IWalked New York City’s Site of Civil War Draft Riots
Although there are no historical markers or sites that remain to commemorate the event, the intersection of Third Avenue and East 47th Street was once the site of one of the worst riots in the history of the United States—the Civil War Draft Riots. The year was 1863 and a young America was engaged in its worst internal struggle since the War of Independence. Tensions and war had already ensued for two years. Faced with a need of additional soldiers to aid the Union cause, Abraham Lincoln instituted the first formal draft within the history of the nation on March 3, 1863. This bill, known as the Conscription Act required that all males between the ages of 20 and 45 were now formally eligible to serve their country if deemed necessary. Men did, however, have the ability to forego eligibility if they were able to identify a willing substitute (of which you can imagine there was not an abundance of) or pay a fee of $300 to the government. It was this exclusion clause which really enraged many able-body men.
Many poor immigrant groups were especially bitter on this “pay for exclusion” clause, including the Irish and Germans. In a time when the average New York City immigrant worker only made approximately $.85 per day, this was a substantial sum to have to raise. Angry Irish folk began to argue that it appeared the Declaration of Independence had been modified to read, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of the Irishmen.”
Another group that took personal offense to the terms of the exclusion clause was the local New York City fire fighters. Feeling that they were already paying a debt to their country via “their” volunteer efforts, a careful eye was being placed on the “Draft Week” results.
Day one of the national draft call occurred here at the site of the Ninth District Provost Marshal’s offices on Saturday, July 11, 1863. On this particular day, one-half of the 2,000 draftee quota was successfully completed without incident. Early in the morning on the second day of the draft (Monday), and faced with a growing sense of dread over the draftee results, the local Fire Engine Company 33 decided to take matters into their own hand and ensure no further names could be drawn. They led a mob of about 500 men to the provost marshal’s office and began to set the place on fire. And what ensued could only be described as bedlam.
Over the next five days riots began to overtake the streets. At least 2,000 people were injured (although some estimates would have that number as high as 8,000) and 120 people were killed (again, estimates varied on this point to the degree of nearly 1,000). Also, over fifty buildings were burned to the ground and property damages exceed $1.5 million. None of these tragedies though was as ghastly as some of racial attacks versus blacks who were perceived as the ultimate “cause” of the situation to some. Tales were later reported of how men were hanged, burned and/or beaten with rocks to death.
To attempt to restore order, President Abraham Lincoln sent a regiment of troops from the nearby Federal Army of the Potomac to intercede. However, by the time the troops arrived on Thursday, July 16, order had already been maintained. The draft would resume one month later, this time without incident.
The tale of the Civil War Draft Riots was portrayed in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film, Gangs of New York. Here a much bleaker picture of the incident is portrayed.
Address: Intersection of Third Avenue and East 47th Street, New York City, NY
IWalked Audio Tours To See This Site: New York City’s Lower Midtown. (Purchase the MP3 tour here. iPhone application tour is available here. Please note, all NYC tours are now available as in-app purchases upon download of our FREE NYC Lite application, which includes a free 1.5 hour tour of a portion of the Upper West Side.)