New York’s Bloodiest Week

"We shall have trouble before we are through,” George Templeton Strong, a wealthy New Yorker and staunch friend of Lincoln, warned in his diary one July morning in 1863. Yet the first nationwide military draft, authorized by Congress on March 3 to fill the critically depleted ranks of the Union Army, began in a festive mood.

At 9 A.M. on Saturday, July 11, the provost marshal of the Ninth Congressional District, first in the city to start its drawing, ascended the platform in his office at 46th Street and Third Avenue. A revolving drum with thousands of tightly rolled slips of paper was spun. The marshal’s blindfolded assistant drew the first name—William Jones. The crowd laughed, and someone shouted, “Poor Jones!” Each succeeding name was greeted with similar banter, that of a prominent alderman, undoubtedly expected to buy his way out of the draft under the much-disputed $300 exemption payment, eliciting cries of “There’s three hundred for sure!”

Such “good feeling” was the rule of the day, reported the New York Tribune. There was no premonition of disaster; only slightly strengthened police patrols at the draft offices. Yet by Monday morning, New York would be torn by the bloodiest riot in its history and would stand on the brink of revolution.

The portents had been gathering for months. New York’s Copperhead press—the Day Book, Express, Freeman’s Journal, and Daily News among others—had been attacking the draft furiously. Governor Horatio Seymour himself abetted the attack by insisting the draft was unconstitutional. A Democrat elected in 1862, he had kept faith with the Union by rushing seventeen regiments of militia to Gettysburg. But his position was equivocal, and in repeatedly demanding that the draft be stopped, he came disturbingly close to the Copperhead line.

There was nothing equivocal, however, about Fernando Wood, former mayor and now a congressman. Elected to Congress in 1863, Wood seized on the draft as the perfect issue to rouse his supporters, mainly Irish immigrants from the Bowery, the docks, and the Five Points tenements. Wood had no trouble inciting great segments of the city’s workers. They were already embittered by the two controversial exemption clauses in the Conscription Act. One clause allowed any drafted man to gain release by hiring a suitable substitute. The other allowed any draftee to buy his way out of the Army by paying $300 to the government.

Either escape was far beyond the reach of the average workingman. Even in the inflationary cycle of 1863, he would be lucky to earn $500 a year, making the $300 exemption virtually impossible, the hired substitute a dream. Quite logically, the draft made this “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” One workingman’s letter to the New York Times asserted”… that $300 has made us nobodies, vagabonds and cast-outs of society. … We are the poor rabble and the rich rabble is our enemy by this law. …”

The $300 exemption gave Lincoln weeks of agonizing indecision. Finally he drew up a memorandum, summing up the arguments in its favor. Quite clearly his own arguments failed to satisfy him, and in the end he buried the memorandum in his file. The controversial exemption clause was allowed to stand, a fateful monument to political expediency.

The provost marshal’s decision to start the drawing in New York on a Saturday was clearly foolhardy. Thousands of workers, with a whole Sunday ahead of them to churn up their bitterness in every corner bar, woke up to find their names listed in the papers. What had seemed only an ominous threat—that very day Governor Seymour had promised to stop the draft by sending his adjutant general to Washington—now became harsh reality.

All that Sunday afternoon New York’s East Side was crowded with angry, cursing men. First and Second Avenue bars were jammed. The volunteer fire companies, often unofficial headquarters for the local Democratic machine, were leading centers of unrest. Some companies raised pools to buy exemption for drafted members. Others, like Fire Engine Company No. 33 on 58th Street near Broadway, proudly called “The Roughs,” promised more direct action, telling a Herald reporter that "… if Lincoln attempts to enforce the draft in New York in violation of state authority, there will be black eyes and bloody noses.”

Sam Galligan, known as “The Bully Boy” and described by the Times as “a well-known wire-puller of the Ward,” went from bar to bar, organizing his cronies. The employees of a contracting firm agreed to meet en masse in an empty lot near Central Park early Monday morning. The stevedores decided to join them. Southern agents with ready cash, pro-Administration papers claimed later, helped fan the revolt. John Andrews, an aristocratic-looking Virginian, rode a plodding gray mare up and down the East Side streets, corralling friends and giving impromptu addresses at busy corners.

At 10 A.M. on Monday, July 13, Captain Charles Jenkins, the provost marshal, reopened the draft. But there was no hilarity then, only catcalls and hisses as each name was drawn.