American Civil War for Kids - New York City Draft Riots July 1863 Illustration

The American Civil War for Kids - New York City Draft Riots 1863

What is a military draft? A military draft is a way to force young men to join the army. If your name is selected, you have to serve unless you have a legally acceptable excuse not to do so. There have been four military drafts in American history to date - during the Civil War, WWI, WW2, and the Cold War, which included Korea and Vietnam. The first draft was during the Civil War.

The Enrollment Act of 1863: During the Civil War, many men volunteered to fight, but as the war continued, more men were needed. In March 1863, Congress passed the Enrollment Act to establish a draft for the first time. A lottery was scheduled to begin in July of that year to pull names at random from all available men in the Union. These men would be drafted, or required to serve in the army. During the medical exam prior to entering the army, if it was discovered that someone was disabled or physically unable to serve, that person would be excused. Black men were exempt from the draft as they were not yet American citizens. There were other ways to avoid the draft. You could pay the lottery board $300 instead of serving in the army. (That would be equal to many thousands of dollars today.) Wealthy merchants had no trouble paying for their sons to avoid the draft. But $300 was more than most workers earned in a year.

The draft was incredibly unpopular, especially among poorly paid workers. Still, the first day the lottery office in New York City was open for business in July 1863, things were peaceful. But the second day, when names began to be posted, about 500 people collected outside the lottery office. They protested with signs saying NO DRAFT. They chanted and banged on pots and pans. Soon, they were throwing stones at the office where the lottery was occurring. Rioters arrived from nearby factory slums and tenements. They threw rocks at the police who had responded to the disturbance. They cut the telegraph wires so that the police could not call for help. Some of the protestors were firemen. They used turpentine to set the lottery office on fire. Things were becoming more and more violent.

Attacks on innocent people: The Invalid Corps of disabled veterans, ex-soldiers, stepped in to help the police. Even with their help, the police were not able to take control. Women joined the protestors and attacked disabled veterans and the police with rocks and sticks. The police and the veterans moved back. The mob went mad.  The draft protest turned into a race riot. Many white workers blamed blacks for the war, and believed freed slaves would take their jobs. Hundreds of rioters hung one African American man from a tree, and then set his body on fire. They attacked an orphanage, home to over 200 black children. All of the children were rescued in time, but rioters ripped toys and clothes apart and set the orphanage building on fire. There were attacks on black people all over the rioting area of the city. People who had joined the protest early on, outside the lottery office, were protesting the draft, not slavery or freed slaves. Some did stay to try and help the police, but many of those people went home.

The fires and attacks continued for four days. The police had been able to contain the riots to one section of the city, but they were not able to stop them. The city finally requested help from the Federal government. Soldiers were sent in and were able to take control. It also rained, which helped to cool things down. All together, about 120 people died, about 2,000 were injured, and there were millions of dollars in damage to streets, buildings, and homes. The lottery office was in a remote part of the city, or there would have been more deaths and damage. 67 people were convicted of crimes committed during the riots. They all received extremely light sentences.

A month later, the draft resumed. The draft opened and closed in 10 days. About 80,000 men were drafted from the City of New York. Many were excused from service for one reason or another, and less than 3,000 drafted men entered the army. Across the Union, about 850,000 men were drafted and about 40,000 served. The riots accomplished nothing except to show the level of deep racial hatred and economic division among residents of the City of New York. But those problems were known and came as no surprise to anyone.

Four Days of Fire - The New York City Draft Riots, July 1863

Comparison: The Draft in the North and the South

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