July 15, 2023 Letters from an American

July 15, 2023, Letters from an American, Prof Heather Cox Richardson

[Warning: the 13th paragraph of this piece, beginning “They did,” graphically describes racial violence.]

July 16 marks the 160th anniversary of the most destructive riot in U.S. history. On July 13, 1863, certain Democrats in New York City rose up against the Lincoln administration. Four days later, at least 119 people were dead, another 2,000 wounded. Rioters destroyed between $1 and $5 million in property including about fifty buildings, two churches, and an asylum for orphaned Black children. In today’s dollars, that would be between $20 million and about $96 million in damage. 

While the Republican and Democratic parties swapped ideologies almost exactly 100 years after the New York City draft riots, the questions of state and federal power, race, and political narratives, and how those things came together in the United States are still with us. 

The story of the draft riots began years before 1863. As soon as South Carolina’s leaders announced in late December 1860 that the state was seceding from the Union, New York City’s Democratic leaders made it clear they sympathized with those white southerners who opposed the idea that the federal government had the power to stop the spread of enslavement. In early January 1861, just days after South Carolina announced it was leaving the Union, before any other state joined it, and months before Republican Abraham Lincoln took office, New York City Democratic Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that New York City should secede from the Union, too.

By 1858 the city was at the center of the cotton trade (the roots of the Lehman Brothers financial services firm, which collapsed spectacularly in 2008, were in pre–Civil War cotton trading), its harbor full of ships carrying cotton and the products it enabled enslavers to buy from Europe. Democrats, organized as Tammany Hall, controlled New York City thanks to the votes of workingmen, especially Irish immigrants. 

By 1860, Democrats were losing ground to the Republicans, who rose rapidly to national power after 1854. Republicans believed that the Constitution protected slavery in the South but that Congress could stop the institution from moving to newly acquired lands in the West. Republicans controlled New York state. 

In his address to the Common Council of the city calling for it to create a “Free City” of New York, Wood declared that “a dissolution of the Federal Union is inevitable” and claimed the city had “friendly relations and a common sympathy” with the “Slave States.” But his call was not only about the South. He complained bitterly about the government of New York state. He opposed the taxes the Republican legislature had levied, claiming it was plundering the city to “enrich their speculators, lobby agents, and Abolition politicians.” Wood claimed that New York City had lost the right of self-government. If it broke off from the United States, he argued, the city could “live free from taxes, and have cheap goods….” 

Wood’s call didn’t get much traction on its own, but for the next two or three months it did prompt New Yorkers to argue about how much the federal government should offer to the southern states to induce them to return. That all changed when Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard fired on federal Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. New Yorkers rushed to support the United States. In the largest public meeting held until that point in U.S. history, more than 100,000 people rallied in Union Square, a spot historian of Union Square Michael Shapiro notes they chose in part because of its name. 

Growing Republican strength created a problem for Democrats. Republicans were attracting workingmen by promising to keep the West free for folks like them rather than hand it over to a few wealthy enslavers. And now the city was rallying behind the Republican war effort.

To hold on to their voters and thus to their power in New York City, Democratic leaders hammered on the idea that the Republicans intended to set Black Americans up over white men. In September 1862, Lincoln’s preliminary emancipation proclamation, issued at a time when Black men were prohibited from service in the army, enabled Democrats to argue that the Republicans were sending white men to their deaths for Black people.

Their racist argument worked: Lincoln’s Republicans got shellacked in the 1862 midterm elections, in part because of the Union’s terrible losses on the battlefields that year, but also because of the relentless racist campaign of the Democrats. Nonetheless, Lincoln went forward with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Furious, Democrats harped on the devastating news from the battlefields, where men were dying in firefights and of disease.

Then, in March, Congress passed a federal draft that took enrollment of soldiers away from the states and included all male citizens from ages 20 to 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 in a lottery for military service. Because the Supreme Court had decided in 1857 that Black men were not citizens, they were not included in the draft. New York City’s Democratic leaders, led now by Mayor George Opdyke, railed against the federal government and its willingness to slaughter white men for Black people. 

The Republican New York Times, in contrast, called the draft a “national blessing” that would settle, once and for all, whether the government was strong enough to compel men to fight for it. As for the Democrats threatening to stop the government’s enrollment of soldiers, the editor of the New York Times scoffed: “Let them do their worst.”

They did. The first lottery was held on July 11, and on the morning of July 13, Democrats attacked federal draft officers with rocks and clubs. Rioters then spread through the city, burning the homes and businesses of prominent Republicans. Storm clouds rolled up in the afternoon, mingling with the smoke to turn everything dark. Late in the day, the rioters turned their wrath onto the city’s Black residents. After burning the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children, they hunted down individual Black men, beating 12 to death before attacking a cart driver who stumbled into their path after putting up his horses. Symbolically killing him three times, several hundred men and boys beat him to death, then hanged him, then set fire to the body.  

The rioters had thought they represented the will of the American people, only to find themselves confronted by U.S soldiers, including a number from New York. The soldiers had come straight from the battlefields to help put down the riots.

In fact, the tide of the war had abruptly turned just before the draft riots. At the Battle of Gettysburg in early July, U.S. soldiers wiped out a third of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s fighting force. Then, on July 4, Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to General U.S. Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River and cutting the Confederacy in half, making it difficult for the Confederacy to move food, goods, and troops. The rioters seemed to be attacking the government just as it started to win.

And then, just two days after the draft riots ended, on July 18 the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment took heavy losses in an assault against Battery Wagner protecting Charleston Harbor. The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts was one of the nation’s first Black regiments, raised after the Emancipation Proclamation permitted Black men to join the army. It suffered 42% casualties in the battle, losing more than 270 of the 650 soldiers who fought there. “The splendid 54th is cut to pieces,” wrote Frederick Douglass’s son Lewis, a soldier of the regiment. “The grape and canister shell and Minnie swept us down like chaff…but still our men went on and on.” 

The contrast between white mobs railing against the government and murdering their Black neighbors while Black soldiers fought and died to defend the United States was stark. No fair-minded person could miss it.