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Social impact of the New York Draft Riots

Updated on September 7, 2013
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Depiction of the Draft Riots in 1863 from an unidentified periodical. © Pulic Domain
Depiction of the Draft Riots in 1863 from an unidentified periodical. © Pulic Domain

Devils Own Work

The New York Draft Riots took place from July 13 - 16, 1863 in New York City and were in response to Congress passing laws requiring men to be drafted to fight in the American Civil War unless the could pay a $300 Commutation Fee to exclude themselves from the draft. The draft and the riots that would result would have huge social implication on not only New York City, but the country as a whole.

First You have immigrants, living not much better than the slaves of the time lived, citizenship is finally being offered to you at this time but solely on the premise that you will then go fight for your new country; your poor status requires that you go fight since you can’t come up with the $300 commutation fee while the rich are easily sparred from having to go fight.

Most of these immigrants had immigrated to the United States because they were fed up with fighting in their homelands, and now they are being forced to fight, and by this time, for a group of people that they had no desire to fight for (the slaves had by this time been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation). With all of their hardships, the bitter pill that slaves would take away their already meager existence by their freedom AND the fact that they had to go fight and die for this to happen. Top this off with the fact that they couldn't buy their way out like others could and you have a pot ready to boil over, and it did.

Ove the four days the immigrants would take to the streets and buidings would be destroyed and burned, and blacks would murdered. Eventually the militia would be ordered back, some returning from Gettysburg, and would use force on the rioters who still refused to stay home. By Thursday evening the rioting would end.

Scorsese on the Draft Riots

Politically the riots were less impacting than the social implications. The states’ leaving the Union was a far bigger impact on the entire political structure of the time. You would have Mayor Fernando Wood supporting secession and Governor Horatio Seymour running on an anti-war platform as the only real political implications but all in all this was mostly just a Copperhead train of thought and people dismissed it as crazy.

But again, socially I think it was very significant. The number of killed and injured varies from low (120 killed, 2,000 injured) to very high (2,000 killed and 8,000 injured), but up to that time it was the most deadly riot in America. This is a prime example of the misconception people have that northerners were fighting to free the slaves. They weren't, and many in the north believed that freeing the slaves was a not only a bad idea because they were considered intellectually inferior but because, as the draft riots proved, the slaves represented competition for the low income working class.

So socially it was very significant and is a perfect study for people today, who don't really understand the Civil War or slavery, to start to get a real picture of the period outside of the regurgitated, politically correct fluff that has been and still is taught.

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