What were the New York draft riots?

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The New York City draft riots took place during the Civil War in 1863. For a number of years, abolitionists had been growing in influence in New York. This created a backlash among supporters of slavery and proponents of the Democratic Party, who wished to exploit a growing fear among...

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The New York City draft riots took place during the Civil War in 1863. For a number of years, abolitionists had been growing in influence in New York. This created a backlash among supporters of slavery and proponents of the Democratic Party, who wished to exploit a growing fear among some workers that their wages and conditions would be undercut by emancipated slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation naturally added fuel to the fire. Resentment was further increased by the introduction of stricter draft laws in March 1863. Large numbers of workers, previously exempt from conscription, were now being expected to fight for the very same people they thought would soon be taking their jobs.

The simmering rage boiled over in the early hours of July 13, 1863 and led to five days of mayhem and destruction. Angry mobs, egged on by sections of the gutter press, went on the rampage, at first destroying anything related to the government or military. But then, the focus of the mob changed, and the disturbances turned into full-scale race riots, with African-Americans being brutally attacked, and in a number of tragic cases, summarily lynched. All the simmering racial tensions that had been bubbling below the surface for many years now came to the boil.

When order was finally restored, eleven black men lay dead, with hundreds more African-Americans injured, maimed and traumatized. Large sections of New York had effectively been ethnically cleansed with whole families being driven out. African-American workers had also been driven out of entire professions such as longshoremen.

The New York City draft riots, though less significant compared to many events of the Civil War, nonetheless had profound repercussions. They pointed towards the immense difficulties of establishing any degree of racial harmony in the United States in the aftermath of the War and beyond. And this is a legacy which Americans still find themselves dealing with to this very day.

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