The Draft Riots of 1863


Most of us in America are familiar with the Military Draft, which was implemented in 1940 prior to the Second World War and abandoned following the Vietnam War, although men between the ages of 18 and 25 are still required to register with the Selective Service Commission. Few of us are aware, though, that this was the third time the draft system was implemented. And if we thought the draft caused controversy during the Vietnam era, it was nothing compared to the draft riots that erupted during the Civil War.

During the period of the Revolution, the thirteen colonies implemented a militia system to defend themselves against attacks. Able-bodied men were required to undergo a minimum of military training and to serve as needed for various campaigns. One of the decisions made by the Continental Congress in 1778 was to have the states draft men from their military ranks for one year of service in the Continental Army. This was the first use of a national conscription method of enlisting militia.

The central government of the new United States did not have the authority to enact any kind of mass draft to outfit the military and relied on volunteers or paid substitutes to fill its ranks, which was an inadequate solution. President James Madison and Secretary of War James Monroe attempted to mount a draft of 40,000 men for the War of 1812, but were harshly criticized for their efforts.

A national conscription was only finally instituted during the Civil War. In September of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect on January 1, 1863, and which would free all the slaves in the south. american-civil-war-history0In the early stages of this war, most of the 2,100,000 Union soldiers who eventually served were volunteers, although there were some draftees and some paid substitutes. By signing the Proclamation, Lincoln brought the War into perspective, acknowledging that it actually was a war being fought on behalf of black freedom and equality. Now he needed men to fight the war to its end. So the draft was reenacted for only a second time in our history.

A stricter law forced all men between twenty and thirty-five and all unmarried men up for forty-five years of age to be subject to active duty. A lottery was established and all eligible men were entered into it. There were ways to get around this lottery draft, if you had enough money. You could hire a substitute to enlist for you, or you could pay the government three hundred dollars to avoid enlistment. That translates to about $5,500 in today’s money. Blacks were exempt from the draft since they were not considered citizens, and since so many had fled to the Northern states, they were poised to take the place in the workforce which had been formerly occupied by German and Irish immigrants who were too poor to avoid the draft. These white immigrants compared themselves to the southern slaves, stating they had been sold for $300 to be used as cannon fodder, while the cost for a good black could be $1000.


The Draft Riots in New York lasted for four days.

On Saturday, July 11, 1863, the first lottery of the Civil War conscription law was held with great fanfare. All remained quiet until the following Monday, when rioting began. In what later became known as the Civil War Draft Riots, these riots quickly escalated from attacking only military and governmental buildings to attacks on the blacks who were poised to step into the shoes of the conscripted soldiers. An orphanage for colored children, which housed two hundred small ones, was overrun. The mob took as much from the well appointed house as they could carry before they set it ablaze. Fortunately, all of the children escaped before the fire began.

From there, the riots began to target the city’s wealthy, who could afford the $300 to escape serving in the military. These riots lasted for four days and remain the largest uprising of civilian insurrection in American history, which exposed the deep racial, economic and social division that threatened to rip New York City apart. As the rioting continued, the governor of the state was reluctant to use force to quell the attackers, but the mayor of the city asked the War Department to send in federal troops to assist the police officers. 4,000 federal troops, having recently battled at Gettysburg, arrived to stabilize the city.

Most historians set the number of people killed during the Draft Riots at 115. Hundreds of buildings were destroyed and millions of dollars in damage was sustained. Only 67 people were ever indicted for their role in causing the riots.

One month later, the draft resumed, this time peacefully. Because of physical deferments, exemptions and substitutions, only 2,400 of the total of 80,000 men drafted from New York State joined the Army through the new draft system.

The draft riots set the stage for my final book in the Cotillion Ball Series. The youngest in the family, Saffron Fitzpatrick, has followed her family’s directive to stay indoors, since her wealthy family is one of those targeted by the rioters, but as the days stretch on, the young fifteen-year-old wants nothing more than to go the carriage house and say hello to her horse. There she finds a runaway Union soldier and decides to help him escape the city, which is being patrolled by the Army. The Forgotten Debutante will be available in March, 2016.