New York City in Flames Over Civil War Draft

The New York draft riots were "a macabre episode, a three-day orgy of violence which sickened Lincoln to read about," wrote biographer Stephen B. Oates.1 "New York, in its earlier history, stands preëminent among the cities of the country for the frequency and violence of her riots," wrote historian Daniel Van Pelt in Leslie's History of Greater New York. "But up to the year 1863 — with the Doctor's Mob of 788, 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.'"2

 

The draft riots stemmed from many causes — not the least of which was the way that violence had been employed for political reasons in the past three decades. But the proximate cause was the fact that New York City — which had furnished too many soldiers to the Union Army at the beginning of the war now furnished too few. Because it was failing to meet its recruitment quotas, it had fallen subject to provisions of the Enrollment and Conscription Act passed by Congress on March 3, 1863. Conscription was to be employed when enrollment targets were not met by a community. "The draft needed to be applied to New York State and city sooner than anywhere else," wrote historian Daniel Van Pelt. "At the close of the year 1862, it was reported to the department that since July, 1862, New York State was short 28,517 in volunteers, of which 18,523 was to be charged to New York City. But for this very reason conscription was least likely to be welcomed here. The revulsion in sentiment had carried an anti-war Governor, Horatio Seymour, into office" in 1862.3

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