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Brooklyn and the New York City Draft Riots

Jul 14, 2010 2:52 PM | 0 comments

This month marks the 147th anniversary of the New York City Draft riots. For three days in July of 1863, rioters turned Manhattan upside down in protest against the Civil War Draft. How did Brooklyn residents react to orders to fight for the Union forces in the Civil War?

Guarding the Home, Brooklyn's Guardieans, 1887

In the early months of 1863 the National Conscription Act was passed and enforcement was planned for Brooklyn and New York City in July of 1863. The Conscription Act stated that all single men aged 20-45 and married men up to 35 would be enrolled in the draft lottery. The act also contained language for drafted men to avoid conscription.  They could either pay a $300 fee or find someone to replace them.  In New York of 1863, you can, I'm sure, imagine how well that went over with working class men and their families.  Class struggles were nothing new to New Yorkers.  New immigrants competed with both unskilled black and white workers.  The draft seemed to be the spark that ignited long-held tensions among the lower classes of New York City.

On July 10, 1863, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article that described the details of the upcoming draft. (Click on the image to read the full article.) New York City, Brooklyn, Queens, and surrounding counties were preparing the lottery to fulfill their quotas. Names were drawn for New York on July 10. As the names were published in the paper, People devised plans to resist the draft. On the morning of Monday, July 13, as more names were being announced, angry crowds formed and violence erupted. Here you can find a brief, but excellent description of the five days of rioting in July 1863.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reports the mayhem in a way that would incite anyone to either join the rioters or to lock up their home and cower in the basement. And in Brooklyn, both happened. In the book The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863, the author writes that "Brooklyn had remained quiet while anarchy reigned in New York. The city across the East River was so scandalously underpoliced that any mob outbreak would have met almost no opposition. Fortunately, many of those most likely to riot went over to New York to fight and pillage there." We must remember that there were no bridges to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan, so taking the ferry across the river required some resolve.

Printing House Square, 1868 Rendering, Brooklyn Daily Eagle

In fact, those traveling across to Manhattan via the Fulton Ferry were some of Brooklyn's police force led by Inspector John S. Folk.  You can read more about Brooklyn's police force in a great post by June.  Folk and his forces left Brooklyn, believing that the city would remain quiet and he was right.  One article in the Eagle on July 15 states that "Affairs in the city (Brooklyn) remain quiet and orderly...those inclined to aid in disreputable scenes proceeded to New York and left us in the enjoyment of peace".  Folk however saw violence at Printing House Square, where the Tribune offices were attacked.  According to the book President Lincoln's Third Largest City: Brooklyn and the Civil War,  Folk's police force quelled the rioters near the square and "marched off to the Brooklyn ferries amidst cheers from their New York compatriots." 

John S. Folk, Brooklyn's Guardians, 1887

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the frenzy as it happened, which probably helped lead to the preparations taking place in Brooklyn. On July 14, 1863, it was announced that the draft had been postponed in New York and Brooklyn (remember, we haven't consolidated yet). The lists and enrollment papers were secured and stowed for safety in the event of an uprising in Brooklyn. Firemen were told to be on duty 24 hours a day. Guns and heavy artillery were removed to safer locations and it was announced that the Navy Yard's equipment would be available in an emergency.

African-Americans were among the main targets of the rioters.  Brooklyn was home to one of the oldest and largest pre-Civil War independent African-American communities. During the draft riots, many African-Americans fled to Brooklyn and to Weeksville.  While documentation is scarce on what happened within Weeksville during the riots, the Eagle and the New York Times both reported attacks on African-Americans, including murders and lynchings and the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street in Manhattan. On July 16, the Eagle briefly mentions that the community of Weeksville had been thrown into a state of commotion by rumors that rioters from Jamaica, Queens were on their way to attack. The white citizens of the area organized to keep the peace swearing in special deputy sheriffs. Many African-Americans found refuge in the tiny community of Crow Hill (now Crown Heights). This article published by the Eagle in 1889, describes the events in Crow Hill of July 1863.

Fire in the Atlantic Basin, 1868, Frank Leslie's Illustrated

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle suggests that while there was some trouble within Brooklyn, such as the destruction of two grain elevators (as in the image above) the violence should not necessarily be ascribed to the draft. As Henry Stiles, the classic 19th century Brooklyn historian states, "the law abiding disposition of the citizens of Brooklyn was shown in the universal observance of the peace throughout the city." In the aftermath, firemen and certain militia men were aided by the common council to gain exemptions in military service.  Brooklyn and Kings County filled the draft quotas in September 1864 and within a year, the war ended.   If you are interested in learning more about the Brooklyn in the Civil War, you are in the right place! Visit our digital collection by clicking on the image below: