The Irish in the Civil War

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The New York City Draft Riots from Harper's Weekly Image from Harper's Weekly depicting the riots at New York - "The rioters burning and sacking the colored orphan asylum" Item Link

For five days beginning July 13, 1863, the Irish of New York City went on a rampage against both the military draft enacted March 1, 1863 (an extension of the 1862 draft) and also Negroes. For the mostly impoverished population, much less enthusiastic after two years of war and fearful of the impact on their economic future after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the draft was especially galling. Anyone who could afford it could pay $300 or pay a substitute that amount to evade the draft. Poor Irish-American immigrants could not afford the former and would be many of the substitutes hired to serve in the Union armies. The law also ended the earlier draft exemption of the city’s voluntary fire department.


The prior hostility of the Irish to abolition and emancipation was aggravated in New York City in June, 1863 when 3,000 striking mostly Irish stevedores on the city’s docks were replaced by Negroes, protected by the police. As the draftees’ names became known, mobs of rioters attacked the draft offices, as well as police stations. The police superintendent barely survived but the head of the local militia was hung. Ironically, the head of the draft was Colonel Robert Nugent, formerly of the Irish 69th regiment, whose house was burned. Wounded at Fredericksburg, Nugent would be the last commander of the Irish Brigade. Across the city, Negroes became targets of the angry mobs. The rioting ended with the return of New York troops sent to Gettysburg earlier that month. The exact number of dead is unknown but it is likely that the number well exceeded 100 and was estimated to be as high as a thousand.


Following the restoration of order, the conscription law was temporarily suspended. After its reinstatement, the city governments of New York City and Brooklyn agreed to buy exemptions for those wishing them but unable to afford the cost, helping to deflate continuing opposition to the draft. The New York City draft riots were the largest anti-war outburst of its kind, in contrast to the opposition of many “Copperheads” (Peace Democrats) to Lincoln’s war policies.