The 1863 Draft Riots and Abigail Hopper Gibbons
As Off the Grid chronicled last year, today is the anniversary of New York City’s draft riots, five days of rioting, looting, burning, and wanton violence that erupted after the Federal government instituted the Draft Act of 1863, the first instance of compulsory service in the federal military services. The riots began on July 13, just two days after New York City’s first draft lottery. Last year, Off the Grid recounted some of the sites in the Village associated with the riots. This year, we wanted to focus on Abigail Hopper Gibbons, an abolitionist and reformer whose family’s home was targeted during the infamous riots.
The draft riots reflected the extreme racial and class tensions exacerbated by the Civil War. Working class men were in direct competition for scarce jobs with African Americans, and the recently proclaimed Emancipation Proclamation further tied the war to the cause of slavery. Abigail Hopper Gibbons and her husband James Sloan Gibbons were targeted during the draft riots. They were both Republicans (the party of Lincoln) and outspoken abolitionists. In addition, Hopper Gibbons ran a school for African-American children and volunteered at a school for African-American adults. Their home at 339 West 29th Street has been documented as a stop on the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses that assisted escaped slaves in getting to Canada. You can learn more about this landmarked building’s connection to the Underground Railroad from the designation report.
On July 14th, the second day of rioting, 339 West 29th Street was attacked. The family suspected they might be a target, and because of careful planning and the generosity of one or two of their neighbors, they made it safely away from the house during the attack across the neighboring buildings’ rooftops. You can read a wonderful first-hand account of their escape by Hopper Gibbon’s daughter Lucy Gibbons Morse here. Hopper Gibbons herself was not in New York City during the riots. The dedicated activist was working in the south as a nurse for the union army.
And while this attack took place in Chelsea, the Village still claims an important connection with the Hopper Gibbons family. In 1845, along with her father Issac T. Hopper, Hopper Gibbons founded a prison reform association. She advocated for improvements in the city’s prisons, petitioned for the hiring of police matrons, and urged the establishment of separate prisons for women. In 1854, she formally created the Women’s Prison Association and the Issac T. Hopper Home, which provided temporary shelter and job skills for women leaving prison. The first home was located at West 4th Street, near 8th Avenue. In 1874, the Women’s Prison Association purchased a Greek Revival townhouse at 110 Second Avenue. The Women’s Prison Association continues to work on behalf of women trapped in the prison system at their landmarked headquarters at 110 Second Avenue.