John Derbyshire Remembers The New York Draft Riots—150 Years On
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Well, we have a verdict in the Zimmerman case, and four days after it was delivered there is little sign of the Martin Luther King/Rodney King-style “cities in flames” scenario predicted by some.

Possibly the whole prosecution and trial was a media creation to which not enough ordinary citizens signed up. Possibly improvements in policing and (especially) surveillance discourage 1960s-style urban rioting. Possibly black Americans have, like the rest of us, lost their turbulence in the warm pacifying bath of welfareism and cheap mobile gadgetry.

Whatever the reason, we should give thanks.

Now that the fuss is dying down, the National Question mavens who check in to may want to take a break from present obsessions with race, class, and immigration. Let me therefore take you back on a brief historical trip to a simpler time.

Let us revisit the New York City draft riots, which occurred precisely 150 years ago this week.

What were the riots all about? The Civil War draft, obviously; but also, uh…race, class, and immigration.

Once it was clear, following the 1861 campaigning season, that the Civil War would not be over in mere months, both sides contemplated conscription.

The Confederacy, with a smaller pool of military-age men (about one million to the Union’s four), and facing the expiration of the one-year enlistments that had drawn in so many volunteers after Fort Sumter, passed the first conscription law—the first in North American history—in April 1862.

(There was much grumbling about it. Wasn’t the Confederacy supposed to be championing states’ rights and personal liberty against the heartless machine civilization of the North? The law also inspired a modest spike in desertions.)

The Union, with its greater resources, did not pass a conscription law until a year later. Like the Confederate law, Lincoln’s Enrollment Act of March 1863 allowed for “substitution”—a draftee could pay another man to take his place, thereby exempting himself for the entire term of service. There was also “commutation”—the paying of a $300 flat fee to exempt oneself from a single draft call. (There were four draft calls from 1863-65.)

This opened up a class divide. A New York laborer’s annual wage at the time was $600, so that substitution and commutation were beyond the reach of working men. The catch-phrase “a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight” became current.

There was a race divide, too. The Enrollment Act applied to “able-bodied male citizens of the United States,” which was taken to mean whites only. New York City had a big black population—around 12,500 in 1860. The working classes already saw blacks as low-wage competition, and the city had strong mercantile connections to the South. The prospect of a flood of emancipated blacks further depressing wages, and a federal blockade of the South disrupting commerce, caused New Yorkers of all classes to have very mixed feelings about the war.

There was, indeed, sentiment in 1861 for New York to leave the Union and become a free city-state. No less a person than Fernando Wood, the city’s mayor, promoted the idea, with the support of his brother Benjamin, editor of the Daily News. But the Independent Republic of New York failed to find favor with the city’s business elites and the idea lapsed.

New York none the less remained a bastion of “Copperhead” sentiment—Northerners with Southern sympathies—well into the war. Abraham Lincoln took New York State in the election of 1860, but the New York City stayed Democrat. There was Abolitionist feeling, but it was limited to a subset of the Anglo-Dutch elite. In fact the worst New York mass disturbances prior to 1863 had been the Anti-Abolitionist Riots of 1834.

And then there was the Irish issue. In 1860 New York an astonishing one resident in four had been born in Ireland.

Both varieties of Irishman, the Protestant Scotch-Irish from Ulster and the Catholic Gaels, had been present in early 19th-century New York. There were at any rate enough of each in 1824 to furnish a nasty brawl when Orangemen paraded through a community of Catholic weavers in Greenwich Village on July 12th that year, prefiguring the Orange Riots of 1870-71.

The great Irish famine of the late 1840s brought far more Catholic Irish immigrants into the city, but the Protestant Scotch-Irish were still a big factor. William “Boss” Tweed, for example, the master politician who ran the city’s mighty Democratic Party machine, was of Scotch-Irish origins.

Irishness played into the Civil War in odd and contradictory ways. Confederates of an English or Welsh Episcopalian or Catholic background tended to see themselves as opposed to the aggressive nonconformist Protestantism of the Yankee North. Thus Confederate President Jefferson Davis, speaking to the state legislators of Mississippi on December 26th, 1862:

There is indeed a difference between the two peoples [i.e. North and South]. Let no man hug the delusion that there can be renewed association between them. Our enemies are a traditionless and homeless race. From the time of Cromwell to the present moment they have been disturbers of the peace of the world. Gathered together by Cromwell from the bogs and fens of the north of Ireland and England, they commenced by disturbing the peace of their own country...They persecuted Catholics in England, and they hung Quakers and witches in America.

Hearing that, and summoning up ancestral memories of Drogheda and Wexford, Catholic Irishmen might easily have been inspired to enlist in the Confederate armies. And some thirty thousand Irishmen actually did so.

Yet there was a Protestant Scotch-Irish strain in Confederate thinking, too: John C. Calhoun, the spiritual father of Southern secession, was so archetypically Scotch-Irish that historian David Hackett Fischer offers him as a model specimen of the breed, with a full-page portrait, in his book about the British founding stocks. There was not much theological daylight between the Calvinist-Presbyterianism of the Scotch-Irish and the Calvinist-Congregationalism of the Yankees.

(It helps to remember here that the Ulster-Protestant migrations to America in the middle 18th century had also been driven by hunger and religious persecution, and that the 1798 United Irishmen uprising, about which Irish-American academic Thomas Flanagan wrote a fine novel, embraced both Catholics and Protestants. Twentieth-century Irish sectarianism does not map precisely on to earlier forms. Few Irishmen of any non-Anglican confession in 1863 America nursed fond feelings for the British Crown.) the event, Catholic-Irish New Yorkers volunteered for the Union armies in great numbers after Fort Sumter fell. Most did so from simple loyalty to their new country. Some were influenced by the belief, common at the time, that Britain would come in on the side of the South, whose cotton was necessary (so the belief went) to keep the English mills in business, so that a Union soldier might have the good luck to find himself shooting at Redcoats. Others, including probably Michael Corcoran of the Fighting 69th, wanted to build a cadre of battle-hardened Irishmen for the liberation of the home country.

But by mid-1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, the bloom was off the rose.

Irish Americans, who had volunteered in great numbers early in the war, became increasingly reluctant to serve in the military. “The government complains that but few Irish, comparatively, volunteer. They have no idea of fighting for the blacks,” Maria Daly recorded in her diary. “The abolitionists, [the Irish] say, tell them that soon they will have good, faithful, colored servants, and that these Irish will then have to go back to their poorhouses. The Irish believe the abolitionists hate both Irish and Catholic and want to kill them off. The abolitionists always, the Irish say, put them in front of the battle.” The Devil’s Own Work, by Barnet Schecter. p.91

That was the background to the Draft Riots of July 13th-17th, 1863.

The riots themselves are astonishing to read about. Barnet Schecter’s book is a good source. There are several historical websites, and the pony-tails and neck-beards of Wikipedia of course have put up some pages.

The first target of the rioters, on the morning of Monday the 13th, was the Provost Marshal’s office at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft lottery was to be held. A mob of working men marched up the West Side from the downtown slums, then across town to the office, committing lesser acts of mayhem along the way. Once arrived, they trashed and burned the place.


The rioting then metastasized, with much random looting of houses and businesses. Favorite targets: anything to do with the Republican Party or Abolition—the offices of the New York Times (then a Republican paper!!!); any federal installation; the State armory; and…blacks.

The police were outnumbered and the Mayor, now a fellow named George Opdyke, cabled Washington, D.C. for federal troops.

One of the most notorious events in the rioting took place around 4 o’clock that afternoon. The Colored Orphans Asylum, on the west side of Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets, was a fine modern building, a showcase of philanthropy, housing 233 children in clean and spacious conditions.

Five hundred armed rioters broke in. They plundered and burned the building; only calm thinking by the staff and the help of a squad of firemen  (also mostly Irish) saved the orphans.

That night, while Robert E. Lee’s army was retreating across the Potomac into Virginia following their march back from Gettysburg, the mob well-nigh controlled New York City. Refugees crowded into police precinct houses or escaped from Manhattan on overloaded ferries.

Several blacks were lynched, with mutilation and burning an optional extra. There were of course—to the credit of the human race, there always are in situations like this—many contrary acts of heroism and humanity, like those of the firefighters at the orphanage.

The state governor, fortunately a Democrat, arrived on Tuesday and made a conciliatory speech on the steps of City Hall. The rioters were looting gun shops now; but the first troops had arrived, and conducted joint actions with the police against the mob.

By this time draft riots had broken out all over the Northeast: Albany, Troy, Yonkers, Hartford, Boston, Newark, Jersey City…It was still possible at this point that New York might be taken by the mob. Such a thing was not inconceivable: It happened to Paris only eight years later.

The lynching, looting, and burning continued on Wednesday morning, July 15th, with a fine rhetorical war now going on between the city’s Democratic newspapers (Benjamin Wood’s Daily News, Manton Marble’s New York World) and their Republican counterparts (Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, William Cullen Bryant’s Evening Post), all accusing each other of responsibility for the riots.

The troops were asserting themselves, though, with infantry and artillerymen now firing on the mob, killing dozens. Wednesday night and Thursday morning reinforcements arrived in regimental strength, and the worst was over.

The death toll for the riots has been much argued over. The official number was 105, including six soldiers and three policemen. Nobody thinks the true number was that low, though. Schecter: “The true death toll probably lies somewhere between the documented figure and the sober contemporary estimate of 500.”

That’s a high toll. The 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles killed 50 to 60 people; the 1965 Watts riots killed 34.

The 2013 Trayvon Martin riots have killed no-one so far.

Some of the topics we fret about are the same today as they were 150 years ago.

We should keep fretting. They are momentous topics.

The future of our country—the nature of the place our children and grandchildren will spend their lives in—depends on how we resolve them.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at

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