July 13, 1863, dawned a miserable hot, muggy morning in New York. Inside a four-story building at 677 Third Ave., military officers were moving ahead with the nation’s first draft, authorized by Congress and ordered by the Lincoln administration to fill the depleted ranks on the battlefields. It was the second day of pulling names at random from a hand-cranked drum, and it would lead to the deadliest riots the country has ever seen. In the often glamorized accounts of Civil War lore, this unsavory episode goes mostly unmentioned.
The officers had a quota to fill of 1,500 men who didn’t want to go to war. There weren’t enough volunteers for the Army to fill the holes left by the thousands killed and the hundreds deserting.
Only the rich could escape, by paying $300.
Aside from this blatant exception, great care was taken to make the process look fair. The names were gathered by assistant provost marshals who had visited homes and factories during the past month looking for eligible white men between the ages of 20 and 45. It was a tough job. Some marshals had been attacked, and almost all had been lied to.
Now those names, written on slips of paper, rolled tightly and secured with rubber bands, were being drawn by a blindfolded clerk from what the New York Herald called the “wheel of misfortune.”
Outside, the crowd began to build into the thousands, filling Third Avenue and spreading into the side streets. There were men who had taken a day off work to protest the draft as well as others who didn’t like the idea of the federal intervention into their lives. But there was another element, mostly Irish, who constituted 25 percent of the city’s population, who took advantage of the draft issue to have a protest. Few had a stake in the draft controversy; the marshals had little success in finding candidates in the tough Five Points neighborhood. The men did, however, have serious gripes about finding jobs and feeling they had to compete with African Americans, who would work for less. The men, as well as women and children who followed along, came armed with paving stones, bricks and iron pipes.
“A ragged, coatless, heterogeneously weaponed army” was how journalist Joel Tyler Headley described them.
Up front, facing off against a thin line of police officers, who stood with their backs against the door, wooden clubs at the ready, were the firefighters of the Black Joke company, one of the city’s many volunteer companies. These linebacker-size men loved to brawl as much as put out a fire. Their chief’s name had been drawn on the first day of the lottery, and they had come to save him from the Army by destroying the draft machinery and records.
When someone fired a pistol into the air at 10:30 a.m., the mob behind the firefighters starting throwing stones and other missiles through the windows. Then the Black Jokers shoved their way forward, pushing past police and roaring through the doors and into the offices. The mob piled in behind them.
The provost marshal had just enough time to shove the enrollment log into an iron safe, lock it and then run for the back door along with the other draft administrators. The police, hugely outnumbered, followed quickly.
Within minutes, the lottery drum, tables and chairs were smashed. When the safe couldn’t be opened, turpentine was poured over it and the room was set ablaze. Soon flames and black billowing smoke could be seen blocks away. The families living on the floors above barely got out alive.
Police Superintendent John Kennedy came along about then. The mob had cut the telegraph lines during the morning, but rumors had reached him and he had come in person to check on things. He was out of uniform and was carrying only a walking stick. He quietly slipped by the mob that was staring at the flames. Since he was not a federal officer and had no interest in enforcing the draft, he expected no trouble. Then someone yelled his name.
“The instant he was recognized he was assailed with shouts and execrations, knocked down and terribly beaten,” special police officer William Osborn Stoddard would later write. “He was a strong man, of iron courage, and he struggled desperately for his life. Knocked down again and again and mercilessly beaten, he as often regained his feet and fled, pursued by his savage assailants.”
The wrath of the mob was now focused on this one man. Caked with mud and blood, he was barely recognizable. As the mob caught him again, he saw a man he knew running up to the scene. Kennedy called out, “John Egan, save my life!”
Kennedy was rescued but was so badly beaten that his own officers didn’t recognize him when he was taken by wagon back to headquarters. He survived.
The attack on Kennedy went beyond what the draft protesters had in mind. They backed away from the mob. The draft protest had turned into something else — a revolt against authority and, eventually, a race riot.
At this juncture, the Invalid Corps, 50 men who were recuperating from battlefield injuries, were belatedly arriving at the draft office, having been recruited only that morning to help the police. Lt. Abel Reade, the troop commander, was limping because his foot was maimed at Fredericksburg.
Facing the mob, Reade ordered the people to disperse and was met with a storm of stones and bricks, which knocked some of his men down. The soldiers shot back with blanks and then ball, deterring the crowd only briefly before it rushed the soldiers, clubbing and stabbing them and taking their muskets. The troops fled. Two didn’t make it. One soldier was knocked down and kicked to death. Another scrambled up a rock pile, only to be followed by men who stripped him of his uniform, beat him and then heaved his body down the hill.
In the next few hours, the mob, estimated at 5,000 or more, split into smaller groups, attacking stores and plundering them before setting them on fire. Then they gathered outside the Colored Orphan Asylum at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue, a residence and school for orphaned black children. The institution was founded by white women about 30 years earlier, and about 200 children were living there.
With the mob at the front doors, teachers led the children to safety out the back and took refuge at a local police station. One small girl was left behind and was killed when she was found hiding under her bed. Men and women roamed the place stealing what they could before setting it afire. Outside, men gouged out the bark of large shade trees and ripped out bushes. Others tore down an iron fence. It was as though they were trying to erase any trace of the orphanage.
Two days later, July 13, the Common Council met while the riot continued at full force. It voted to create a $2.5 million fund to pay the $300 get-out-of-the-army fee for any man who could not afford it. But the rioting didn’t let up, probably because the draft protesters were no longer part of the action.
For the next two days, the mob rioted around the clock, attacking armories, hotels, stores, newspaper offices and tenement houses. The rich were targeted as well, their homes sacked and burned. Sometimes clothes and jewelry might be taken, but mostly the mob was intent on destroying rather than stealing. Crystal chandeliers, painted portraits and pianos were hacked into little pieces.
The rioters fought with police and Army units returning from Gettysburg.
However, it was black men who suffered the most at their hands. Any black person unfortunate enough to encounter the mob became a target and was chased, beaten and often hanged. On the third day of the riots, newspaper images showed three black men hanging from lamp poles with a jubilant crowd dancing below them.
Accounts of the day say it was Irish women who were the most brutal in these attacks, cutting off fingers and toes as souvenirs or stabbing the men in every part of their bodies. When a man was hanged, they often also set him on fire.
A New York Times editorial said the writer had never witnessed a more disgusting and humiliating sight than the brutal mob in the streets of the city.
When it was over, official records put the number of people killed at 105. More recent research estimates the toll at 500.