The New York City Draft Riots remain today the single largest urban civilian insurrection in United States history. By the start of the Civil War in April 1861, New York City, New York Mayor Fernando Wood called for the city to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy, but the response from most New Yorkers was unenthusiastic. Nonetheless, two years later when the U.S. government instituted the first military draft, anti-government sentiment particularly among the city’s large Irish-born population, grew quickly. One could escape the draft by paying a $300 fine (about $5,500 today). The rich were able to afford the fines, while the disenfranchised and poor white men, who in New York City were often Irish, were forced to enlist because they were frequently the sole source of income for their families.
When the draft came to New York City in July 1863, anti-government anger turned to anti-government and anti-black violence. The anti-black violence was driven by the resentment that the Irish would have to compete with freedpeople for jobs in the city now that the Union had embraced emancipation.
On the first day of the draft, July 11, the city was relatively quiet. However, by day three, July 13, tensions boiled over. Volunteer firefighters from Engine Co. No. 33, were known for their violent nature. Angry at their commissioner, they set fire to their own company firehouse which attracted an angry mob. Led by the firefighters, the mob continued down 3rd Avenue, ransacking and burning businesses in their wake. They focused on those enterprises known to employ African Americans including Brooks Brothers, Harper’s Weekly, Knickerbockers, and other wealthy businesses. They also attacked the homes of prominent white abolitionists. When the mob reached the Colored Orphans’ Asylum, filled with mostly women and children, it began looting the building before setting it on fire. The 200 children inside were led out of the back by their benefactors and taken to safety.