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The Civil War Draft Riots and the Mayor’s House

Tension was high on the streets of Manhattan on July 13, 1863. Two days earlier, the federal Conscription Act took effect in New York City, establishing a draft lottery to select new soldiers for the Union Army. As Blacks were not allowed to serve in the military and the wealthy could buy their way out or hire a substitute, conscription impacted the white working class the most, especially Irish immigrant workers who also believed they were in competition for scarce jobs with free Blacks. Add in wartime scarcity, inflation, and editorials touting conspiracies and calling for mass meetings, and you had a dangerous mix that resulted in the largest civil and most racially charged urban disturbance in U.S. history.

Draft rioters face off against the military on First Avenue
Rioters face off against the military on First Avenue; image courtesy of the New-York Historical Society

On the morning of July 13, workers from all over the city — including the area known as Mackerelville bounded by 10th Street, 14th Street, Second Avenue, and the East River — started to gather. They began their march north toward the Provost Marshal’s office at Third Avenue and East 46th Street, where the first draft lottery took place and another was under way. Shouting “Down with the rich men!,” the crowd stormed the office, setting it ablaze. By the afternoon, the mob turned its ire toward African Americans, with a rampage that continued for days, including burning down the Colored Orphan Asylum at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street in the afternoon of July 13 .

But some of the worst violence and most ferocious anger during those deadly days manifested in our neighborhoods. Another target of the mobs on the first day of the riots was the home of Mayor George Opdyke at Fifth Avenue near 14th Street. “As a Republican,” wrote Barnet Schechter in his book The Devil’s Own Work, “Opdyke symbolized both the oppression of the state legislature and the Lincoln administration, while his wealth and business dealings marked him as a profiteer.” A locally organized civilian patrol occupied the house early in the day, and fended off an initial mob of rioters with the help of Tammany Hall judge George Barnard, who railed against the draft but told the crowd that it could be resolved through the courts. A little later, a force of Metropolitan police arrived to defend the house from a second mob.

NYC Mayor George Opdyke, 1864
Mayor George Opdyke

By the afternoon, an artillery unit of 88 soldiers from Governor’s Island had taken up positions outside the house, detering a third mob of 5,000 to 10,000 rioters, according to Schechter. Instead of attacking the mayor’s home, the crowd turned its attention to lower Manhattan and started marching toward the financial district and the U.S. Sub-Treasury building (today’s Federal Hall).

At the same time, some 200 officers were formed into ranks in front of Police Headquarters on Mulberry Street, with the order to take no prisoners. “Solid, and silent save their heavy measured tread on the pavement, they moved down Bleecker Street towards Broadway,” wrote contemporary journalist Joel Tyler Headley. The route brought the force in direct confrontation with a sea of rioters “far as the eye could reach.” The police closed in on three sides of the mob, and were able to disperse the crowd by clubbing them unceasingly with sometimes lethal blows. When the encounter was over, Headley wrote, “Broadway looked like a field of battle, for the pavement was strewn thick with bleeding, prostrate forms.”

This was not the only terrible incident of the five-day-long riots to take place in our neighborhoods. William Jones, a Black cartman who had gone out to buy a loaf of bread, was chased, beaten, hung, and set on fire by a mob on Clarkson Street. On July 15, the third day of the riots, a row of tenements on Thompson and Sullivan Streets known as the Arch occupied by Black families was set ablaze but was saved by a passing fire company heading uptown on another call.

You can read more about the Draft Riots and their deadly impact on our communities here.

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