Martha Derby Perry was stunned when she looked out her upper-floor window into the New York City street below. She was sitting at the bedside of her husband, assistant surgeon John Perry of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers, as he recovered from a severely fractured leg. Below, she’saw rushing up Lexington Avenue, within a few paces of our house, a great mob of men, women, and children; the men, in red working shirts, looking fairly fiendish as they brandished clubs, threw stones, and fired pistols. Many of the women had babies in their arms, and all of them were completely lawless as they swept on.’
For five days, from Monday, July 13, until Friday, July 17, 1863, terror reigned in the streets of New York. Armed mobs protesting the first Federal conscription threatened the nation’s manufacturing and commercial center. What began as a demonstration against the draft and Abraham Lincoln’s Republican administration rapidly degenerated into bloody race riots that left at least 105 people dead. The New York City Draft Riots were by far the most violent civil disorder in 19th-century America. The widespread destruction threatened the very foundations of the Union.
The New York City Draft Riots came at a critical point during Lincoln’s efforts to centralize the Federal government’s power. The war was not going well for Lincoln in the spring of 1863. After two years of fighting, the Union Army had shown few signs that it could win the conflict and both sides had suffered enormous casualties. The Union ranks continued to thin due to death and desertion, and many three-year enlistments would soon be up. Volunteers could no longer be counted upon to replenish the ranks.
The War Department concluded that only a draft could supply the necessary manpower. A Federal provost marshal for each congressional district was appointed and empowered to conduct the draft and arrest those refusing to comply. The new law made all men between 20 and 35 and all unmarried men between 35 and 45 liable for military duty. Drafted men who presented an ‘acceptable substitute’ or paid $300 were exempted. This placed the burden of service most heavily on poor whites, who resented the exemption.
For the first time in American history, the Federal government imposed itself directly into the affairs of the working class. The draft act juxtaposed three emotional issues–rich-poor relations, black-white relations and local-federal relations–into one explosive issue. Poor white laborers, many of them recent immigrants to the United States, felt threatened by the possible influx of cheap black labor. Since blacks were not full citizens, they could not be drafted. The rich could afford exemption. Poor whites, with some justice, felt discriminated against, which created an atmosphere that was ripe for revolt.
The draft began as scheduled on Saturday, July 11, and New Yorkers quickly realized that the governor and the Democrats were not going to be able to prevent conscription. Over the weekend of July 11 and 12, working people gathered in saloons, streets and kitchens to discuss their response to the draft lottery, which was scheduled to resume on Monday, July 13. As New York Her-ald Editor James Gordon Bennett later wrote, ‘Those who heard the scattered groups of laborers and mechanics who congregated in different quarters on Saturday evening…might have reasonably argued that a tumult was at hand.’
The Draft Riots began on July 13 between 6 and 7 a.m. Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work. By 8 o’clock, the workers were streaming up Eighth and Ninth avenues, closing shops, factories and construction sites and urging their workers to join them. The procession congregated in Central Park for a brief meeting, then formed into two columns that marched to the Ninth District provost marshal’s office. They carried ‘NO DRAFT’ placards.
At 10:30, the draft lottery got underway with the large crowd of protestors assembled outside. No one seemed to know what to do next until a fire engine company, Engine Company Number 33, arrived. The firemen set the provost marshal’s office on fire, and the riot was ignited.
One way to understand the impact of the violence is to examine firsthand accounts of the events, like those of Martha Derby Perry. She left a detailed record of her experiences in letters to her family in Boston, which she later published in her husband’s 1906 book, Letters From a Surgeon.
John Perry was a student at Harvard Medical School when the Civil War broke out. He joined the Union Army before completing his studies and was assigned as assistant surgeon with the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers. In the spring of 1863, Perry suffered a severe leg fracture in a horseback-riding accident and was transported to New York City, where he could recuperate with his wife and her family. Unfortunately, Perry could not locate a surgeon to set his broken leg. As he wrote, ‘At last, in sheer desperation, I asked my wife’s brother to find splints, plaster and bandages and we, together, set my leg with good and permanent results.’
The chapter in Dr. Perry’s book concerning the Draft Riots was written by Martha Perry while her husband was recovering, ‘waiting with keen impatience for the time when he could return to his regiment.’ The noise below caught her attention that Mon-day: ‘On the first day of the riot, in the early morning, I heard loud and continued cheers at the head of the street, and supposed it must be news of some great victory. In considerable excitement I hurried downstairs to hear particulars, but soon found that the shouts came from the rioters who were on their way to work. About noon that same day we became aware of a confused roar; as it increased, I flew to my window, and saw rushing up Lexington Avenue, within a few paces of our house, a great mob of men, women and children…’
Even though many of the men were armed and ‘fairly fiendish,’ Martha ‘drew the cot upon which John was lying, his injured leg in a plaster cast, up to the window, and threw his military coat over his shoulders, utterly unconscious of the fact that if the shoulder straps had been noticed by the rioters they would have shot him, so blind was their fury against the army. The mass of humanity soon passed, setting fire to several houses quite near us, for no other reason, we heard afterward, than that a policeman, whom they suddenly saw and chased, ran inside one of the gates, hoping to find refuge. The poor man was almost beaten to death, and the house, with those adjoining, burned.
‘At all points fires burst forth, and that night the city was illuminated by them. I counted from the roof of our house five fires just about us.’
The next day, Mrs. Perry remembered, ‘was a fearful one. Men, both colored and white, were murdered within two blocks of us, some being hung to the nearest lamppost, and others shot. An army officer was walking in the street near our house, when a rioter was seen to kneel on the sidewalk, take aim, fire and kill him, then coolly start on his way unmolested. I saw the Third Avenue street car rails torn up by the mob. Throughout the day there were frequent conflicts between the military and the rioters, in which the latter were often victorious, being partially organized, and well armed with various weapons taken from the stores they had plundered.
‘I passed the hours of that dreadful night listening to the bedlam about us; to the drunken yells and coarse laughter of the rioters wandering aimlessly through the streets, and to the shouts of a mob plundering houses a block away.’
On the third day of the riots, Mrs. Perry heard that the rioters were murdering black citizens. ‘Hurrying to the kitchen,’ she recalled, ‘I found our colored servants ghastly with terror, and cautioned them to keep closely within doors. One of them told me that she had ventured out early that morning to clean the front door, and that the passing Irish, both men and women, had sworn at her so violently, saying that she and her like had caused all the trouble, that she finally rushed into the house for shelter.
‘Now that I began to realize our danger, I tried with all my power to keep John in ignorance of it, for in his absolutely disabled condition the situation was most distressing. The heat was intense: and during the morning I sat in his room behind closed window shutters, continually on the alert to catch every outside noise, while watching the hot street below in the glare of sunlight.
‘Men and women passed with all sorts of valuables taken from plundered houses…. Later in the day a crowd of boys arrived with stout sticks, threw stones at our house…and then rushed on. This added to my alarm, I having heard that a rush of street arabs always preceded an attack by the mob. Parties of Irishmen passed and pointed to our house, and a boy ran by shouting, ‘we’ll have fun up here tonight.’
‘My heart felt overloaded as I looked at John in his helpless condition. What were we to do? Even if he were able to be moved, there was no way of accomplishing it.
‘When one of my brothers returned to lunch and reported the increasing strength of the mob, I told him of all I had seen and heard during the morning, and we considered the question of barricading the street doors and windows, but soon decided that it was useless. He then went to the police station to ask for information and help, but before leaving placed a ladder against the back wall of our back yard, so that in case of attack the servants might, by this means, escape to the adjoining premises, and from there to the next street….
‘The police had been already plundered of most of their firearms, and needed all their force to defend themselves. They could do literally nothing for us, but recommended barricading the front entrances to the house as well as we could.
‘The city became frightfully still, and this silence was broken only by occasional screams and sharp reports of musketry.
‘My brothers were calling at every house in the ward to induce the occupants to meet at the police station, armed with whatever weapon each could find, in order to organize and patrol the streets through the night. Meantime our servants were instructed to remain downstairs, and not to run until the house was actually attacked, then to rush to the ladder in the back yard; and I was to cover their retreat by hiding the ladder.
‘At ten o’clock that evening we were left alone in absolute darkness, as the police sent word that light would increase our danger. John lay quietly on his cot, while I again sat by the window to catch the slightest sound….
‘During the night my brothers returned, and told us that just as the officers at the police station had agreed to combine with the citizens and patrol that vicinity, a man rushed in crying that the mob was murdering someone in our street. The whole force formed and charged up the avenue, but met only scattered bands of rioters, and these slunk away as the files of organized men appeared, stretching in solid lines from sidewalk to sidewalk, as the rioters supposed, fully armed. We heard afterward that this steadfast army, looking so formidable, while so feeble in reality, was all that saved us; that our house and the one opposite, as well as the police station, were distinctly marked by the mob for that night’s work.’
The ensuing day was still an anxious one, but it passed safely, with nothing happening to the Perrys, and ‘we began to feel at ease again. By this time the city was full of troops, and finally the riot was quelled by firing canister into the mob. As we heard the heavy reports and responding yells, it seemed to me that I knew something of the horrors of war.’
This article was written by Stephen D. Lut and originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of America’s Civil War.
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