Feature Articles

September 2002

The Draft Riots

By John William Tuohy

For further reading on this subject, see Herbert Asbury�s Gangs Of New York.

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     On March 3, 1863, President Lincoln signed the national conscription act which called for the registration of all males, between their ages of 18 and 45, for military service. Each city and state were given a quota, in New York the quota was 12,500 men. Those rich citizens who wanted to avoid the draft bought replacements to take their place for $300 and military exemptions were given out for frivolous reasons to all and any who had social pull. New York�s working class, had neither the money or the contacts to avoid the draft.

     On the day that the New York City draft riots started, March 4, 1862, a mob that was so large that it took twenty-five minutes to pass one point, gathered near what would become Central park at ten o'clock in the morning.

     There was leadership, but no one could figure out who it was. This is an avenue that needs better exploration. Was the New York city draft riot planned and carried out by Confederate agents? The evidence is there.

     At one point, a well dressed man known only as "Mr. Anderson of Virginia" (nothing else was ever known about him) stood on top of building and shouted to the mob that they must continue to organize to fight the draft, that Lincoln wanted them in the army so he could give their homes to Blacks and that Lincoln himself was really Black. Newspaper reporters later spotted Anderson again on the third day of the rioting, this time mounted on a horse and armed with a saber leading the mob on to other assaults.

     There were two other leaders, their identities still unknown. One was a giant of man with one arm (a wounded veteran perhaps? But of which side? Confederate or Union?) who lead the mob into an attack on an armory. He would later be shot and killed by police before the end of the second day of rioting.

     A third, younger man, always seemed to be at the head of the mob, directing the mobs assaults against police lines, always armed with a knife and a club. Marked out as a special target by the police he was knocked off his feet by a fearful blow to the head from a Policemen�s paddy club. His body spun around violently from the blow and fell on to an iron fence railing, impaling himself. Later, when police examined his dead body they found that under his workman's overalls, he was dressed in elegant expensive clothes, and his hands unmarked by a days manual labor. He carried no identification.

     Whoever the leaders were, they managed to organize thousands of mostly Irish laborers, into two groups, one marching down Fifth Avenue, the other down Sixth Avenue, carrying signs "no draft" Some were armed with rifles, most with axes and clubs. They could be heard block away, marching toward the enrollment office, a sea of thousands. Panicked, police headquarters issued a telegraph order to all stations "call in your reserves, platoon them and hold them at the station house subject to further orders"

     The mob arrived just as the draft started, at 10:30. A shot was fired and the mob rushed the building. The police drew their paddy clubs and fought back, but they were showered with bricks and stones pulled from the streets

     The police withdrew in to the building and held off the mob while the draft board members escaped out a back door, followed by the police. The mob flooded into the building, destroyed the interior, and then set that building and three more surrounding it, on fire.

     A detachment of the "Invalid corps", made up of solders who had been wounded in the field, marched out to meet the crowd, despite the fact that most of them limped and wobbled from their wounds. The soldiers marched up Third Avenue, rifles at ready although most of their guns were loaded only with blanks. The enraged mob raced towards the troops and engaged them on 42nd street and assaulted them with bricks and rocks. Several dozen soldiers were struck and fell to the street, the officer in charge ordered retreat and regroup and then gave the detachment permission to open fire. When they did, six members of the mob were hit, three killed instantly, but the mob kept coming. In hand to hand combat, the solders were beaten back and had their rifles pulled away from them. Most of the detachment broke ranks and fled down the streets but several of the solders were trapped and within minutes, two were beaten to death with their own rifles. A third ran to a ridge over a river bank, stopped, faced the mob then threw himself over the bank and was killed.

     By 11:30, an hour and a half into the riot, the mobs were everywhere in the city, sweeping through stores and offices. All public transportation came to a stand still including the railroads, most telegraph wires were cut across the city except a secret cable that ran from police headquarters to most police stations.

     The Mayor called the city council together for an emergency meeting, but only half showed because by then the mob had gathered at the park outside of city hall forcing the Mayor to move his base of operations to the St. Nicholas hotel on Broadway. Police superintendent John A. Kennedy leaped in to a carriage and headed toward city hall, not realizing that the mob gad overrun the building. Although he was dressed in civilian clothes, someone in the mob recognized Kennedy as he rode down Third avenue. The mob stopped his coach and one man, wearing an old army uniform, pulled Kennedy out of the carriage and knocked him to the ground and stomped him. Kennedy leaped to his feet and swung his cane in to the crowd but, again, the mob pulled him down to the street and kicked and stabbed him, cutting him twenty times and leaving him with seventy two bruises. Remarkably Kennedy managed to get to his feet and fight back long enough to make a run for it down the street in to the arms of John Eagan who convinced the mob that Kennedy was dead, content, they moved along.

     One half of the mob made its way down Broadway towards a military enrollment office. The mob assaulted the building and looted a jewelry store located on the first floor. One man stepped forward and said "this is an unspeakable outrage. As an American citizen I am ashamed" A club came out of no where and opened the mans skull, the mob continued it looting.

     Someone started the chant "To the armory" which was a few blocks away and loaded down with 4,000 carbines and 200,000 rounds of ammunition. Police caught the chant and a squad of 32 patrolmen were assigned to protect the building against thousands.

     It was now 2:30 in the afternoon and many of the mobsters were armed with rifles. At the armory the mob fired at the police who took protection inside the building At 4:30, the mob rushed the armory and battered down the door with a sledge hammer. One man jumped through the doors first and was shot through the head by the police, but the mob was right behind him and an intense gun fight broke out that lasted for five minutes. Vastly outnumbered, the police made their escape out of a 12 by 18 inch hole in the rear wall of the building and then clubbed their way through the mob and escaped to a nearby precinct that would be burned to the ground within hour after the armory was taken over.

     A new detachment of police marched back to the armory where a part of the mob was on the top floor tossing down cases of rifles and bullets to rioters below. When the hoods inside the building noticed the fresh detachment of police marching towards them, someone closed and bolted the door to armory. Outside, the mob also saw the police coming, and without considering the looters still within the armory, set fire to the building. The fire spread quickly and engulfed the building. Days later, when work crews cleared the building they carried out no less then 50 baskets of bones and remains from the building.

     By about five o'clock, three Black men were dead, killed at the hands of the mob, stripped naked, partially burned and hung by the neck from trees.

     Another mob made its way to the Colored Orphan Asylum near Fifth avenue, which housed 300 children and fifty adult staffers. The asylums director barricaded the front door and led the children and the staffers out the back door just as the mob charged in to the building and started to began to smash up the property. A small, Black child was discovered hiding under a bed. A group of women pulled her out and beat her to death.

     In all, eighteen Black men were hung by the neck from trees and burned.

     When night fell, large parts of the city were on fire and the inferno was spreading because City firemen either refused to venture outside their stations to extinguish them (since the mob attacked them every time they tried) or had gone off and joined the rioters. The Black section of the five points area was almost completely burned to the ground. For miles around, New York could be seen in the distance in an orange-black haze.

     Thousands of law abiding citizens poured out of city for safety. Suddenly there was a drenching downpour of rain that soaked everything and left the city was covered with a thick white smoke. By around eight that evening, the mob had retired back to their homes.

     During the night, Police reorganized themselves. They knew that the mob would be back the next day. Plain clothes detectives, at great risk, volunteered to infiltrate the mobs and send back information to the station houses. Policemen were called in from vacations and from nearby town. By the end of the night the police force was 1500 strong. Two thousand troops and national guard were called in from nearby forts and perhaps another 500 citizens volunteered as special duty officer. Law enforcement's total strength was now roughly between four to five thousand strong, still, the mobs were conservatively estimated to number between 50 000 to 75,000 strong.

     Before dawn, on Tuesday morning a mob pushed its way in to the Black neighborhood of Hudson street. Most of the neighbor-hood had already fled, only one man, William Jones (the same named of the first man to be drafted two days before) stayed to defend his home. He was beaten, had a rope tied around his neck and dragged through the streets, finally, he was hung by the neck then set afire a fire while some of the mob danced around his dead body.

     A few hours later the mob, again numbering in the tens of thousands, stormed the Union Steam Works building which was used as a storage armory, but were cut off by a detachment of 200 policemen. Remarkably, the policemen managed to push the mob down 32nd street using only their clubs. The mob, and there were thousands and thousands of them, charged the police lines some of them firing at the cops as they charged, but incredibly, the police stood their ground, and even more incredibly pushed the mob back again, this time dispersing them.

     Minutes later the police were reinforced by 150 members of the Eleventh New York Volunteers under the command of Colonel H.J O'Brien. O'Brien ordered his squad of 25 artillery men to level their two cannons at the mob and fire. At least six rounds were fired in to the mob and an unknown numbers, dozens at least, fell dead and wounded, among them a young mother who was holding a baby in her arms.

     When the mob dispersed, O'Brien marched his men back to the armory and then decided to go back to his own home, not far away, to check on his families safety. As he rode down the street on his mount, someone recognized him. A crowd gathered and pulled him from his horse, but O'Brien punched his way out and ran into a nearby saloon and locked the door behind him as the mob grew larger.

     The bartender, seeing that the mob would burn down his establishment, with him in it, ordered O'Brien to leave. O'Brien, in an amazing display of fortitude and audacity, stepped out to face the mob, saber drawn. For a long moment the crowd stood in silence and awe at the Colonels arrogance and daring. He took a few steps forward to get to his horse and a club knocked him to the ground, the mob rediscovered its questionable courage and leaped on him and beat him to a bloody pulp, tied a rope around his ankles and dragged him back and fourth across the cobblestone streets. A Priest pushed his way through the crowd and pleaded for O'Brien's life, but the most the mob would let him do is administer the last rites of the church to O'Brien's twitching body. After that the mob dragged O'Brien through the street for a while longer, amazed and annoyed that he still wasn't dead, they dragged him into his own front yard and where a group of women stabbed him with butcher knifes and then stoned him, still it took him several hours to die.

     While O'Brien was being slowly tortured and eventually killed, across the city, mobs burned down a Black Baptist church. Horace Greely's Tribune newspaper building was attacked four times while Greely hid under his desk.

     A contingent of rioters attacked a livery stable and rode off with some horse which started the rumor that the mob had formed a Calvary unit. Another part of the mob looted its way across mid town Manhattan and took 10,000 worth of suits and clothing from a brooks brothers store making this one of the better dressed riots in American history. Another group, led by a banner "down with Protestantism" burned downed a Methodist mission house and a rumor spread after wards that the riot was a Catholic Irish uprising.

     On Wednesday July 15th, a sweltering hot day, the United States Secretary of War sent five regiments from the front to put down the New York insurrection, the city council agreed to borrow $3,750,00-0.00 to pay the $300.00 exemption fee that any New Yorker could now request.

     When it was over, the estimated numbers of dead was 2200, about the same number of Americans killed in the war of 1812. About 10,000 were wounded including virtually every member of the police force and another three hundred Federal troops were wounded and an estimated fifty were killed. 11,000 rifles, and pistols were captured along with 7000 bats, clubs and sticks were confiscated. The damage to the city was in the millions.

     Only 19 persons were tried and convicted for their parts in the riot, with each receiving an average prison term of five years.

Mr. Tuohy can be reached by writing to

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