Black Gotham Stories

The Draft Riots

Over the weekend of July 11, New York’s white working class grew increasingly angered that they were being asked to risk their lives in an armed conflict in which neither those who had decided on the war—political elites who could buy their way out—nor those who they believed to be the cause of the war—blacks excluded by law from service—were forced to fight. This working class included many native born men but also a large percentage of immigrants from Ireland and Germany. These men and their families could barely make ends meet.  They toiled at the bottom of the labor market, vying with black workers for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs; economic competition fueled their racial animosity.  So on July 13, an angry mob brought war to the streets of New York.

Draft Riots Vignettes

Vignettes of the Draft Riots

New York was fertile ground for such an outbreak of violence. City politics were dominated by a merchant class whose economic interests lay with the South. These men called themselves Peace Democrats and preached conciliation with the South. They hailed Fernando Wood’s election as mayor in 1859, who, once war appeared inevitable, proposed secession, not of South from North, but of the city from the rest of the country. As a free city, New York could do as it pleased—support slavery, trade with the South, ignore federal tariffs. Soon elected to Congress, Fernando Wood and the new Democratic governor Horatio Seymour took to proclaiming that Lincoln’s policies had substituted “niggerism for nationality.”

In contrast, New York’s white Republicans, whose ranks included well-known abolitionists and social activists like Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, and John Jay, lacked the political clout of the city’s Democrats.

For New York’s black leaders—most notably James McCune Smith, Albro Lyons, Charles B. Ray, Henry Highland Garnet, as well as Robert and Thomas Hamilton, editors of the recently established newspaper The Weekly Anglo-African—politics were a complicated matter. Initially, they debated political party to support. Democrats, they knew, were unabashed proslavery men. But many argued that Republicans were not much better and in fact might be worse because they were hypocritical and cowardly. Once Lincoln declared war and issued the Emancipation Proclamation, however, black leaders threw him their full support.

Rioters Chasing Negro Women and Children, NYC Draft Riots

Rioters Chasing Black Women and Children through the Streets

The mob's targets covered just about every aspect of city life. Rioters invaded the Armories and seized weapons. They set about destroying all means of communication—telegraph lines, railroad and streetcar tracks, ferries and bridges—to prevent city officials from calling for reinforcements. They vented their wrath against anybody or anything that smacked of wealth and privilege—banks, fancy department stores, and swank mansions on Fifth and Lexington Avenues. But they reserved their greatest venom for New York’s black population.  When it was all over, at least 150 people, black and white, were dead and millions of dollars in property lost.  Many who survived went insane.

New York--Hanging and Burning A Negro in Clarkson Street

Hanging of a Black Man