1863 The Civil War Draft Riots – An Attack on Black New Yorkers

Essay by Dakota Scott | ReparationsNYC


Too often New Yorkers look with horror at the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre or the Rosewood Massacre in Florida and allow themselves a bit of inner relief that our city has a different, less brutal history when it comes to racial injustice.  


The Draft Riots should give them pause.


On July 14th, 1863, a mob burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum at 43rd Street and Fifth Avenue. Two hundred and thirty-seven young residents fled to safety but lost their home. That same day, an African-American man named William Jones was lynched on his way to buy bread. A day later, James Costello, a Black shoemaker, was stoned by a mob of over two hundred people and hung from a tree on 32nd street. Rows of homes owned by Black families were burned to the ground, dance halls, boarding houses, and tenements known to cater to both Black and white residents were attacked.  These are only a handful of the recorded occurrences during three days of violent rioting which ended up officially killing 119, though estimates of the actual number of deaths range up to 1200.


The Civil War Draft Riots began as a reaction to the Conscription Act which called up 300,000 men to fight for the Union Army. The draft lottery would pull the names of 26,000 men between the ages of 20 and 45 in New York. African-Americans were exempt because they were not legally citizens, but recent immigrants who had elected to become citizens (a 60-day process) were told their only option to escape the draft was to leave the country or pay a $300 fine, nearly a year’s wages for laborers. Some past exemptions from military services, such as being a volunteer firefighter with one of the notorious Five Points engine companies, were rolled back. 


After the first lottery drawing on Saturday July 11, 1863, many people were angered by the number of working class citizens being called up to the Union militia while wealthy residents purchased their own release. By Monday, hundreds of protestors were out on the streets. The protests quickly turned to rioting, first bombarding the draft office and then setting the building on fire. The Metropolitan police tried to quell the crowd but ended up escalating the violence, injuring multiple people.  Police Inspector Daniel C. Carpenter clubbed and killed a man he believed to be the leader of a mob. 


Although violence was first directed at the draft office and city officials, as the rioting spread throughout Manhattan, the assaults became racially motivated. Attacks on the Black community grew as mobs blamed African-Americans for the draft, even for the Civil War as a whole. The homes of free Black families were set on fire and looted.  Black men were captured and lynched.  Police were ordered to retreat from the streets and attempt to shelter groups of African-Americans fleeing the mobs, protecting them inside the precinct houses. 


According to historian Leslie M. Harris, author of “In the Shadow of Slavery

Ironically, the most well known center of black and interracial social life, the Five Points, was relatively quiet during the riots. Mobs neither attacked the brothels there nor killed black people within its borders. There were also instances of interracial cooperation. …

When a mob threatened black drugstore owner Philip White in his store at the corner of Gold and Frankfurt Street, his Irish neighbors drove the mob away, for he had often extended them credit. And when rioters invaded Hart’s Alley and became trapped at its dead end, the black and white residents of the alley together leaned out of their windows and poured hot starch on them, driving them from the neighborhood. 

…But such incidents were few compared to the widespread hatred of Blacks expressed during and after the riots.”


The Draft Riots drastically altered the relationship African-Americans to the city. Over the course of three days of rioting, killing, and lynching, 3,000 African-Americans (one quarter of the free Black community) saw their homes and businesses destroyed. Some, including leaders of the Colored Orphanage, chose to seek a new home farther north in the area which would become Harlem.  Many left New York City altogether.  By 1865, two years after the Draft Riots, the city’s overall Black population had dropped by 20 percent.


The Draft Riots was one of the most brutal attacks on Black New Yorkers ever to take place here, but it is linked to a pattern of violence, destruction, racially motivated disinvestment, and displacement.  That history can be traced from the city’s founding and its ownership of enslaved people to the racial injustices that impact Black communities today.


ReparationsNYC is a public and creative dialogue on the need for the New York City government to make reparations for its historic support of the enslavement of Black people, and ensuing legacies of discriminatory practices, including redlining, inequities in education, and policing, which have harmed Black communities.




Resources, Readings

The National Interest – Old-Time Draft Riot: When New York City Became the Civil War’s Farthest-North Battlefield

Bowery Boys –The Civil War Draft Riots: New York’s Worst Week Ever

Tenement Museum – On This Day: 1863, The New York City Draft Riots

History.com – New York Draft Riots 

Leslie M. Harris – In the Shadows of Slavery