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History

History: The New York City draft riots, which began 150 years ago today.

draft riots 1863

Today is the 150th anniversary of a rather ugly event in American history: the New York City draft riots. On July 13, 1863, federal officials were drawing names of New York citizens to be drafted into the Union Army. This was the first military conscription in U.S. history. Draftees had been drawn peacefully two days before, but on this day, a Monday, an angry crowd gathered around the draft office at 3rd Avenue and 47th Street. Someone threw a paving stone through a window. Eventually the draft office was set on fire, and firemen called to put out the flames were attacked.

This ultimately led to three days of violence all over the city. Many of the rioters were poor Irish-born working class, upset not just at the draft, but the idea of emancipation. The Battle of Gettysburg, just ten days before, seemed a huge boon to the Union cause, but the Irish laborers knew that African-Americans freed from bondage would soon be competing with them for the lowest-paying jobs. Race was a major factor in the New York riots, with African-Americans being attacked in the streets. Many were hanged. Others were stabbed and had lamp oil poured in the wounds which was then ignited. A home for African-American orphans was attacked and burned down.

Eventually Union troops had to occupy New York and put down the riots–some of the same troops who had fought at Gettysburg a few days earlier. It’s not known exactly how many casualties resulted from the riot, but 120 seems to be about the minimum number, with some estimates going as high as 2,000. By comparison, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 (the Rodney King riots) killed 53.

I can’t mention this topic without mentioning Gangs of New York, both the 1928 book by Herbert Asbury, which I’ve read, and the 2002 film by Martin Scorsese which is one of my all-time favorites. Both have significant inaccuracies, but the movie is certainly amazing entertainment, and it depicts pretty vividly what the riots may have looked and sounded like. I highly recommend both, although beware that Asbury’s book is more folklore and urban mythology than hard-core history. A much better and more accurate historical account is Five Points by Taylor Anbinder.

It’s very interesting–people were very eager to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg, and I saw commemorations all over my Twitter feed. But today I haven’t seen a single reference to the anniversary of the draft riots. A lot of real people died pretty horrible deaths in this event, and it was pivotal in the history of the Civil War and urban history of New York. It deserves to be remembered.

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