Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Draft Riots of 1863

Up until 1862, both the Union and Confederate governments relied on volunteers to fill the ranks of their armies.  In that year, Confederate authorities determined that an all-volunteer army was not sufficient, so in April a draft had begun in the south.  For the Union authorities, it was not until the following year that President Lincoln determined that a draft was absolutely necessary and asked the Congress to enact the Conscription Act, which it did so on March 3.  It was hoped that the initial draft would fill the need for approximately 300,000 men.

The Conscription Act required that all men between the ages of 20 and 45 years of age enroll in the draft, and those individuals whose names were drawn in the draft lottery would serve for up to three years.  The act also specified that, in lieu of actual servicing in the army, there were two options available: one could find a substitute to fill one's place, or to pay a "commutation fee" of $300.

The use of substitutes to serve one's military service was not new to the Civil War.  It was a well-known practice in Europe for centuries and had been used here in the Revolution.  The use of a substitute generally required paying the substitute, and some city, county and state governments paid bounties to fulfill their quota rather than requiring an actual draft lottery.  Some individuals traveled from town to town collecting a bounty, quickly deserting, and moving on to another location.  The Union reports an incident in 1864 where 21 substitutes, sent to Elmira, escaped from there.  It went on to note that among these was "Paddy" Loughlin who had done this on thirteen previous occasions and had yet to see any actual service.  In those cases where bounties had not been provided by the communities, it was up to the individual seeking a substitute to provide the "bounty," which in some instances might approach as much as $1000.

The "commutation fee," paid to the government, released one from the current draft lottery but those in the applicable age bracket may still be eligible for subsequent drafts.

In either case—substitute or "commutation fee"—it was a luxury that the average, low paid worker, usually a recent immigrant, could not afford.  In New York City this meant the Irish.

Many in the North viewed the Conscription Act, with its options, as a rich man's statute.  The fathers of both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt avoided Civil War service by paying substitutes; as did Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan, and future presidents Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland.  New York Governor Seymour was a staunch foe of the Conscription Act and was of the opinion that the act was unconstitutional.  For all intents and purposes he urged the Irish and other low-wage workers to take to the streets—and they did—when he declared, "Remember this, that the bloody and treasonable and revolutionary doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government."

On the morning of Saturday, July 11, the draft began in New York City and more than 1,200 names were drawn.  This was insufficient for the quota set for the congressional districts that comprised that city so it was announced that it would resume on Monday.  On Monday morning a mob of several thousand marched on the draft headquarters, swept the police guard there aside and proceeded to wreck the building and setting it ablaze.

As a result of the increasingly altercations between rioters and the New York City police, Governor Seymour called upon a number of the state's militia units, including the 54th Regiment.  The 54th along with the 13th Artillery Regiment, the "Old Thirteenth," under Colonel Marshall, left Rochester on the 16th of July bound for New York City via Albany.  Arriving in Albany, they found that communications between that city and New York had been disrupted and rumors were rampant that trouble would move up the Hudson and pose a danger to the state capital.  As a result, the Rochester units remained in Albany where the 54th would stay until the 23rd.

Leaving Rochester in haste, the 54th found themselves in Albany without rations and had to rely on the generosity of both Colonel Marshall's 13th and military authorities in Albany.  In addition, the usual army barracks outside the city was so terrible that, rather than encamp at "Camp Louse," as it was called, they chose to quarter themselves at the Albany City Hall and the 13th took over the armory.

The rumored trouble never came to Albany so the 54th returned to Rochester on the 23rd and the 13th Regiment followed a few days later.

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