Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom

Who would guess that progressive, self-regarding New York City would fail to mark the scenes of the 1863 Draft Riot? The riot was the most destructive urban uprising in US History and featured a virulent days-long assault on the city’s Black community.  Yet not a single plaque or marker notes the sites of lynchings or heroic acts of rescue, the mob’s destruction of buildings and entire city blocks, or the reconquest of the city by police, firefighters, and U.S. Army units borrowed from the Civil War.[1] On September 26, 2020, a group including local historians, teachers, students, and representatives of public history organizations will seek to redress this long neglect, staging demonstrations as part of the Journal of the Civil War Era national Day of Action.

There are many potential sites we could recognize. To present the origins of the unrest, we could select 280 Broadway, the still-standing Marble Palace where department-store magnate A. T. Stewart sold a shawl in wartime to Kate Chase, the daughter of a Lincoln administration official, for $3,000 — the price of ten draft deferments for men whose lives were at stake.  We could visit the disappeared Democratic Party headquarters from which Governor Horatio Seymour, days before the outbreak of the violence, denounced the draft as unconstitutional and emancipation as an outrage.[2]

Too many locations were home to dramatic murders, beatings, and battles with police between July 13 and July 16, 1863, though none was more central than the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police — a state-run agency imposed on the Democratic city by the Republican-dominated state government — formerly at 300 Mulberry Street.  On its doorstep crowds deposited the bloodied body of the Superintendent of Police, and during the worst of the crisis more than 3,000 victims and first responders crowded inside.[3]

Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Perhaps the best choice would be to stage our remembrances at 520 Fifth Avenue, just north of the Public Library, where a set of plaques once commemorated the site of the Colored Orphans Asylum.  The plight of the orphans and the heroism of John C. Decker, Chief Engineer of the New York City Fire Department, who personally saved hundreds of children but could not contain the fire that burned the building to the ground, inspired sympathetic New Yorkers to fund the rapid new construction of facilities to serve the city’s Black community. Some of the  benevolent societies that formed in those days are documented in a New-York Historical Society collection and persist as part of today’s Harlem Dowling-West Side Center for Children and Family Services.[4]

The orphanage site is today one of the city’s most conspicuous vacant lots, the object of a $275 million sale in 2015. Despite midtown congestion, diminished now by the phenomenon of working at home, the sidewalk shed enclosing the lot is a logical place for a display of posters on Good History Day.

My own participation hinges on my ability to enlist my high school students in the process, September being no month for starting independent scholarly ventures.  I am fortunate to be teaching Civil War & Reconstruction history for the first time ever as a semester elective.  The remembrance project provides a great opportunity to show how history matters, while also directing my students’ attention to concrete examples of the historian’s craft.

Given time, the ideal lesson plan in support of the Call to Action would urge students to explore the best sites for understanding Civil War era in the city, selecting among options that include the Union League Club in East Midtown, where the first Black regiments recruited in New York City initiated their march to the front on March 5, 1864, or the Brooklyn shipyard from which the Monitor gunship made its debut. Taking into account the short run-up to September 29 after Labor Day — complicated by the need to make introductions and pitch the project to local historians and agencies for the first time — I chose the Draft Riots in advance of the beginning of classes.

I intend to steer students toward research into discrete elements of the 1863 crisis: the draft, the Metropolitan Police Department, Democratic Party politics, the Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphans, the fire department and chief engineer, and the African American businesses and cultural institutions that came under assault.  My students are fortunate to have access to specialized databases, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s digital archive, Proquest, Newsbank, and, copyright-friendly images and film, and Google Books, that great democratizer of 19th-century historical studies.  Having formed teams and committed to collaboration, my twelve high school juniors and seniors will develop profiles and short texts suitable for use in our demonstrations.  They will agree on a format and prepare digital files for posters as part of a graded interim assignment.  The posters will be printed at school expense — wheat-paste thin ones if we obtain permission to display them on the sidewalk shed, and paper backed with cardboard if we have to improvise a more ephemeral display.

Students may or may not participate in person, depending on whether schedules and pandemic conditions allow. In the end, it may fall to the adult participants to engage in on-site dialogue on September 26.  But students will certainly participate digitally. They may amplify the event on social media, perhaps by the creation of class-specific circulars and accounts.  We will also explore the possibility of creating or contributing to a Clio historical tour using the Clio Foundation’s digital mapping app.  We will seek out partners in the great public history institutions that surround us, including the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the New-York Historical Society, the Tamiment Library, and the Museum of the City of New York, among others.  To anchor our effort in the spirit of 2020 activism, moreover, students in my class will make use of the City of New York’s public process for recommending the placement of historical markers that give Draft Riot sites their due.

I hope my students will come to  share my reverence for the New Yorkers of the Civil War past who embodied the spirit of resilience and determination so recently on display in the Covid emergency.  May they recognize their kindred spirits!  For myself I am galvanized to be in community with scholars and activists in this national initiative.  Next year, it will be even better.

[1] David W. Dunlap, “Remembering a Vile Civil War Act, on Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, February 17, 2016.  See also “Lynchings During the New York Draft Riot,” Clio: A Guide to the History and Culture Around You, and “New York City Draft Riot, 1863,” Clio: A Guide to History and Culture Around You,

[2] Betty Boyles Ellison, The True Mary Lincoln: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2014), 174; “Gov. Seymour’s Speech,” New York Times, July 6, 2020.

[3] David M. Barnes, The Metropolitan Police: Their Services During Riot Week (New York: Baker & Godwin, Printers & Publishers, 1863), 9, 12.

[4] Adrian Cook, The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), 268; David W. Dunlap, “Remembering a Vile Civil War Act, on Fifth Avenue,” New York Times, February 17, 2016; “Colored Orphan Asylum,” Mapping the African American Past,; Association for the Benefit of Colored Orphan Records 1836-1972, MS 24, New-York Historical Society, New York, NY.

LeeAnna Keith

LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School. She is the author of When It Was Grand: The Radical Republican History of the Civil War.

3 Replies to “Commemorating the NYC Draft Riots: A Call to Action in the Classroom”

  1. When the people are pressed into service that they know is inherently confused in its intent — i.e. making war on cousins — they fall into hitting behaviors on both sides, and destruction is the harvest. Rather than focusing on lynchings and riots, we should focus our energy on education, and NON-hitting behaviors — murals, music, dance, celebration of the beauty in life going forward — not marching around marking the sites of violence, death, and destruction. There is no fighting spirit to be found in these places today — to remember death is to die again. Find life and bring the students — all of us — into the light. wag 9-21-20

  2. Is it possible to interpret the experience of the Irish immigrants during the riots? were they fed “fake news” about the situation? How did Tammany factor into all this? It might not have been New York’s best moment, but it sure is interesting to see several points of view play out right there on the streets.

    I loved your excellent book, btw.

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