The New York City draft riots broke out in response to the federal Enrollment Act.
As the unrivaled business capital of the United States, New York City was deeply divided at the start of the Civil War in 1861. Its merchants and financial institutions relied heavily on southern business, and its thriving textile industry depended on southern cotton to employ thousands of New Yorkers. The city’s mayor at the time had even called for New York to secede from the Union so that politics would not stand in the way of profit.
To bolster the Union war effort, President Lincoln authorized the draft of men between the ages of 20-45 for a three-year term of military service. The new draft allowed men of means to buy their way out of service, however, by paying a fee of $300. It also exempted blacks from the draft, as they were not yet considered American citizens. Public perception among disgruntled middle and lower class New Yorkers was that the Civil War had become “the rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.”
The first drawing of names for the draft was held in New York on July 11 without incident. However, during the second drawing on July 13, a crowd attacked the office where the drawing took place. Over 500 angry men that had gathered outside the office threw stones through windows before charging through the doors, vandalizing and then setting the building ablaze.
Now emboldened, the growing mob next set a hotel on fire, along with the mayor’s residence, two police stations, a newspaper, as well as the homes of many wealthy New Yorkers. The police were hopelessly outnumbered and unable to control the riots. Finally several thousand Union troops were called in, some fresh from the battlefield at Gettysburg, to quell the violence.
The troops brought the riots under control on July 16 and the draft was temporarily suspended until August. Although over 200,000 men eventually enlisted in New York City, the riots resulted in relatively few New Yorkers being drafted into service.
The week of riots resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and $2 million in property damage. Historian Samuel Morison said that the riots were the “equivalent of a Confederate victory.” Apart from the Civil War, the riots remain one of the largest insurrections in American history.