Race and Labor in the 1863 New York City Draft Riots
What sparked one of the deadliest insurrections in American history?
by Shannon Luders-Manuel, Albon P Man Jr. via JSTOR Daily on May 4, 2017
An enormous historical event that shaped New York City is not much spoken of today. In July 1863, about 1,200 to 1,500 men, mostly Irish dockworkers, rioted against the Civil War draft in New York City in a four-day upheaval, targeting black workers and citizens. The number of fatalities is unclear, but reports fluctuate between 100 to over 1,000. It remains the most significant insurrection by civilians in American history.
Beginning in 1846, newly-arrived immigrants took over menial occupations that had been reserved for black workers. Many black employees lost their jobs, as the immigrants were willing to accept work at lower rates. By 1860, fear of the outsider was turned on its head and used to cast votes against Abraham Lincoln and in support of local politicians who supported slavery. Those who promoted this fear often contradicted themselves, stating that newly-freed blacks would take jobs away from white workers, while also asserting that blacks would drain tax resources on account of their laziness.
In 1862 and 1863, longshoremen began striking in order to combat low wages. When the Erie Railroad Company hired blacks to move bales of cotton during a strike, the crowd beat them until they left the waterfront. The Hudson River Railroad hired both black and white strikebreakers when employees decried a loss in wages, but only black workers were targeted for violence. “The defeated workers seethed with resentment against those replacements whose dark skin made them stand out conspicuously and rendered them easy targets for revenge.”