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draft riots

draft riots, in the American Civil War, mob action to protest unfair Union conscription. The Union Conscription Act of Mar. 3, 1863, provided that all able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 45 were liable to military service, but a drafted man who furnished an acceptable substitute or paid the government $300 was excused. A defective piece of legislation enforced amid great unpopularity, it provoked nationwide disturbances that were most serious in New York City, where for four days (July 13–16, 1863) there occurred large-scale, bloody riots. Many elements in New York sympathized with the South, and the war had aggravated long-standing economic and social grievances. Aroused by the statements of Gov. Horatio Seymour and other Democratic leaders that the conscription act was unconstitutional, the populace was incited to action. Laborers, mostly Irish-Americans, made up the bulk of a tremendous mob that overpowered the police and militia, attacked and seized the Second Ave. armory containing rifles and guns, and set fire to buildings. Abolitionists and blacks were especially singled out for attack. Many blacks were beaten to death, and a black orphanage was burned, leaving hundreds of children homeless. Business ceased, and robbing and looting flourished. Since the conscription provision that allowed the rich to buy exemption was especially resented, the Tammany city government voted to pay the necessary $300 for anyone who might be drafted. Meanwhile, New York troops (including the famous 7th Regiment, which had been sent to the front for the Gettysburg campaign) were rushed back, and with the aid of the police, militia, naval forces, and cadets from West Point, they succeeded in restoring order. President Lincoln supported a Democratic-dominated commission that investigated the draft in New York, while Governor Seymour urged both adherence to the conscription act and a court test of its constitutionality (which never came about). In August the draft was peacefully resumed. The privilege of buying one's way out of service was limited (1864) to conscientious objectors. The riots had inflicted property damage of $1.5 million to $2 million, and it has been estimated that total casualties ran as high as 1,000.

See B. L. Lee, Discontent in New York City, 1861–1865 (1943); I. Werstein, July, 1863 (1957, repr. 1971); J. McCague, Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots (1968); A. Cook, The Armies of the Streets (1974); I. Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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