On This Day: New York City Draft Riots

Draft rioters clash with military troops on First Avenue between 11 and 14 Streets.

On July 13, 1863 began several days of violence in New York City known as the Draft Riots.  These civil disturbances rocked New York City and revealed a deep racial and class divide that existed in New York City in 1863, one that was particularly visible in the Far West and South Village.

On July 11, 1863, two years into the Civil War, the Conscription Act took effect with the first drawing of draft numbers in New York City.  While this went off largely without incident, tensions were brewing, and would soon manifest violently. The act required all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 20 and 45 to submit to a lottery for military duty. But here’s the catch: anyone who paid $300 or hired a substitute could avoid service.

Because African-Americans were not considered citizens, they were not allowed to serve. Thus the act exacerbated tensions building from the Civil War, further enflaming white New York City workers dealing with war-driven inflation, food shortages, and unemployment. In addition, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January helped solidify the connection between the war and rights for African-Americans, furthering tensions between white, mostly Irish immigrant workers and blacks, who were often in competition for jobs.

Tensions came to a head on July 13, when German-speaking artisans, native-born Protestant journeymen, and working-class Irish laborers attacked and burned the Provost Marshall’s office on 46th Street and Third Avenue, the location of the first draft lottery two days earlier. By the afternoon, the streets had become entirely unsafe for African-Americans. Rioters attacked a nine-year-old boy then stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, burning the four-story building to the ground. The violence soon moved to the docks, where a predominantly Irish mob attacked more than 100 black longshoremen, killing several.

William Jones is lynched on Clarkson Street.

On Clarkson Street on the lower Greenwich Village waterfront, African-American William Jones was confronted by a gang led by Irish bricklayer John Nicholson. Jones was beaten and hanged from a nearby tree, and his dangling body was set on fire.  Sadly, violence against Africans-Americans was not new in the neighborhood. Historian Andrew Coe writes in his book Ear Inn Environs, about the James Brown House at 326 Spring Street, that a street gang called the Spring Street Fencibles were known for “knocking down black females.” During the Five Points riot of 1834, Irish immigrants destroyed the interior of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church on Spring and Varick Streets, just south of the Clarkson Street Draft Riots lynching of William Jones (the church was on the site of what is now the Trump SoHo Condo Hotel, the construction of which GVSHP fought; in 2006, Trump’s workers disturbed the former church’s graveyard which was underground on the site — read more HERE and HERE).

On Wednesday, July 15, the third day of the riots, a group of black-occupied tenements on Thompson and Sullivan streets, between Grand and Broome, were set ablaze early in the morning. GVSHP’s report The South Village: A Proposal for Historic District Designation, explores how the 1860s were a time of population change particularly in the tenements of Sullivan, Thompson and MacDougal Streets. Known in the 20th century for its large Italian population, the neighborhood during the time of the draft riots was home to Irish and German immigrants and African Americans.

In five days of rioting, mobs lynched at least a dozen African American men, destroyed draft offices, burned and looted black neighborhoods and the homes of leading Republicans and abolitionists. The racial violence of the 1863 draft riots was atrocious, and must be viewed in the context of the close living quarters, war shortages, and unemployment that helped further fuel the destruction and violence.

The New-York Historical Society’s extensive exhibit New York Divided is a wonderful resource for the history of African Americans in New York City. For more information on the 1834 riots, check out New-York Historical Society historian Kathleen Hulser’s lecture for GVSHP.

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Sheryl
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Sheryl Woodruff was GVSHP's Senior Director of Operations until December 2014.

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