What were the causes of the draft riots in northern cities, New York especially, during the Civil War?

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Taking New York as the prime example, it was a perfect storm of factors that set off the 1863 draft riots.  War fatigue was the first.  By July of 1863, the beginning of the third year of the war, casualties had been dreadful among Union forces, with some regiments down to 10-15% strength, and then being folded into new regiments and marched into battle once again.  Unlike in small towns, the casualty lists would be posted in big cities like New York in long sheets on the sides of the draft board and telegraph offices.  Hundreds of names at a time would be on these lists.  The damaging effect this would have on the public’s morale and support for the war over time is incalculable.  How many times did wives, children and parents go down to scan the lists of names, hoping they wouldn’t find their loved one’s name among the dead?  And the lists were posted week after week, Gettysburg after Antietam, after Shiloh, after Bull Run.

In 1863, there was no end in sight, no palpable signal that final victory was at hand, or that it was even possible at that point in time.  To make matters worse, New York, a very large, bustling, industrial city that was essential to the war effort, had a work force that was mixed in ethnicity: immigrant and free black alike.  The racial tension between whites and blacks and among the various Irish, Polish, German and Italian minorities was a powder keg as it was.

The spark in this case happened when, alongside the ridiculously long lists of dead from the battle at Gettysburg being posted on the draft board office, they also posted up long lists of the names of new draftees obviously intended to take their place.  It was simply very fertile ground for a riot to take place.

Racial tension, war frustration, grief for loved ones lost, a loss of faith in government, and a city where the police had limited control led to explosive riots that spread across northern cities.  In the case of New York, exhausted troops had to be marched in fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg to restore order.  Can you imagine what they must have thought, having just survived the carnage and slaughter of battle, and then returning to a city that didn’t seem to support the war or appreciate the sacrifice?  They must have wondered what semblance of Union they were fighting to protect.

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