July 23, 1863
At last the riot is quelled, but we had four days of great anxiety. Fighting went on constantly in the streets between the military and police and the mob, which was partially armed. The greatest atrocities have been perpetrated. Colonel O’Brain was murdered by the mob in such a brutal manner that nothing in the French Revolution exceeded it. Three or four Negroes were hung and burned; the women assisted and acted like furies by stimulating the men to greater ferocity. Father came into the city on Friday, being warned about his house, and found fifteen Negroes secreted in it by Rachel. They came from York Street, which the mob had attacked, with all their goods and chattels…
One night, seeing a fire before the house, I thought the time had come, but it proved to be only a bonfire. The Judge sallied out with his pistol, telling me that if he were not at home in five minutes to call up the servants. This mob seems to have a curious sense of justice. They attacked and destroyed many disreputable houses and did not always spare secessionists. On Saturday (the fifth day) we went up to see Judge Hilton who thought me very courageous, but I felt sorry for Mrs. Hilton upon hearing that she had been so terribly frightened. She gave me such details that I came home too nervous to sleep. In Lexington Avenue, houses were destroyed…
Maria Lydig Daly, excerpts from her diary entry, July 23, 1863.
Although deep in northern territory, New York City’s war sentiments were not heavily pro-Union. The merchants and businessmen of the city looked on the conflict with displeasure from the beginning since it interrupted their commerce and trade with Southern states and ports and halted in the arrival of raw cotton.
As the war progressed, anti-war agitators and politicians covertly informed the working class of the city – mostly Irish-Americans or German-Americans – that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would trigger a mass exodus of African Americans from the South to New York City to take all the paying jobs. This idea added tension and resentment toward the war and federal government among the working class.
These major social ideas and conflicts were compounded by the institution of the Union Draft Law, passed earlier in 1863. To many New Yorkers, the draft seemed like forcible service for a cause they didn’t believe in – fighting for an end goal, which in their view, would wreck their opportunities and livelihood. It all came to a violent outburst in July 1863.
On July 11, 1863, the first draft lottery in New York City took place under suspiciously quiet circumstances. A day passed. Then – July 13 – violent rioting began. White citizens and immigrants mobbed and attacked government buildings and military posts throughout the city. Next, they attacked the homes, businesses, and property of free blacks, white abolitionists, and interracial couples. Even an orphanage came under assault, leaving about 200 children frightened and refugees.
Beatings, lynchings, and other atrocities were committed. After the riots, papers claimed the death toll finished at 119 persons, but estimates at that time and researchers’ findings suggest 1,200 people may have died in the violence.
City authorities reacted hesitatingly. Peace Democrat Governor Horatio Seymour had already opposed the draft law for New York and wasn’t anxious to stop the riot. Even the city’s Republican mayor dallied to declare martial law, though he did request the War Department in Washington to send in federal troops. On July 16, the first blue-clad troops arrived on the violent scenes; some of these soldiers had just left the Gettysburg battlefield. With troops in the city actively restoring order, the riots came to an end, leaving millions in damaged property and thousands of homeless civilians in their wake.
On August 19, 1863, conscription started again in New York City with many military guards posted throughout the metropolis.
All was not well on the homefront during 1863. Sometimes, we think “everyone” supported the Union in the North, “everyone” loved Lincoln. Far from true. Political and social tension mounted throughout the war, eventually won over or suppressed by Union military victories.
However, as historians and researchers examine the history of the 1863 New York Riot, some have compared it to a battle, resulting in a Confederate victory. Certainly, there was anti-war sentiment and downright pro-Confederate sympathies involved. Racial and ethnic violence triggered by the stories from the warfront and decades-old local resentment exploded, creating tragic deaths and hate crimes.
Ultimately, order was restored in New York City, but national leaders had more to worry about than the military victories on the battlefields during 1863. What was happening on the homefront? And how would that impact the 1864 elections in the coming year?