George Templeton Strong on the New York City Draft Riots

A video from the BBC show Copper gives us a good summary of the New York City draft riots.  The draft law which went into effect in the summer of 1863 was immensely unpopular.  New York was not the only city to experience riots because of it, Buffalo and Boston for example also experiencing disturbances, but New York was by far the worst.  Ironically, the first drawing of numbers for the draft on July 11, 1863 went off peacefully.  The second day of drawing of numbers on July 13, 1863 set off the worst urban riots hitherto seen in American history.  For a week New York was in turmoil from anti-draft rioting that in the history of New York City is known as Draft Week.

Diarist George Templeton Strong, a rich lawyer living in New York City, left an eyewitness account of those days.  As can be seen from his account Strong hated the Irish.  The riots cemented but did not create his antipathy.  Here is a typical non-riot related mention of the Irish:

The earth had caved in a few minutes before and crushed the breath out of a pair of ill-starred Irish laborers. They had just been dug out, and lay white and stark on the ground. Around them were a few men and fifteen or twenty Irish women, wives, kinfolk or friends. The women were raising a wild, unearthly cry, half song, wailing as a score of daylight Banshees. Now and then one of them would throw herself down on one of the corpses, or wipe some trace of defilement from the face of the dead man with her apron, slowly and carefully, and then resume her lament. It was an uncanny sound to hear. Our Irish fellow citizens are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.

Even with such a strong prejudice, Strong is an important source for the riots, especially as they appeared to the non-Irish.   Here are his diary entries for those days:

July 13, 1863

Monday. A notable day. Stopped at the Sanitary Commission office on my way downtown to endorse a lot of checks that had accumulated during my absence, and heard there of rioting in the upper side of the city. As Charley is at Newport and Bidwell in Berkshire County, I went to Wall Street nevertheless; but the rumors grew more and more unpleasant, so I left it at once and took a Thrid Avenue car for uptown. At the Park were groups and small crowds in more or less excitement (which found relief afterwards, I hear, in hunting down and maltreating sundry unoffending niggers), but there was nothing to indicate trouble. The crowded car went slowly on its way, with its perspiring passengers, for the weather was still of this deadly muggy sort with a muddy sky and lifeless air. At Thirteenth Street the track was blocked by a long line of stationary cars that stretched indefinitely up the Avenue, and I took to the sidewalk. Above Twentieth Street all shops were closed, and many people standing and staring or strolling uptown, not riotously disposed but eager and curious. Here and there a rough could be heard damning the draft. No policeman to be seen anywhere. Reached the seat of war at last, Forty-sixth Street and Third Avenue. Three houses on the Avenue and two or three on the street were burned down: engines playing on the ruins–more energetically, I’m told, than they did when their eforts would have been useful. 

The crowd seemed just what one commonly sees at any fire, but its nucleus of riot was concealed by an outside layer of ordinary peaceable lookers-on. Was told they had beat off a squad of police and another of “regulars” (probably the Twelfth Militia). At last, it opened and out streamed a posse of perhaps five hundred, certainly less than one thousand, of the lowest Irish day laborers. The rabble was perfectly homogeneous. Every brute in the drove was pure Celtic–hod-carrier or loafer. They were unarmed. A few carried pieces of fence-paling and the like. They turned off west into Forty-fifth Street and gradually collected in front of two three-story dwelling houses on Lexington Avenue, just below that street, that stand alone together on a nearly vacant block. Nobody could tell why these houses were singled out. Some said that a drafting officer lived in one of them, others that a damaged policeman had taken refuge there. The mob was in no hurry; they had no need to be; there was no one to molest them or make them afraid. The beastly ruffians were masters of the situation and of the city. After a while sporadic paving-stones began to fly at the windows, ladies and children emerged from the rear and had a rather hard scramble over a high board fence, and then scudded off across the open, Heaven knows whither. Then men and small boys appeared at rear windows and began smashing the sashes and the blinds and shied out light articles, such as books and crockery, and dropped chairs and mirrors into the backyard; the rear fence was demolished and loafers were seen marching off with portable articles of furniture. And at last a light smoke began to float out of the windows and I came away. I could endure the disgraceful, sickining sight no longer; and what could I do? 

The fury of the low Irish women in that region was noteworthy. Stalwart young vixens and whithered old hags were swarming everywhere, all cursing the “bloody draft” and egging on their men to mischief.

Omnibussed down to No. 823, where is news that the Colored Half Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, just above the reservoir, is burned. “Tribune office to be burned tonight.” Railroad rails torn up, telegraph wires cut, and so on. If a quarter one hears be true, this is an organized insurrection in the interest of the rebellion and Jefferson Davis rules New York today.

Attended to business. Then with Wolcott Gibbs to dinner at Maison Doree. During our symposium, there was an alarm of a coming mob, and we went to the window to see. The “mob” was moving down Fourteenth Street and consisted of just thirty-four lousy, blackguardly Irishmen with a trail of small boys. Whither they went, I cannot say, nor can I guess what mischief the handful of canaille chose to do. A dozen policemen would have been more than a match for the whole crew, but there were no policemen in sight. 

Walked uptown with Wolcott Gibbs. Large fire on Broadway and Twenty-eighth Street. Signs of another to the east, said to be on Second Avenue. Stopped awhile at Gibbs’s in Twenty-ninth Street, where was madame, frightened nearly to death, and then to St. Nicholas Hotel to see the mayor and General Wool. We found a lot of people with them. There were John Jay and George W. Blunt and Colonel Howe and John Austin Stevens, Jr., all urging strong measures. But the substantial and weighty and influential men were not represented; out of town, I suppose. Their absence emboldened Gibbs and myself to make pressure for instant action, but it was in vain. We begged that martial law might be declared. Opdyke said that was Wool’s business, and and Wool said it was Opdyke’s, and neither would act. “Then, Mr. Mayor, issue a proclamation calling on all loyal and law-abiding citizens to enroll themselves as a volunteer force for the defnese of life and property.” “Why,” quoth Opdyke, “that is civil war at once.” Long talk with Colonel Cram, Wool’s chief of staff, who professes to believe that everything is at it should be and sufficient force on the ground to prevent further mischief. Don’t believe it. Neither Opdyke nor General Wool is nearly equal to this crisis. Came off disgusted. Went to Union League Club awhile. No comfort there. Much talk, but no one ready to do anything whatever, not even to telegraph to Washington.

We telegraphed, two or three of us, from General Wool’s rooms, to the President, begging that troops be sent on and stringent measures taken. The great misfortune is that nearly all our militia regiments have been despatched to Pennsylvania. All the military force I have seen or heard of today were in Fifth Avenue at about seven P.M. There were two or three feeble companies of infantry, a couple of howitzers, and a squadron or two of unhappy-looking “dragoons.”

These wretched rioters have been plundering freely, I hear. Their outbreak will either destroy the city or damage the Copperhead cause fatally. Could we but catch the scoundrels who have stirred them up, what a blessing that would be! God knows what tonight or tomorrow may bring forth. We may be thankful that it is now (quarter past twelve) raining briskly. Mobs have no taste for the effusion of cold water. I’m thankful, moreover, that Ellie and the children are out of town. I sent Johnny off to Cornwall this afternoon in charge of John the waiter.

July 14, 1863

Eleven P.M. Fire bells clanking, as they have clanked at intervals through the evening. Plenty of rumors throughout the day and evening, but nothing very precise or authentic. There have been sundry collisions between the rabble and the authorities, civil and military. Mob fired upon. It generally runs, but on one occasion appears to have rallied, charged the police and militia, and forced them back in disorder. The people are waking up, and by tomorrow there will be adequate organization to protect property and life. Many details come in of yesterday’s brutal, cowardly ruffianism and plunder. Shops were cleaned out and a black man hanged in Carmine Street, for no offence but that of Nigritude. Opdyke’s house again attacked this morning by a roaming handful of Irish blackguards. Two or three gentlemen who chanced to be passing saved it from sack by a vigorous charge and dispersed the popular uprising (as the Herald, World, and News call it), with their walking sticks and their fists.

Walked uptown perforce, for no cars and few omnibi were running. They are suppressed by threats of burning railroad and omnibus stables, the drivers being wanted to reinforce the mob. Tiffany’s shop, Ball & Black’s, and a few other Broadway establishments are closed. (Here I am interrupted by a report of a fire near at hand, and a great glare on the houses across the Park. Sally forth, and find the Eighteenth Ward station house, Twenty-second Street, near First Avenue, in full blaze. A splendid blaze it made, but I did not venture below Second Avenue, finding myself in a crowd of Celtic spectators disgorged by the circumjacent tenement houses. They were exulting over the damage to “them bloody police,” and so on. I thought discretion the better part of curiosity. Distance lent enchantment to that view.)

At 823 with Bellows four to six; then home. At eight to Union League Club. Rumor it’s to be attacked tonight. Some say there is to be a great mischief tonight and that the rabble is getting the upper hand. Home at ten and sent for by Dudley Feild, Jr., to confer about an expectd attack on his house and his father’s, which adjoin each other in this street just below Lexington Avenue. He has a party there with muskets and talks of fearful trouble before morning, but he is always a blower and a very poor devil. Fire bells again again at twelve-fifteen. No light of conflagration is visible.

Bellow’s report from Gettysburg and from Meade’s headquarters very interesting. Thinks highly of Meade. Thinks the battle around Williamsport will be tolerably evenly matched, Lee having been decidedly beaten a week ago, but not at all demoralized. But there’s a dispatch at the Union League Club tonight that Lee has moved his whole army safely across, except his rear guard, which we captured.

A good deal of yelling to the eastward just now. The Fields and their near neighbour, Colonel Frank Howe, are as likely to be attacked by this traitor-guilded mob as any people I know. If they are, we shall see trouble in this quarter, and Gramercy Park will acquire historical associations. O, how tired I am! But I feel reluctant to go to bed. I believe I dozed off a minute or two. There came something like two reports of artillery, perhaps only falling walls. There go two jolly Celts along the street, singing a genuine Celtic howl, something about “Tim O’Laggerty,” with a refrain of pure Erse. Long live the sovereigns of New York, Brian Boroo redivivus and multiplied. Paddy has left his Egypt–Connaught–and reigns in this promised land of milk and honey and perfect freedom. Hurrah, there goes a strong squad of police marching eastward down this street, followed by a company of infantry with gleaming bayonets. One A.M. Fire bells again, southeastward, “Swinging slow with sullen roar.” Now they are silent, and I shall go to bed, at least for a season.

July 15, 1863

Wednesday begins with heavy showers, and now (ten A.M.) cloudy, hot, and steaming. Morning papers report nothing specially grave as occurring since midnight. But there will be much trouble today. Rabbledom is not yet dethroned any more thatn its ally and instigator, Rebeldom. 

News from the South is consolatory. Port Hudson surrendered. Sherman said to have beaten Joseph Johnston somewhere near Vicksburg. Operations commencing against Charleston. Bragg seems to be abandoning Chattanooga and retiring on Atlanta. Per contra, Lee has got safely off. I thought he would…Lots of talk and rumors about attacks on the New York Custom-house (ci-devant Merchant’s Exchange) and the Treasury (late Custom-house). Went to see [John J.] Cisco and found his establishment in military occupation–sentinels pacing, windows barricaded, and so on. He was as serene and bland as the loveliest May morning (“so cool, so calm, so bright”) and showed me the live shell ready to throw out of the window and the “battery” to project Assay Office oil-of-vitriol and the like. He’s all right. Then called on Collector Barney and had another long talk with him. Find him well prepared with shells, grenades, muskets, and men, but a little timid and anxious, “wanting councel,” doubtful about his right to fire on the mob, and generally flaccid and tremulous–poor devil!

Walked uptown with Charley Strong and Hoppin, and after my cup of coffee, went to Union League Club. A delegation returned from police headquarters, having vainly asked for a squad of men to garrison the clubhouse. None can be spared. What is worse, we were badly repulsed in an attack on the mob in First Avenue, near Nineteenth Street, at about six P.M. Fired upon from houses, and had to leave sixteen wounded men and a Lieutenant Colonel Jardine in the hands of these brutes and devils. This is very bad indeed. But tonight is quieter than the last, though there seems to be a large fire downtown, and we hear occasional gun-shots. 

At the club was George Briggs, full of the loudest and most emphatic jawing. “General Fremont’s house and Craven’s to be attacked tonight, Croton mains to be cut, and gas works destroyed,” and so on. By the way of precaution, I had had the bathtubs filled, and also all the pots, kettles, and pails in the house. …Twelve-thirty: Light as of a large fire to the south.

July 16, 1863

Rather quite downtown. No trustworthy accounts of riot on any large scale during the day. General talk downtown is that the trouble is over. We shall see. It will be as it pleases the scroundrels who are privily engineering the outbreak–agents of Jefferson Davis, permitted to work here in New York. 

Omnibusses and railroad cars in full career again. Coming uptown tonight I find Gramercy Park in military occupation. Strong parties drawn up accross Twentieth Street and Twenty-first Streets at the east end of the Square, by the G[ramercy] House, each with a flanking squad, forming an L. Occasional shots fired at them from the region of Second or First Avenue, which were replied to by volleys that seem to have done little execution. An unlucky cart-horse was knocked over, I hear. This force was relieved at seven by a company of regulars and a party of the Seventh with a couple of howitzers, and there has been but a stray shot or two since dark. The regulars do not look like steady men. I have just gone over to the hotel with John Robertson and ordered a pail of strong coffee to put a little life into them.

Never knew exasperation so intense, unqualified, and general as that which prevails against these rioters and the politic knaves who are supposed to have set them going, Governor Seymour not excepted. Men who voted for him mention the fact with contrition and self-abasement, and the Democratic Party is at a discount with all the people I meet. (Apropos of discount, gold fell to one hundred and twenty-six today, with the city in insurrection, a gunboat at the foot of Wall Street, the Custom-house and Treasury full of soldiers and live shells, and two howitzers in position to rake Nassau Street from Wall to Fulton!!!!)
Every impression that’s made on our people passes away so soon, almost as if stamped on the sand of the sea-beach. Were our moods a little less fleeting, I should have great hope of permanent good from the general wrath these outrages have provoked, and should put some faith in people’s prophesyings that Fernando Wood and McCunn, and the New York Herald, and the Brookses and others, are doomed henceforth to obscurity and contempt. But we shall forget all about it before next November. Perhaps the lesson of the last four days is to be taught us still more emphatically, and we have got to be worse before we are better. It is not clear that the resources of the conspiracy are yet exhausted. The rioters of yesterday were better armed and organized than those of Monday, and their inaction today may possibly be meant to throw us off our guard, or their time may be employed perfecting plans for a campaign of plundering and brutality in yet greater force. They are in full possession of the western and eastern sides of the city, from Tenth Street upward, and of a good many districts beside. I could not walk four blocks eastward from this house this minute without peril. The outbreak is spreading by concerted action in many quarters. Albany, Troy, Yonkers, Hartford, Boston, and other cities have each their Irish anti-conscription Nigger-murdering mob, of the same type with ours. It is a grave business, a jacquerie that must be put down by heroic doses of lead and steel.
Dr. Peters and Charley Strong called at eleven P.M. They have been exploring and report things quite except on First Avenue from Ninth Street to Thirtieth Street, where there is said to be trouble. A detachment of the Seventh Regiment, five hundred or six hundred strong, marched to that quarter from their armory an hour ago.

July 17, 1863

The Army of Gramercy Park has advanced its headquarters to Third Avenue, leaving only a picket guard in sight. Rain will keep the rabble quiet tonight. We are said to have fifteen thousand men under arms, and I incline to hope that this movement in aid of the rebellion is played out.

July 19, 1863

Sunday. Have been out seeking information and getting none that is to be trusted. Colonel Frank Howe talks darkly and predicts an outbreak on the east side of the town tonight, but that’s his way. I think this Celtic beast with many heads is drivin back to its hole for the present. When government begins enforcing the draft, we shall have more trouble, but not till then.
Not half the history of this memorable week has been written. I could put down pages of incidents that the newspapers have ommited, any one of which would in ordinary times be the town’s talk. Men and ladies attacked and plundered by daylight in the streets; private houses suddenly invaded by gangs of a dozen ruffians and sacked, while the women and children run off for their lives. Then there is the unspeakable infamy of the nigger persecution. They are the most peaceble, sober, and inoffensive of our poor, and the outrages they have suffered during this last week are less execusable–are founded on worse pretext and less provocation–than St. Bartholomew’s or the Jew-hunting of the Middle-Ages. This is a nice town to call itself a centre of civiliation! Life and personal property less safe than in Tipperary, and the “people” (as the Herald calls them) burning orphan asylums and conducting a massacre. How this infernal slavery system has corrupted our blood, North as well as South! There should be terrible vengeance for these atrocities, but McCunn, Barnard & Co. are our judges and the disgrace will rest upon us without atonement.
I am sorry to find that England is right about the lower class of Irish. They are brutal, base, cruel, cowards, and as insolent as base. Choate (at the Union League Club) tells me he heard this proposition put fourth by one of their political philosophers in conversation with a knot of his brethren last Monday: “Sure and if them dam Dutch ([German immigrants]–researcher’s clairification–not provided in the original 1974 edited version of The Diary of George Templeton Strong) would jine us we’d drive the dam Yankees out of New York entirely!” These caitiffs have a trick, I hear, of posting themselves at the window of a tenement house with a musket, while a woman with a baby in her arms squats at their feet. Paddy fires on the police and instantly squats to reload, while Mrs. Paddy rises and looks out. Of course, one can’t fire at a window where there is a woman with a child!! But how is one to deal with women who assemble around the lamp-post to which a Negro had been hanged and cut off certain parts of his body to keep as souvenirs? Have they any womanly privilege, immunity, or sanctity?
No wonder St. Patrick drove all the venomous vermin out of Ireland! Its biped mammalia supply that island its full average share of creatures that crawl and eat dirt and poison every community they infest. Vipers were superfluous. But my own theory is that St. Patrick’s campaign against the snakes is a Popish delusion. They perished of biting the Irish people.


  1. Funny how, in the face of his own well-delivered evidence that the draft riots (like our riots in London a couple of years ago – remember them?) were a disorderly, unplanned display of hatred and ignorance from a completely unredeemed herd of ignorant idiots, even this author is looking for Confederate agents and traitors to manipulate them, as if the natural disorder of a class without leaders, culture or self-respect, traumatized by the Great Hunger and conscious only that they were cut out of everything that mattered in the City, were not enough to explain the mass violence! This instinct to seek for conspiracy in any reverse that strikes you is so universal that the citizens of London,after the Great Fire of 1669, were convinced, as of an article of law, that it had been started by French agents. If there had been Confederate agents anywhere able to affect these mobs, the result would have been far worse for the Union than even this whiskey-fuelled nightmare.

    • The Confederacy did have agents in New York City and throughout many cities in the North. Apparently the draft riots took them completely by surprise. I agree that the temptation to see an enemy’s hand in a disaster is a human habit, particularly in wartime.

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