Remembering New York’s Lethal Civil Battle Draft Riots

NEW YORK (PIX11) – The deadliest riot in US history occurred on the streets of New York City during the Civil War. During the Draft Riots of 1863 “everything exploded,” explains historian Harold Holzer. “It got really fatal.”

The victims of the violence were mostly black New Yorkers. Kamau Ware documented this chapter in the city’s history through his work with the Black Gotham Experience and his new film with The Shed, FIGHTING DARK.

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“Black people were persecuted and beaten to death,” Ware told NEWS10’s sister station in the city. “Black people were torn from their homes, lynched, and set on fire.”

In 1863 America was in the middle of a civil war. While possession of slaves was already against the law in New York, the city was still an international financial center that benefited from the slave trade. “New York [was] I was very sympathetic to the south and even had a mayor who wanted to get New York out of the Union out of solidarity with the south, ”said Ware.

As the civil war battles raged on and the need for soldiers increased, the first draft in the history of the Union was drawn up. On Third Avenue and East 47th Street, the names of over 1,0000 townspeople were put into a drum. If a person’s name were drawn they would be sent to war.

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Ware said a draft selection looked “like a death sentence”. A movement against the draft grew rapidly, troubled by local politicians and conservative media.

“The largely Irish-American part of town, to be honest, was upset that they were asked to lead the fighting and that the fighting now includes not only union restoration but the freeing of enslaved people”, said Holzer in a recent interview.

The New York Draft Riots (July 13-16, 1863; then known as Draft Week. Title: The Great Troubles of New York, 1712-1873): including a full and complete account of the Four Days Draft Riot of 1863 / by author: Joel Tyler Headley, 1813-1897. Published: 1873 Original by: the University of Michigan. Digitized: February 17, 2006, public domain

On July 11th, shortly before the draft began, a mob destroyed the draft wheel. The violence spread throughout the city and Ware said, “The police that were there were overwhelmed.”

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Disgruntled rioters made their way to Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street, where they burned the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“They set fire to the building with the mattresses in the dormitories. They have 250 children, they are all huddled up on the first floor, and a mob outside is shouting racist nicknames about killing the young children, ”said Holzer.

The headmaster and all 250 children fled to safety, but other black New Yorkers weren’t so lucky. William Jones was hanged from a tree on the corner of Clarkson and Hudson Steets. He was one of eleven black New Yorkers who were publicly lynched.

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“They were genitally mutilated in public, strung up, they were burned,” said Holzer. “They were driven into the Hudson River from the docks on the west side.”

“Some bodies washed ashore,” said Ware.

Holzer said the violence finally ended when “Lincoln finally dispatched federal troops that were part of the reserve and were not active in Gettysburg. [He] sent them by train and they restored order. “

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When the riots were over, an unknown number of black New Yorkers left racially diverse neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan for Brooklyn, including Weeksville, a vacant black settlement. “I think it’s important that we remember how volatile it was, how racist it was,” says Holzer. “We don’t benefit from ignoring the truth of the story.”

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