The New York City draft riot of mid-1863 was the desperate result of dwindling Northern enlistments after a bloody 1862, little Northern military success to show for its invasion of the South, and Lincoln’s conversion of the war to one of emancipation, which few in the North were willing to die for. With Lincoln’s conscription implemented, Northern governors feared losing the next election and began raising monies to fund exemptions for their constituents as well as bounty money to attract the poor, released prisoners and foreigners into the army of emancipation.
Further, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew sent his State agents into the occupied South to acquire black “recruits” who would count against his State’s troop quota established by Lincoln.
In New York’s Oswego County, “the Republican Times advocated the recruitment of Negroes to fill the ranks and delay the draft” (Oswego County’s Response to the Civil War, New York History, Jan. 1961, pg. 79). Oswego County later sent a delegation to occupied Newport News, “for the purpose of procuring substitutes among the freedmen,” and expecting they could be hired cheaply.
Resisting Lincoln’s Draft
“July 21. Tuesday .
The N.Y. Herald of 16th had been received, & its accounts quoted by today’s papers. The riot had continued through third day, (Wednesday, 15th,) without abatement. Several severe conflicts had taken place between the military & “the people” . . . “Negroes greatly persecuted, & 3 hung.” A great flight of Negroes from the city — & also many of the superior inhabitants . . . “The (City) Council has appropriated $2,500,000 for conscripts.”
This last incident is the most important of all. The city government has by this action completely submitted to the mob, & agreed to pay, out of the property of those citizens who possess property, for the exemption from military service of all conscripts of the city who have no property. This is a far more signal victory to the rioters than was the suspension of the draft.
It [the draft] may now be safely resumed & carried out, without annoyance to the conscripts, as the payment for their exemption is fixed in advance & at the expense of other people . . . The procedure is equivalent to offering a reward of $300 (the price for exemption) to every rioter who would have been liable to conscription.
This is enough to induce like riots in every other Yankee town. And before the operation of this additional incentive, like riots, or disturbances, but less violent & destructive than in New York, had broken out in sundry other places – at Brooklyn, Troy, Newark, Yorkville, Harlem, Jamaica, Westchester, & elsewhere.
July 25. Saturday .
The [New York City] draft is not to be renewed for a week . . . waiting until a full force of 35,000 men shall be arrayed in the city to restrain the populace, & enforce the execution of the draft. Then, I think, there will be more serious & bloody work than before . . . the army, with artillery and grape-shot in every street, may restrain important outbreaks in the city . . .
The like policy of buying exemptions of the poor, is under discussion in the public councils of Philadelphia, & $2,000,000 is the appropriation proposed. It will operate like the policy of the sinking western Roman empire in buying the mercy & the retreat of the invading hosts of barbarians, when threatening to enter to sack and burn the city of Rome.
In the meantime, [editor Horace] Greeley, through the [New York] “Tribune,” (the organ of the thorough abolitionists,) is calling upon the federal power to carry out the draft, & to crush all opposition by overwhelming military force.”
(The Diary of Edmund Ruffin, Volume III, A Dream Shattered: June 1863-June 1865, William K. Scarborough, editor, 1989, LSU Press, excerpts pp. 74-75; 83)