- 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
On Friday, also, John Hughes, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, made an address from the balcony of his house at 36th Street and Madison Avenue. A loyal supporter of the Union, he had traveled in Europe as Lincoln’s personal agent, speaking for the Union cause in Rome, France, and Ireland. He had no love for abolitionists, but he did not like mob rule either, and on Thursday it had been announced that he would address “the men of New York who are now called in many of the papers rioters.” The wording of this proclamation disturbed the New York Times, which wondered what other term could be applied to men who had burned down public buildings, but the speech was a firm one, and it served to tamp down the last embers of revolt.
While the riots disappeared from the headlines by the end of the week, their repercussions continued. The President appointed Major General John A. Dix, former governor of New York, to the eastern command, and set August 19 as the date for the resumption of the draft. But Seymour was intractable. In letter after letter he argued with Lincoln that the city’s quotas had been unfairly set, that prejudiced officials would corrupt the drawing, that he could fill New York’s quotas immediately with volunteers. Lincoln rejected each excuse patiently but firmly. The draft was completed—but at some expense to the campaign against Lee.
“As it is quite possible we may be obliged to detach some of your troops to enforce the draft and to bring on the drafted men,” General in Chief Henry W. Halleck wired General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, on July 29, “I think it would be best to hold for the present the upper line of the Rappahannock without further pursuit of Lee.” The necessity had to be met, and Meade told Halleck on August 16, “I have sent you my best troops and some of my best officers”—almost 10,000 soldiers from the Army of the Potomac.
Firm as he had been with Seymour, Lincoln squashed all attempts to link the New York riots and leading Peace Democrats with Richmond. When James R. Gilmore of the New York Tribune called on Lincoln and proposed an investigation of the riot’s causes, the President refused, supposedly saying, “One rebellion at a time is about as much as we can conveniently handle.”
The ironic conclusion to the riots was the 1863 draft itself. Of 79,975 men conscripted in New York State, 54,765 were exempted on physical and other grounds, 15,912 bought their way out for $300, 6,998 furnished substitutes, and only 2,300—not many more than had been killed and wounded in the riots themselves—were added to the Union Army. In the North as a whole, in fact, the four drafts of 1863 and 1864 produced about 52,000 troops.
Yet the value of conscription could not be measured solely by the number of men drafted. Each state was given a quota at each call for troops, and officials tried to meet the quotas ahead of time by swelling their voluntary enlistments. So the threat of a draft was an invaluable asset as a constant prod. States and cities that raised more than their share of men could credit the extras to their quota at the time of the next draft.
There was a further irony in the attention focused by the riots on the $300 exemption clause. During the debates on a new draft law early in 1864, a large block of senators and congressmen opposed the exemption as “class legislation.” Lincoln himself, with an election only a few months off, joined the opposition in June, thus daring the political wrath of those in wealth and power who supported the exemption. The final bill, passed on July 4, established a new system of bounty payments in graduated amounts for one-year, two-year, and three-year volunteers.
But when the $300 exemption came to a vote, both Fernando and Ben Wood, the most frenzied opponents of the exemption as a crime against the poor, refrained from voting!
And to add to the complex irony, the War Department during the fall, 1864, draft was so intent on placating New York that 18,448 men who had enlisted in the Navy during the four preceding years were credited to the city. Thus was its quota virtually filled by paper logistics. Thus did sailors from Iowa or Michigan, who happened to have signed their Navy papers in New York, keep the specter of another draft riot from a city that had already known the worst explosion in the nation’s history.