The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began

It’s the worst riot in New York City history, and it kicked off 157 years ago today.

On July 13, 1863, with the Civil War raging, the New York Draft Riots began: four days of mostly working-class Irish men marauded across the city—burning homes and buildings and targeting police, abolitionists, pro-war newspaper offices, and black residents, among others.

“By far the worst violence was reserved for African-American men, a number of whom were lynched or beaten to death with shocking brutality,” states An estimated 119 people were killed, and countless buildings destroyed.

Though the riots spread to parts of Brooklyn on the third day, most of the violence took place in Manhattan. The atrocities kicked off on this unassuming East Midtown corner at Third Avenue and 47th Street.

Why here? This is where the Ninth District provost marshal’s office was located. A new federal conscription law had been passed, and the names of all men in the district who were deemed eligible for military duty were entered into a lottery here. Those selected would be called up to serve.

The draft law was unpopular among working men. “The complaints—and the violence that followed—focused mainly on two exempted groups: the rich, who could pay $300 to escape the draft, and blacks, who were not considered citizens,” wrote the New York Times in 2017.

The first day of the lottery, Saturday, July 11, was peaceful. The second drawing, two days later on Monday morning, took a dark turn.

“Employees of the city’s railroads, shipyards, machine shops, and ironworks and hundreds of other laborers failed to show up for work,” stated Stephen D. Lut in an 2000 article in America’s Civil War, via historynet. “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.”

As the lottery got underway, the crowd of about 500 outside threw stones and bricks at the windows, terrifying families who lived on the upper floors of the building, according to a Times article written the next day.

The crowd battled their way inside, destroyed paperwork, beat the deputy provost marshal, and fought off policemen who tried to quell the disorder.

A fire was lit—possibly by firemen who joined in the rioting—and the entire block was consumed, touching off bloodshed and destruction all across Manhattan. A month after the riots were finally stopped by 4,000 federal troops, the draft lottery process resumed.

[Second image: Digital Library of America; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: House Divided/Dickenson College]

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22 Responses to “The Midtown corner where the Draft Riots began”

  1. Larry Gertner Says:

    Which corner? I’ve been trying to find the exact location of the building for some time now, with no luck. Some sites even give the location as East 46th Street.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m not sure of the exact spot at that corner either, but I imagine it must be on a property map that’s hopefully been archived. Some sources do list it at Third and 46th Street, but the majority of source I looked at had it at 47th Street, so that’s what I went with.

    • Larry Gertner Says:

      I’ve done some poking around and found that the Provost Marshall office was at 677 Third Avenue, and another source said it was between 46th & 47th Street. The closest current address (675) is the NE corner of Third Avenue and 42nd Street, blocks away from 47th Street.
      Granted, the individual street numbers may have been changed since 1863, but I don’t think that extended to reversing the odd and even numbered sides of the street.
      My current best guess – NE corner of East 46th Street.

  2. taffydog89 Says:

    I used to receive three different posts on Monday from Ephemeral, but now I only get one. Is there a problem that I only get the one? Thank you.

    Jeanne Piro

    Sent from my iPad


    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m sorry about that; this might be a WordPress problem, because I haven’t heard from any other subscribers about not getting 3 posts on Mondays.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I wonder if hitting unsubscribe and then subscribing again would do the trick?

    • Trilby1895 Says:

      After having been an ardent Ephemeral devotee for several years I, as well, suddenly found myself ditched, for no discernible reason, from receiving posts at all. Then I noticed the “WordPress” logo. I’ve tried to be re-subscribed several times but to no avail. What’s happened?

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Hi Trilby, I’m sorry about this—I’m contacting WordPress to find out what’s up. Can you tell me if you previously subscribed to the email updates or did you follow via WordPress?

      • Trilby1895 Says:

        Thank you, Ephemeral! Your’s is a familiar “voice” that I miss. No, I never followed WordPress, when I first subscribed it was “Ephemeral New York” and you were the, I assumed, originator of this special-to-those-who-love-Vintage-New York City. Whenever I’d post, you were the one who replied to my comments and/or questions then, suddenly, out of nowhere (I know, I’m being dramatic here) it was WordPress, unwelcome, I might add. I miss not receiving from you weekly, or monthly, updates, great new information. Good to hear from you once again and be well!

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        Thanks for the kind words! Trilby, I sent an invite for you to follow Ephemeral via email earlier today. I sent it to your yahoo address. Can you let me know if you got it and if you are able to get the next posts on Monday morning?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Jeanne, have you started receiving all 3 posts again? If not, please let me know.

  3. VirginiaB Says:

    I’m a longtime fan of Ephemeral NY but I do have to take issue with various points in this post. The sources used are not reliable. Of the dead, the vast majority were the rioters. They did not maraud across the entire city or the damage would have been far worse. The rioters numbered about 350. Onlookers made up the rest of the crowds. The rioting was over in a four days, as noted. While primary sources are always to be preferred, a reliable study is ‘The Armies of the Streets, The New York City Draft Riots of 1863’ by Adrian Cook who took a double first from Cambridge. He, incidentally, puts the street at East 46th and Third Ave. This is too complex a subject for a comments section but it deserves fuller attention by anyone interested, especially in light of current events.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Virginia, I appreciate your comment and thank you for posting it. I am aware of Cook’s study of the Draft Riots, along with other fine histories/texts about the riots. We’ll probably never know for sure when it comes to the death toll and the size of the mobs. But based on firsthand reporting by the city’s many newspapers, the damage to lives and property by various mobs appears to have been quite extensive, covering Manhattan from Midtown and Turtle Bay down to the docks of the Lower East Side and across today’s West Village and Chelsea. The site of the provost’s office has also been listed by some sources at 46th Street, as you point out. I agree that this is a complex topic, and it deserves a deeper dive.

  4. sara Says:

    This is utterly fascinating. I appreciate the knowledge. I am no reader as I have dyslexia but it is well written and kept my interest!

  5. Tom B Says:

    We’ve been at that corner several times, now we know the history.
    This is what happens when you push citizens too far. At what point do we cross that line? Agree that this IS a very complex subject. The original United States rioters/rebels (Washington, Jefferson) are now considered bad. How will history assess today’s rioters.

  6. Obee Says:

    Firemen did not join in. They started the riot at the Provost Marshal’s. Firemen had been promised exemption from the Conscription Act. When the foreman of the Black Joke Engine was called the Engine Company (Nativist and decidedly not Irish) wrecked the drum and office.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    The saddest part of this horror show was the destruction of what was then called the Colored Orphan Asylum.

    Many such kids were lynched by the mob. It sickens me.

    • VirginiaB Says:

      The destruction of the Colored Orphan Asylum was a horrible tragedy but no one was lynched or harmed. All children and staff were allowed to depart safely before the building was destroyed. There were several lynchings elsewhere in the city but not ‘many’ and not kids. Of course, even one is too many.

  8. Michelle Novak Says:

    The New-York Historical Society holds an original Civil War draft wheel in their collections—complete with cards still inside!

  9. Dave Lippman Says:

    Among the prominent New Yorkers of the day who evaded the draft by hiring substitutes were Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the future president.

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