- Historic Sites
New York’s Bloodiest Week
The draft riots of 1863 turned a great city into a living hell.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
The anger of the mob was now turned in a new direction. Under John Andrews’ leadership, they were attacking not only the draft but all symbols of authority and wealth. They swarmed down Lexington Avenue, screaming “Down with the rich!” At 46th Street they plundered three fine homes, then burned them to the ground.
Another group of rioters attacked the provost marshal’s office at 29th Street and Broadway, first plundering an expensive jewelry store on the main floor. Another mob attacked the armory at Second Avenue and 21st Street, used by the government for the manufacture of rifles. The 35-man Broadway squad fought off the mob for an hour, but when the rioters started to set fire to the building, Acton ordered it abandoned. The police managed to escape by squeezing through a tiny hole in the rear wall and fleeing to the eighteenth precinct police station, where they stripped off their uniforms. The station was later burned to the ground.
The Negro population, numbering less than 15,000, suffered most of all. No Negro dared appear on the street. “Small mobs are chasing isolated Negroes as hounds would chase a fox,” Major Edward S. Sanford of the U.S. Military Telegraph Service wired Secretary of War Stanton. Many hotels, fearful of being attacked, displayed large signs: “No Niggers in back!” Abraham Franklin, who supported himself and his mother as a coachman, managed to get to his mother’s house on Seventh Avenue to make sure she was safe. They talked a few minutes, then decided to pray together. A group of rioters burst open the door, beat Franklin, and hanged him before his mother’s eyes.
Peter Heuston, a 63-year-old Mohawk Indian and army veteran of the Mexican War, was mistaken for a Negro and beaten to death near his home on Roosevelt Street, leaving an orphaned daughter of eight.
The mob’s savagery to the Negro sprang from complex motivations—economic, social, and religious. Most of its members were Irish. Comprising over half the city’s foreign-born population of 400,000, out of a total of about 814,000, the Irish were the main source of cheap labor, virtually its peon class. Desperately poor and lacking real roots in the community, they had the most to lose from the draft. Further, they were bitterly afraid that even cheaper Negro labor would flood the North if slavery ceased to exist.
All the frustrations and prejudices the Irish had suffered were brought to a boiling point by the draft. At pitiful wages they had slaved on the railroads and canals, had been herded into the most menial jobs as carters and stevedores. Many newspaper ads repeated the popular prejudice: “No Irish need apply.” An Irish domestic worker was lucky to earn seven dollars a month. Their crumbling frame tenements in areas like the Five Points were the worst slums in the city. Already pressed to the wall, the Irish could logically view the draft as the final instrument of oppression by the rich. One worker wrote the Times: “We love our wives and children more than the rich because we got not much besides them; and we will not go to leave them at home for to starve …”
In an objective assessment of the Irish role in the riots, Harper’s Weekly later pleaded that it “be remembered … that in many wards of the city the Irish were during the late riot staunch friends of law and order …” Many loyal fire companies were made up of Irishmen. Irish priests opposed the rioters at every step, one risking his life to succor Colonel Henry O’Brien as he was being beaten to death, another persuading a mob not to burn Columbia College at 49th Street and Madison Avenue. Most important of all, a large segment of the Metropolitan Police were Irishmen who fought the mob with a bravery and devotion probably unequaled in police history.
In the war itself, four New York Irish regiments made impressive records. A former Irish editor, Brigadier General Francis Thomas Meagher, commanded the Irish Brigade. The Irish distinguished themselves at Antietam and Fredericksburg, losing 471 wounded and dead in the latter battle. Of 144,000 Irishmen in the Union Army, over 51,000 were from New York.
But on that Monday afternoon, unfortunately, their pent-up hatred of the Negro exploded in its most savage form. Its object was the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, a four-story building on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, where 233 children were housed.
“Clamoring around the house like demons,” as the Tribune described it, the mob burst the door with axes. The children knelt with Superintendent William E. Davis to pray. Then a long line of frightened boys and girls, two of them infants carried in teachers’ arms, followed Davis out the rear door.
The mob surged through the building, stripping it bare. Hundreds of beds were carried from the dormitory wing. Women and boys grabbed them and carted them down the avenue—a strange procession that one reporter estimated ran for ten blocks. Carpets, desks, chairs, pictures, books, even the orphans’ clothes, were tossed out the windows to the waiting plunderers. Then the handsome building was set on fire.