers) from the outset of the war. This was due in large part to its significant Southern commercial and banking ties, which the war severed (although the war later caused the city’s manufacturing economy to boom).
The acts particularly grated on the Irish, both foreign- and native-born, who comprised about 25% of the city’s population. Although Irish Americans formed all-Irish volunteer regiments in the Union Army, and some of their members reached the rank of general, many had no love for emancipation, the people supporting it, or the draft.
Free blacks had already been used as strikebreakers, so emancipation suggested a future flood of freed slaves who would compete for the unskilled labor jobs the Irish Americans held. The largely Protestant, native-born Americans who formed the Republican Party had previously supported nativist, anti-immigrant groups such as the American Party (the “Know Nothings”). Also, they were often supporters of the temperance movement, and castigated Irish and Germans as drunkards. And the Enrollment Act made it legal to pay a substitute $300 (more than $5000 in 2014) to serve in one’s stead; that sum was easily a year’s wages for a worker in a time when the war boom was causing the cost of living to rise faster than the worker’s wages.
The first New York City draft was held on the morning of Saturday, July 11, 1863, a week after the Union victory at Gettysburg, only 200 miles away. It went quietly, but there were already indications that weekend that something was brewing and might boil over when the draft continued on Monday at 10 AM…
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