Haunted by the Draft Riots

Series historical adviser Daniel Czitrom explores the memory, fear, and pain of the worst civil insurrection in American history, the 1863 Draft Riots.

Hattie Lemaster learns the truth about the death of her sons.

Hattie Lemaster discovers her sons were killed in New York City’s infamous Draft Riots.

Hattie Lemaster learns the bitter truth about how her two sons died during the tumultuous Draft Riots of July 13-18, 1863. Sara and Matthew Freeman’s determination to keep secret the real story of her sons’ brutal lynching is undone by an offhand comment from Detective Corcoran. Hattie’s sorrow is compounded by the anger she feels over her daughter’s lie. The Freeman-Lemaster family, like the entire city, is haunted by the memory, fear, and pain of the worst civil insurrection in American history. At least 105 people were killed during the riots, including at least 11 African American men lynched on the streets. Many hundreds more were wounded, and property damage ran into the millions.

Class rage and race hatred were the two most powerful forces driving the rioters, the great majority of whom were Irish American immigrant workers. When President Lincoln and Congress instituted the first draft in U.S. history, the law enraged working class men by allowing for the hiring of a “substitute” at a cost of $300, a sum roughly equal to the annual wage of an unskilled laborer. On Monday, July 13, as anti-draft demonstrators marched through different parts of the city, the protests quickly became violent. Mobs attacked well-known symbols of the city’s Republican establishment, including Police Superintendent John Kennedy, Horace Greeley’s NY Tribune, and the homes of many well-to-do New Yorkers.

African Americans, the most visible symbol of the war and the recent Emancipation Proclamation, endured especially vicious treatment. White workers—longshoremen, cartmen, teamsters, artisans—tried to physically remove black people from job sites, neighborhoods, and leisure spaces. Rioters burned the Colored Orphanage Asylum on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street to the ground, forcing 233 children to flee for their lives. Rioters targeted African American businesses, as well as interracial couples, and many black victims suffered sexual mutilation at the hands of the mob. Small wonder that the riots brought a mass exodus of African Americans out of New York City, to Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey. The city’s black population stood at about 13,000 in 1860. By 1865 it had declined by more than 20% to under 10,000 and it would not grow significantly until the early twentieth century.

Riots at the orphanage (via http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/92522163/)

An illustration of riots at the Colored Orphanage Asylum.
‘The Riots at New York’, Harpers Weekly 1863.

Only massive firepower provided by Federal troops, rushed from the Gettysburg battlefield, managed to stop the rioting after five bloody days. The aftermath included important steps toward improving housing and public health. But for several decades “the volcano under the city” continued to haunt New York. In his landmark 1890 study How the Other Half Lives, journalist Jacob Riis invoked the specter of the Draft Riots in his plea for housing reform. “The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements. Already our city, to which have come the duties and responsibilities of metropolitan greatness before it was able to fairly measure its task, has felt the swell of its resistless flood. If it rise once more, no human power may avail to check it.”

  • Dedra C. Routh

    Thank you for this history I have just read with a heavy heart. I knew about the riots but few details; that war, that civil war, I wonder if we learned a thing. Thank you for this show and the history lessons on this blog.

  • Jackie

    I completely agree.

  • KatielovesTomWJ

    Lincoln was the WORST president. Seriously, a military draft with a $300 buy out to send a destitute substitute in your place? What did he expect? And read some of his speeches and correspondence. He didn’t give a d@mn about slavery until 1863. He took the country to its most bloody war two years earlier in order to keep the union together and strengthen federal power. Up until that time we were “united” in much the same way that the European Federation is today. And if you don’t believe that, try and figure out why slavery was LEGAL in Union DELAWARE until the 13th Amendment passed in 1865, 8 months after the END of the War and 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation speech. As long as a state fought for the Union, slavery was not an issue for old Abe. I wish this country could shake it’s worship of this disgusting, slimy, legacy repairing politician.

    • matt

      Your point would be stronger if you could make it without the emotion.

      • KatielovesTomWJ

        I don’t disagree with you but facts are still facts. Plus it’s his legacy in documented quotes that prove the point, not me. And I detest revisionist history. I’m sure there’s a subject that you are passionate about as well.

        • Clio Unchained

          You reduce an incredibly complex set of historical events to something of a cartoon. Lincoln’s presidency is perhaps the best example we have of how a leader can evolve, pushed in this case by social movements (abolition) and a war. If you compare Lincoln’s views on race, abolition, black service in the army, and black citizenship in 1860 with where he stood in April 1865, you will find enormous change, carefully thought out. You underestimate, as well, the power of white supremacist thinking and the support for slavery that existed all over the nation. All good history is revisionist in the sense that it employs new sources and remains open to new interpretation. One does not have to worship Lincoln to recognize his enormous achievements, his political savvy, and his ability to grow. Instead of flogging straw man arguments, try reading some of the best recent historical writing, e.g. Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.

          • KatielovesTomWJ

            I hate the term “straw” man and “straw” argument. It immediately calls to mind professional comment posters who have no evidence to back up their claim, and so therefore use the term “straw” anything to discount the opposing opinion. The point that I was making is that the Civil War WAS complex, much more so than history books and Daniel Day Lewis’ Hollywood portrayal would make it seem. You believe he evolved. As he was known for political expediency, including buying votes in Congress, etc., I personally feel that his “evolution” had more to do with legacy than any real change in feelings towards, as he phrased it, “the colored race.” But whether a heartfelt shift OR a legacy repairing platitude, the fact still remains that he took the country to war in 1861. If his feelings regarding slavery had evolved by 1863, that is still two years of completely unnecessary blood shed for what? A cause he was ambivalent about until 1863? But so it is preached in the history books. And why was Union state Delaware still a slave state all through his war “to emancipate the slaves” (along with a host of southern states) until the 13th Amendment passed in Dec 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s death? The fact is, The War Between the States had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with States’ rights vs. Federal rights, which is what has led us to the point today where an Administration sues a state for protecting its own border against undocumented invaders in the absence of Federal competence or action on the matter. Lincoln was no more moral than Nixon, Johnson, Clinton or any other host of Presidents. It is only through revisionist history that he is revered. I’m sure many Copper viewers were quite surprised at the voter fraud during the 1864 election and the unpopularity/hatred that many northerners felt for him, with the prediction that “New York will burn” if he were re-elected. And just to add topping to the cake, he was also a hypocrite. After all of his ambiguity (at best) about slavery, and here I quote from his 1860 Presidential campaign ( “Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly, or indirectly, interfere with their slaves, or with them, about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you, as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears.”), he had the AUDACITY in 1864 to claim that he was ALWAYS anti-slavery. With the blood of so many on his hands, a legacy revision/repair was apparently necessary: “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Letter to Albert G. Hodges” (April, 1864),. At the end of the day, however “complex,” Lincoln was no better, no more moral, and certainly no more ethical than any of his successors.

          • Clio Unchained

            Delaware was one of several slave border states (Maryland, Kentucky) that did not join the Confederacy. Lincoln explicitly limited the Emancipation Proclamation to those states in rebellion against the Union because he did not want the border states to leave as well. Not morally pure perhaps, but shrewd wartime politics.The actions of hundreds of thousands of African
            Americans–from free blacks like Frederick Douglass to countless runaway
            slaves streaming to Federal lines– helped force Lincoln and the Union to make slavery’s destruction a wartime aim. Why judge Lincoln’s personal feelings about black people by current, post Civil Rights standards (“the colored race” was a common term of the time)? As for taking the country to war: didn’t the Confederacy, dedicated to slavery’s expansion and the cause of white supremacy, have something to do with it?

          • KatielovesTomWJ

            It all depends on your feelings regarding states’ rights. I feel that a state should have the right to peacefully secede if they are not happy with the Union. States vote to join the Union. Why would a vote for secession be any less valid? The same way that Scotland will secede from the British Commonwealth in the vote this fall. If a state wanted to secede right now, we certainly wouldn’t go to war over it. So, no, I don’t believe that that Confederacy was complicit in the start of the war. It was Lincoln, who wanted his legacy to NOT be the division of the Union into two separate countries, who pursued war. And then he found himself in the midst of the bloodiest four years in American history, once again for what, because originally it was not slavery. That is my point. The abolitionist god Abraham Lincoln is a myth. And a President such as Obama using his Bible for his own inauguration just perpetuates that myth. The country and history would have been better served had he stuck with MLK, Jr.’s Bible, exclusively. He was a true hero for human rights. I am not saying Lincoln was the most evil man the planet has ever produced. I am simply stating that he was deeply flawed and much of the blood shed for which he was responsible had at least as much to do with his personal ambition than any charitable act towards Blacks. As far as his ability to remain “blind” to Union slavery because Delaware was a border state? You call that shrewd wartime politics. I call that disingenuous and slimy…..no better than the un-worshipped Presidents who succeeded him. Chivalry was already dead by 1860. By the way, I am enjoying our exchange, but PLEASE stop up-voting your own posts.

  • Big Fan

    Don’t forget that the union was coming apart at the seems before Lincoln was elected. & states had left the union BEFORE he was elected. So. Carolina wanted out because they felt he was against slavery at the time of his election and that he leaned toward industrialization(Northern interests). We were involved in nation building. Results of the Mexican war and Louisiana purchase etc. Rapid cessation was destroying the Union. Slavery became the sticky wicket in this. The south was agriculture and becoming a one crop concern wit the cotton gin’s inventions. Cotton farming had grown big and the only way the south could manage was to maintain pro-slavery. an economy if you will based on old ways. Over time the country became polarized and north became abolitionist in nature. He had a full plate from day one. To stop the bleeding from cessation that would have destroyed us had to visibly be priority 1. Preserve the union. As we polarize anti-slavery now can also be a rallying cry and bring forward a united front. I don’t believe he could have done it any other way. Very insightful in my view. Of course there is more to it than we can say here as well. Industrialization Vs. Agricultural.
    new thinking Vs.old thinking and the creation of a more perfect union. He did what he had to do and said what he had to say to help make it happen. As a nation like him or not we were better off because of his efforts. Nothing is perfect. One can only guess at would have been had he not been assassinated. Copper is a great show and bravo to the research effort put into it!

  • Weeksville Latecomer

    The Republican Party, which coalesced in the 1850′s out of defectors from the Whig and Democratic parties, as well as the Free Soil party, contained some abolitionists. But a clear majority were simply philosophical free-soilers, who wanted to prevent slavery from being introduced to parts of the United States where it had never existed, or had been abolished. Free soilers posited that “African” slavery hurt the ordinary white man, by preventing him from working and/or owning land which slaves would work and slave owners would possess. They might observe that in a world where more colored slaves had to be fed, fewer free white people could.

    Lincoln was such a free-soiler, and of a more conservative stance than some fellow free-soilers, such as failed 1856 Republican presidential candidate, John Fremont. All the same, both men also shared with the abolitionists a vocal MORAL repugnance for slavery.

    When, at long last, a free-soiler had been elected President (Lincoln), the slave-owner dominated governments of the Southern states would not abide it. It had nothing to do with anything Lincoln would do. They had already been plotting revolution had Fremont, another free-soiler, been elected in 1856, as documented, e.g., in Horace Greeley’s “A political text-book for 1860…”
    (Tribune association, 1860). From http://bit.ly/153OHfJ -

    “”During the [1856] Presidential contest, [Virginia] Governor Wise had addressed letters to all the southern governors… in which Gov. Wise said he had an army in readiness to prevent Fremont from taking his seat if elected, and asking the cooperation of those to whom he wrote…”

    Lincoln’s free soil principles were clearly articulated in his Senate race debates during 1858. See http://bit.ly/10vXdE which quotes him so:

    “I hate [indifference to slavery] because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself…

    “If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, -to their own native land. But a moment’s reflection… What next? Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not… It does seem to me that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted…

    “[When] our brethren of the South… remind us of their constitutional rights [defending slave bondage] I acknowledge them, not grudgingly, but fully and fairly… But all this, to my judgment, furnishes no more excuse for permitting slavery to go into our own free territory, than it would for reviving the African slave-trade by law…

    “I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects -certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”

    A bit over a decade after the assassination of Lincoln, the great Frederick Douglass assessed the late president’s motives, works and methods. The New York Times reported the following on April 2, 1876:

    “In his oration at the unveiling of the colored men’s statue of Abraham Lincoln
    in Washington, on the late anniversary of his assassination, Frederick Douglass
    said:

    ‘…He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery…

    ‘…My white fellow-citizens… You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best his step-children… while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country. he delivered us from a bondage…

    ‘…His great mission was to accomplish two things ; first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin, and second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery… Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined. Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery.’”

    As for presidential greatness, I’d put the most store in the opinions of professional historians, rather than soapbox “scholars.” And everyone knows (or should) that historians consistently place Lincoln at or near the top of the pack, as summarized, for example, by the current Wikipedia article on this topic, http://bit.ly/aou4FY