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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Postcard Thursday: The New York City Draft Riots

Children play in front of the Colored Orphans Asylum, which was burned down during the riots

On July 13, 1863, the deadly New York City draft riots began with an attack on the Ninth District Office.

As we write in Footprints in New York:
July 1863 was hot—so hot that the New York Times warned of the “close and uncomfortable weather.” Still, the rising temperatures did not stop a crowd of at least 150 people assembling inside the Ninth District draft office on Third Avenue and 46th Street on the morning of Saturday, July 11, 1863. Some were merely spectators, there to watch the show. Others had a personal stake in what was about to happen: the first large-scale military draft in America’s history. 
On stage, a two-foot-high wooden drum stood front and center. To ensure impartiality, the clerk charged with selecting the names was blind- folded. After the names were mixed, the clerk put in his hand and extracted the first cylinder of paper. He handed it to Provost Marshal Charles Jenkins, who read out: “William Jones, Forty-Sixth Street corner of Tenth Avenue.” 
The crowd broke out into nervous chattering and bad jokes. “Poor Jones!” someone cried. 
“Good for Jones!” said someone else. 
As the day wore on, the process turned monotonous, though observers tried to remain “jocular” (in the words of the New York Herald). By four o’clock in the afternoon, about twelve hundred names had been pulled— nearly half of the district’s quota. The office would be closed on Sunday, but the draft was set to resume on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. 
I wonder when word finally reached William Jones that he had the dubious honor of being the first name picked. Was he with the crowd that showed up that Monday morning—their jocularity long since replaced with fury? 
As soon as the draft resumed Monday, it was chaos. First, the crowd shattered the windows; then they torched the Ninth District draft office. The insurrection that began that morning, known now as the New York City Draft Riots, lasted four days—still, a century-and-a-half later, the deadliest civil disturbance in American history. Hundreds were killed and perhaps as many as ten thousand injured. The fact that this is nothing compared to the carnage of the war itself—almost eight thousand people had been slaughtered over two days at Gettysburg just ten days earlier—does not diminish the size of these riots. If anything, it shows how bloody and awful the Civil War had become. It was a conflict, from the beginning, in which New York didn’t even want to take part.

A few years ago, we chronicled the Draft Riots day-by-day. You can read the whole series here.

New York's Seventh Regiment, recalled from the Battle of Gettysburg, helped quell the riots

Read more about NYC history in


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