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5.2: The New York City Draft Riots

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The Union imposed a military draft, in which men between the ages of \begin{align*}18\end{align*} and \begin{align*}35\end{align*} were required to join the army. The penalty for disobeying the law was a \begin{align*}\$300\end{align*} fine. Many wealthy people were willing to pay that fine rather than risk their lives in the army, so they essentially bought their way out of the draft. Poorer people had no such option, and considered the policy unfair. In 1863, Irishmen in New York City rioted in protest. As you read the following documents, think about how each one portrays the protesters. What parties do they describe most sympathetically? What parties do you find most sympathetic?

The Reign of the Rabble – New York Times

Source: Excerpts from “The Reign of the Rabble,” New York Times, Wednesday, July 15, 1863.

The colored boarding house of ALBRO LYONS, No. 20 Vandewater-street, was attacked by the rioters about 6 1/2 o'clock P.M., the doors broken open and the windows entirely demolished; nine of the inmates were injured....

About the same time THOMAS JOHNSON, a colored man, had one of his arms broken by jumping from the third story window of a house No. 62 Roosevelt-street, while the house was on fire. He was rescued from the rioters by the police and was taken to the station-house....

MARY WILLIAMS, a colored woman, \begin{align*}24\;\mathrm{years}\end{align*} old, while being pursued by the infuriated mob, jumped from a window of No.74 Roosevelt-street to the pavement, and was terribly injured -- the building was then on fire. She was taken to Bellevue Hospital....


  1. According to this document, what did rioters do during the Draft Riots of 1863?

Facts and Incidents of the Riot – New York Times

Source: Excerpt from “Facts and Incidents of the Riot,” New York Times, July 16, 1863.

At a late hour on Tuesday night the mob, number \begin{align*}4,000\end{align*} or \begin{align*} 5,000\end{align*}, made an attack upon the clothing-store of Messrs. BROOKS BROTHERS, in Catharine-street, corner of Cherry. Sergeant FINNEY, of the Third Precinct, while in the discharge of his duty in endeavoring to protect the property of this establishment, was knocked down, beaten on the head and body with clubs, and afterward shot in the hand by a pistol by one of the rioters. He was subsequently conveyed to the Station-house, where his wounds were dressed. He is very severely injured, and no hopes are entertained of his recovery. Officer DANIEL FIELDS, of the same Precinct, was knocked down and brutally beaten about the head and face at the same time.

A man named JOHN MATZEL was shot and instantly killed. It is reported that he was one of the leaders of the mob, and that the ball which pierced his heart came from a revolver in the hands of one of the officers of the law. He was in the act of entering the clothing-store at the time he met his death.

Plunder seems to have been the sole object with the marauders in their attack upon the store of the Messrs. BROOKS. The fine ready-made clothing therein was tempting. Fortunately, the Police and the employees of the establishment successfully repelled the invaders before much property had been stolen. Three or four persons, whose names could not be ascertained, lost their lives at this place, and many others were badly injured.


  1. According to this document, what did rioters do during the Draft Riots of 1863?

“The Popular Tumult” – New York Herald

Source: Excerpt from “The Popular Tumult.” New York Herald, Wednesday, July 16, 1863.

Excerpt from


Positive Suspension of the Draft.


New York Herald, Wednesday, July 16, 1863


The throng in the Fourth ward, after having caused a general exodus of negroes, turned their attention to the Chinese who delight to reside in that precinct. The Celestials [Chinese] had been found guilty of being united to white wives, and their headquarters were sacked. The John Chinamen escaped, but in some instances their inconstant consorts have not followed them.


  1. According to this document, what did rioters do during the Draft Riots of 1863?

The Riots at New York

Source: “The Riots at New York,” Harper's Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863


Sated with blood, the rioters now turned their attention to plunder. A drug-store close by where Colonel O'Brien lay was completely riddled by them, the doors and windows being smashed in with clubs and stones. Women hovered upon the skirts of the crowd, and received the articles as they were thrown or handed from the store. One fellow rushed out with a closely-packed valise, which he opened in the street. The clothes and other things contained in it were eagerly seized and contended for by boys and women standing around. There were a number of letters in it, and some documents with seals, which were probably of value to the owner; but these were savagely torn and trampled under foot by the disappointed plunderers. A woman sat upon the steps near by, and read out portions of one of the letters amidst the jeers of her ribald companions. Another passed me waving in triumph a large parchment manuscript of many pages.


  1. According to this document, what did rioters do during the Draft Riots of 1863?

The Riots at New York

Source: “The Riots at New York,” Harper's Weekly, Aug. 1, 1863


We devote a considerable portion of our space this week to illustrations of the disgraceful and infamous Riot which took place in this city last week. On page \begin{align*}493\end{align*} will be found a picture of the burning of the colored orphan asylum, by which exploit the rioters, on Monday \begin{align*}13th\end{align*}, inaugurated their sway. This outrage is thus described in the Times:

The Orphan Asylum for Colored Children was visited by the mob about four o'clock. This Institution is situated on Fifth Avenue, and the building, with the grounds and gardens adjoining, extended from Forty-third to Forty-fourth Street. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands of the rioters, the majority of whom were women and children, entered the premises, and in the most excited and violent manner they ransacked and plundered the building from cellar to garret. The building was located in the most pleasant and healthy portion of the city. It was purely a charitable institution. In it there are on an average \begin{align*}600\end{align*} or \begin{align*}800\end{align*} homeless colored orphans. The building was a large four-story one, with two wings of three stories each.


  1. According to this document, what did rioters do during the Draft Riots of 1863?

Section Questions:

  1. All of these documents appeared in New York’s major newspapers at the time. What types of people do you think read these newspapers? Do these newspapers seem sympathetic to the rioters? Explain.
  2. Find \begin{align*}2\end{align*} quotes to support your claim that the newspaper were or were not sympathetic to the rioters.
  3. With whose perspective do you sympathize with MOST? Irish? African Americans? Store-owners? Chinese? Explain your answer.

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