- 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
From her room Ellen Leonard watched the rioters still surging through Nineteenth Street and noted that her “neighborhood was wholly at the mercy of the mob … Destruction and death were on every side.” She tried to sleep “when a sudden rush and scream brought me again to my window … I distinctly heard dreadful cries and caught these broken words, ‘Oh my brothers! My brothers! Save me!’”
Not many hours afterward, on Wednesday afternoon, Ellen Leonard and her household were to play a heroic role in one of the decisive battles of the week. That morning a mob of 5,000 had been cleared from Seventh Avenue and 32nd Street by a force of U.S. artillery firing grape at point-blank range and killing scores of rioters. But the mob collected again in greater strength at Nineteenth Street and First Avenue. Colonel Cleveland Winslow, with one of the few small infantry detachments available for street-fighting, and Colonel Edward Jardine, with a battery of two howitzers, marched to meet them.
As Winslow’s men rushed forward, they were attacked from every window and rooftop by rifle fire and bricks. The infantry was cut to pieces. Winslow had to order an immediate retreat. Jardine, struck by a bullet in the leg, crumpled to the pavement.
The regimental surgeon helped Colonel Jardine and another wounded soldier escape down Nineteenth Street. Ellen saw them from her window. She rushed downstairs and begged them to take refuge in the house. The Colonel and the surgeon were hidden in the cellar, the soldier taken to the top floor where Ellen and her mother could nurse him. Ellen’s brother was sent for help, escaping over the rooftops at the rear. “Mrs. P.,” who lived downstairs, waited calmly in the sitting room.
The rioters were combing the street, house by house. “A few moments we waited in breathless silence,” Ellen wrote later. “Then came a rush up the stairs and the bell rang violently.” The mob demanded that the soldiers be given up. Mrs. P. answered them calmly. Yes, they had been here, but had escaped by the back yard. One man pointed a carbine at her head. She brushed it aside, saying, “You know I am a woman, and it might frighten me.” They threatened to burn the house down. “My only son works as you do, and perhaps in the same shop with some of you, for seventy cents a day,” she told them, omitting the fact that he had left a few weeks before to join the Union Army.
The sentinel at the stairs, younger and better dressed than the others, drew Mrs. P. aside and warned her that it was better to let them search the house. She agreed, trying to remain calm while they rushed to the cellar. They found the surgeon first and dragged him upstairs, beating him viciously. But Colonel Jardine, lying wounded on the cellar floor, insisted he was an ordinary citizen accidentally hurt in the fray.
Four men pointed muskets at his head. He told them to shoot—he would be dead soon from loss of blood anyway. But he begged them to bring a priest first. The request seemed to disconcert them. Then they left the house as suddenly as they had come, not even bothering to search the upper floors.
The women waited fearfully all that evening. Not until after midnight did they hear the welcome tramp of marching feet. Ellen’s brother had reached police headquarters, and returned with a large contingent of soldiers and police. The whole party was rescued and taken to the well-guarded St. Nicholas Hotel. Even the surgeon, they learned, had managed to escape.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, the mob attacked a government warehouse on Greenwich Street, where 20,000 muskets were stored. This cache might have given them control of the city if Acton had not learned of the plan in time and sent a large headquarters force to stop them.
It was almost dawn before the turning point arrived. The steady tramp of thousands of feet—the Tenth and Fifty-sixth regiments, New York National Guard—was heard along lower Broadway. At 4 A.M. the perfectly formed ranks of the crack Seventh Regiment wheeled up Canal Street. They were the first elements of the state militia rushed from Gettysburg. Nine more New York regiments as well as one Michigan regiment arrived in the next two days. The city was out of danger at last.
From Washington on Thursday the President announced that he was standing firm: the draft would be resumed in New York at the first practicable date. Late that morning a detachment of police broke into No. 10 East Eleventh Street and arrested John Andrews, “this howling fiend, this emissary and spy of the Rebels,” as the Tribune called him, who ironically enough was found with his Negro mistress.
The mob was to make its last stand on the East Side. Five thousand desperate men attacked elements of the Seventh Regiment on Second Avenue in what the Times labeled “the most sanguinary fight of the whole riot.” Bullets and bricks from the rooftops killed fifteen soldiers before another 700 troops arrived to clear the avenue with artillery and bayonet.
It was the decisive battle. On Friday morning, the Mayor could announce: “The riotous assemblages have been dispersed.”