150 years ago today: Civil War draft riots grip New York
As a mob protesting the Civil War draft formed near Steinway & Sons on July 13, 1863, the factory owner recorded the dramatic events of the next few days in his diary. The diary sparked the William Steinway Diary Project. Curator Emerita Cynthia Adams Hoover and volunteer Karen Johnson look back on this tumultuous time.
As the Civil War dragged into its third year, Union Army enlistments were down, but battlefield losses and disease fueled a continual need for new recruits. Congress passed the Enrollment Act on March 3, 1863. For the first time, the nation's adult male population was subject to military conscription, otherwise known as "the draft." That summer, news of the horrific bloodshed at Gettysburg spread across the country and many Americans began to speak out against the provisions of the new draft law— especially the clause which allowed drafted men to pay $300 or hire a substitute to take their place. In working class and immigrant communities in northern cities, people began to agitate against a conflict which had become, in a popular phrase, a "rich man's war, poor man's fight."
New York industrialist William Steinway and his older brother Charles witnessed first-hand the wrath and destruction of the rioting that erupted over the new draft law in New York in July 1863. On the morning of July 13, 1863, city officials drew numbers for the draft lottery at the Ninth District Provost Marshal's Office at Third Avenue and Fourty-Seventh Street. At the same time, over 500 New Yorkers demonstrating against the draft turned into a violent mob.
On that day, 150 years ago, William wrote the following entry in his diary:
"Terrible Excitement throughout the City, resistance to the draft. Rows of buildings on third Avenue burning down, also on Lexington Avenue. Various other buildings fired by the mob. About 5 P.M. they appear before our factory Charles speaks to them and with the aid of Rev. Father Mahon they draw off towards Yorkville where late in the eve many buildings are fired..."
As the riot spread across the city, protesters attacked and burned bars which refused to sell liquor, public buildings like police stations, and the mayor's residence. When they attacked the offices of the New York Times, employees with newly-invented Gatling Guns defended the presses.
Most tragically, the mob attacked buildings and people they saw as beneficiaries of the war. As many as 100 African American residents of the city were beaten and lynched and the mob destroyed the Colored Orphan Asylum at Forty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, where 223 children narrowly escaped being burned alive. William noted in his diary on July 14, "All business in the upper part of the City suspended, Negroes chased everywhere & killed when caught."
The Steinways were strong and vocal Unionists. William's younger brother Albert was a lieutenant in the Fifth Regiment of the New York Infantry National Guard and their brother Charles was Paymaster of the Fifth Regiment, so William rightly feared that the mob might direct their ire at his family and property. The impressive Steinway & Sons piano forte factory, which opened in 1860 to great press acclaim on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) between Fifty-Second & Fifty-Third, was just one block away from Lexington Avenue where many buildings were set on fire during the riots.
William recounted that his brother Charles met with some of the rioters in an attempt to spare the factory. "During his stay with the mob Charles gave the ringleaders $30-40 incl Money and one a check for $30. It was a terrible scene and we were of course all much exercised at the prospect of having the factory destroyed."
Many of the rioters were Irish immigrant workers who felt that the draft would unfairly fall upon them. It is interesting to note that the Steinways were accompanied by an Irish Catholic priest in their talks with the rioters. The presence of the Rev. Father Mahon and the money from Charles to the ringleaders fortunately sent them on their way.
Violence continued over the next two days. Union soldiers with canon marched down Third Avenue, resulting in terrible fighting between the soldiers and the mob. The rioters chased and killed many African Americans. On July 15, several New York Regiments arrived in town direct from Civil War battles, William's brother Albert among them.
For five days, the Steinways lived in fear that their support for the Union might bring destruction and death to their door. On July 15 William wrote, "I have been unable to eat for the last 3 days except bread & drinking water for excitement," and expressed his horror at seemingly insignificant details as the fact that the Fifth New York Volunteers had left their knapsacks in the basement of his store. Such a sign of support, he must have worried, would have marked him as a foe of the protesters and his property and family as targets.
On July 19, Williams recorded with almost palpable relief, "City profoundly quiet."
Today, we have this story because the entire diary written by William between 1861-1896 is now part of the Smithsonian's collections. It was donated by William's grandson, the late Henry Z. Steinway, and is now housed in the museum's Archives Center.
Thanks to many years of transcription and research, you can peruse the diary online. A group of talented volunteers continues to research persons, places, and events mentioned in the diary to provide details and context for William’s diary entries, which span his time as a very successful business man, leader of the New York German American community, friend of President Grover Cleveland, and much more. Let us know what you think of the diary in the comments below. If you’re interested being a volunteer researcher, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cynthia Adams Hoover is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Steinway Diary and Smithsonian Curator Emerita of Musical Instruments. Karen Johnson is the Volunteer Editorial Coordinator and Researcher. Ryan Lintelman, the Project Assistant for Civil War 150 at the National Museum of American History, also contributed to this blog post.