TODAY in HISTORY: The Civil War Draft Riots

Above, an old newspaper clipping showing the riots of July 13,

by William “Doc” Halliday

In a recent political opinion article I mentioned the riots in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore that occurred last year.  The financial costs of those riots are estimated at $6 million and $20 million respectively.  These are not the costliest riots in American history, but they are fresh in the minds of many people.  The Watts riots in 1965 cost an estimated $40 million, and 27 years later the Los Angeles riots cost an estimated $1 billion.

I have never understood why people would destroy their own neighborhoods, but that is not the focus of this article.  Coincidentally, thirty-nine years ago today, on July 13, 1977 riots in New York City incurred and estimated $300 million in damages.  This unrest was apparently sparked by an electrical blackout that was marked by pervasive arson and looting.  Despite the financial cost, things can be replaced.  In the Watts riots 34 people lost their lives, and in the Los Angeles riots 53 people lost their lives.  These individuals can never be brought back.

In 1863 the Democratic Party had been working to sign up immigrants as citizens so that they could vote in local elections.

None of the riots I have mentioned are the worst in my opinion.  One hundred and fifty-three years ago today, on July 13, 1863, five days of rioting that would become known as the Civil War Draft Riots began in New York City.  The consequences of the riots, was not just an estimated $100 million in damages in today’s currency, but by at least one estimate 2,000 were killed and 8,000 injured.

In 1863, this nation was in the midst of a Civil War.  The first two years of the war had brought a series of Confederate victories, and as the calendar flipped from June to July that year, Southern forces were marching north into Pennsylvania and threatening New York City as well as other Northern cities.  The Democratic Party had been working to sign up immigrants as citizens so that they could vote in local elections.  In March of 1863 Congress passed the Enrollment Act which allowed drafting all male citizens between twenty and thirty-five years old.  Male citizens between 35 and 45 years old were also subject to the draft if they were unmarried.  Even though the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863, Blacks were not citizens and thus were exempt from the draft.

There were exceptions.  A man could hire a replacement, or could pay $300 to be exempted.  That amounts to nearly $6,000 today, an amount of money that was way out of reach for the poor and working-class people.  In the weeks preceding the July lottery, antiwar newspaper editors printed attacks on the conscription legislation intended to provoke the white working class, particularly immigrants.  White workers compared their value critically to that of Confederate slaves, stating that “[we] are sold for $300 [the price of exemption from war service] whilst they pay $1000 for negroes.”

On July 4 the Confederates had been defeated at both Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Vicksburg, Mississippi.  But the war was far from over, and conscription continued.  Most riots start in the heat of the afternoon and evening.  This one began prior to 7 a.m.  At first the rioters attacked military and government buildings and offices.  By the afternoon of that first day the riots had spread to Blacks themselves, and anything representing their culture, business and social infrastructure.

While the number of actual deaths is uncertain, the documented casualties of at least 120 dead far exceed any other civil disturbance in American history.  Many Black residences were destroyed as well as the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue.  At least eleven Black men were lynched and hundreds were forced to evacuate the city as landlords forced them out of their buildings due to fear that the structures would be burned.  At least 50 buildings were destroyed by fires started by the rioters.  By 1865 the population of Blacks in New York City had dropped to its lowest level in almost half a century.

President Lincoln ordered troops into the city to restore order.  On the third day of the riots the draft was suspended, and the final deaths of a dozen people occurred on the fourth day of the riots.  Only 67 people were convicted for their part in the riots.  One month later the draft was resumed.

William “Doc” Halliday is an historian and writer. He can be contacted at

William "Doc" Halliday

Historian, Political Commentator

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