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The Deadly Draft Riots of 1863: New York City and the American Civil War

This month we are marking the 160th anniversary of one of the most dramatic moments in New York City history – the Civil War Draft Riots which stormed through the city from July 13 to July 16, 1863.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Manhattan in violent protest, fueled initially by anger over conscription to the Union Army which sent New Yorkers to the front lines of the Civil War. (Or, most specifically, those who couldn’t afford to pay the $300 commutation fee were sent to war.)

Looting at Brooks Brothers. Harpers Weekly, August 1, 1863

In many ways, our own city often seems to have forgotten these significant events.

There are very few memorials or plaques in existence at all to the Draft Riots, a very odd situation given the numerous markers to other tragic and unsettling moments in New York City history. 

In particular, given the number of African-Americans who were murdered in the streets during these riots, and the numbers of Black families who fled New York in terror, we think this is a very significant oversight.

Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

The riots place New York City not outside the significance of the Civil War battlefield, but squarely within it. The Union was not united, but an assortment of different viewpoints.  

In this episode, a remastered, re-edited edition of our 2011 show, we take you through those hellish days of deplorable violence and appalling attacks on abolitionists, Republicans, wealthy citizens, and anybody standing in the way of blind anger. Mobs filled the streets, destroying businesses (from corner stores to Brooks Brothers) and threatening to throw the city into permanent chaos.

That Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army succeeded is even more remarkable when you realize the dissension from within, dissension which we discuss in this show (a remastered, reedited version of a show we originally recorded in 2011).


The burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue: In a day of vile crimes that Monday, July 13th, this certainly stands out as one of the worst.
The mob burned the draft office at 3rd Avenue and 46th Street first thing on Monday morning. The destruction was but only a taste of the violence that was to come. By Friday, New York would be smoldering with dozens of structures in ashes — from factories and homes to armories and even bridges.

John A. Kennedy, the superintendent of police, who was savagely beaten and barely escaped with his life on the first day of rioting.

By Tuesday, rioters had cordoned off barricades along a couple key streets, including a mile-long makeshift fortification along Ninth Avenue, through today’s Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen neighborhoods.

Illustrations courtesy New York Public Library digital image collection

The Illustrated London news

The other draft riots: Given the New York-centric nature of our program, I should note that draft riots occurred throughout the North that week, and even earlier. Yet none were of the intensity as those that occurred in Manhattan. In Boston, for instance, mobs stormed the famous Faneuil Marketplace and an armory on Cooper Street. But troops quelled the violence early, and only eight people died. [Read more about this even in the Boston Phoenix.]

And events were sparked in the future boroughs of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island as well. You can read more about them in this blog post.

Why are there no permanent memorials or remembrances of any significant kind in New York City to the Civil War Draft Riots? It was the most grave, the most tumultuous event in New York City history between the Revolutionary War and September 11, 2001. Doesn’t it merit some mention? Read Greg’s opinion piece which ran on the 150th anniversary — which more or less still applies today.


For more information on the Draft Riots, you can turn to several sources, based on your level of interest. My favorite is Barnet Schecter’s ‘The Devil’s Own Work’which gives a gripping chronological retelling of events. He really manages to tame a chaotic tale in a way that neither confuses nor oversimplifies. I used Schecter’s ‘Mrs. Hilton’ anecdote from this book, and his book is chockful of other individual tales like that one.

If you prefer something a bit more analytical, there’s Iver Bernstein’s ‘The New York City Draft Riots’ which tries to parse who exactly the rioters were. Of course ‘Gotham’ by Edwin G Burrows and Mike Wallace have a nice, compact recount with plenty of context. The City University of New York’s ‘Virtual New York’ web resource has a timeline with maps.

The Gangs of New York: Perhaps the most famous depiction of the riots occurs in Herbert Asbury’s classic ‘The Gangs of New York’. The film version, directed by Martin Scorsese, takes quite a few liberties with the facts of course. The placing of candles in windowsills and the fire at Barnum’s American Museum, for instance, did not happen during the riots. But those are based on true events that happened in New York a year later.


There’s also the Broadway musical Paradise Square, set during the Draft Riots. Joaquina Kalukango won a Tony Award for Best Actress for her work in the musical: 

When this show was originally released in 2011, it was part of a three part mini-series on New York City and the Civil War. You might like to check out the other two parts — especially part three Hoaxes and Conspiracies of 1864

In this episode, Greg pays a visit to Weeksville, the Brooklyn community which became a haven for Black New Yorkers fleeing the city during the riots.

If there is a ‘prequel’ to the Draft Riots, it’s certainly the Astor Place Riot of May 10, 1849.

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