In July 1863, the war was not going very well for the northern Union forces as they tried to defeat the Southern Confederacy. Recruitment was slipping in a sign of war weariness and casualties were staggering. To try to replenish ranks and encourage more volunteers, the Republican Government under President Lincoln took the step of establishing a draft, a serious extension of national power. Opposed to the war, the Democratic Party denounced the move as a threat to civil liberties.
Those likely to be drafted then took action. They were mostly Irish American immigrants with few means, living in cramped often fetid quarters in New York City. They had low paying jobs without the benefits available today. They were indifferent to slavery and feared that if they went off to war, freed blacks would replace them. Adding to their anger was the fact that those with money could buy their way out of the draft or find substitutes. It was a rich man’s war, they complained, and a poor man’s fight.
Unimpeded, they took to the streets. There were no statues to be tumbled but plenty of damage to be done otherwise. They attacked, looted and burned stores, often owned by blacks, and police stations and Protestant churches. They lynched several blacks with genuine nooses. They particularly targeted known abolitionists and their newspapers like the New York Tribune. At a time of more assertive journalism, editors armed their staffers to confront the rioters. New York Times editor Henry Raymond, a top Republican, wielded a newly invented Gatling gun to defend his paper.
But there was no stopping the riot with available forces. Police tried but were undermanned. Federal troops normally nearby had gone off to war. In desperation, Washington rushed several regiments from the war in Pennsylvania to the city where they fired on rioters the way they had on Confederates. That did it. Twenty thousand troops maintained the draft and kept the peace for the remainder of the war. More than one hundred people had been killed, most of them rioters.
As it turned out, the draftees were not needed very much. There were about 46 thousand of them compared to 800 thousand volunteers who did most of the fighting and dying. The riot was an indication of seriously divided opinion in a war that cost more lives than any other in U.S. history, and it should be noted that Irish Americans, removed from the slums, fought willingly and gallantly in subsequent wars.