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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

July 16 and 17, 1863 - The last days of the Civil War Draft Riots

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Draft Riots -- still the deadliest civil disturbance in American history.

The riots lasted July 13 - 17; we'll be posting a summary of what happened each day, drawing from our own work and contemporary sources. (These are lightly edited versions of posts we wrote a few years ago.)

Jump to: July 13 | July 14 | July 15 | July 16-17

As Thursday, July 16, 1863, began, many New Yorkers were surprised to hear the news from Mayor George Opdyke that not only had the draft been suspended but that the city council had voted the day before to authorize a fund to pay for a substitute for any New Yorker who was drafted and chose not to serve. The city had appropriated $2.5 million dollars for the cause--money it did not have and which surely would have bankrupted the city if spent. Opdyke promised that the riots were coming to an end and ordered people to go back to work and for the street car lines to resume running.

But to add to the confusion, that same day the papers also published a proclamation from Governor Horatio Seymour--actually issued on Tuesday, two days earlier--letting them know there was riot going on. (In case, somehow, no one had noticed.)

A third letter also appeared in the press: an appeal from Catholic Archbishop Hughes to his flock urging them to come to his home on Friday to hear him in person.

What only a few people knew was that the military had begun to arrive from Gettysburg. The Seventy-Fourth Regiment arrived soon after midnight on Wednesday and by the end of Thursday, the Seventh ("Silk Stocking") Regiment, the Sixty-Fith Regiment and others had been stationed at points around the city.

The arrival of more troops did not instantly quell the riots: there was a bloody clash between about twenty-five soldiers and a crowd that chased them into a foundry on First Avenue. But by the end of the day--as a rainstorm tore through the city, naturally discouraging the mob--it seemed as if the riots were on the verge of burning themselves out.

* * *

The next day, Friday, July 17, over 5,000 people gathered to hear Archbishop Hughes's address, but as J.T. Headley noted in Great Riots of New York, 1712-1873:
They were on the whole a peaceable-looking crowd, and it was evidently composed chiefly, if not wholly, of those who had taken no part in the riot. None of the bloody heads and gashed faces, of which there were so many at that moment in the city, appeared. The address was well enough, but it came too late to be of any service. It might have saved many lives and much destruction, had it been delivered two days before, but now it was like the bombardment of a fortress after it had surrendered--a mere waste of ammunition. The fight was over, and to use his own not very refined illustration, he "spak' too late."
There were no further outbreaks of violence that day and none the next day, Saturday, despite the news from Washington that the draft would be enforced and would recommence as soon as the city was ready.

As we write in Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City:
No one is certain how many people died in the clash. At the time it was estimated to be 1,000 but the official death toll afterward was reduced to just 100 people. The true figure may never be known, but surely rests somewhere in between, making the Draft Riots the single worst civil disturbance in American history.
Democrats, led by rising Tammany Hall powerbroker William “Boss” Tweed, reached a compromise which allowed the draft to continue. Tweed would appoint a commission on behalf of the city to hear claims by those who felt they could neither serve nor pay the $300 and the city would decide to hire substitutes on a case-by-case basis. In the end, through a combination of city money, medical infirmity, and people simply not reporting for duty, only one person from Five Points served in the war because of the draft.

* * * *
Read more about the Civil War in

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