As the Civil War dragged into its third year, the Lincoln Administration was faced with a severe problem. Casualties were mounting, and it became clear that the government needed more troops. A draft would have to be instituted.
Congress passed a law implementing a draft in the spring of 1863. It was the first conscription act in the United States, and it was not popular.
Nowhere was the act more resented than in the poor neighborhoods of the nation's cities. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863, and so the war was increasingly being viewed as a war to end slavery. And the general feeling among the urban poor in the north was that the freed blacks in the south could move north, taking jobs and depressing wages which were already low.
In New York City, the Irish communities were increasingly resentful over the fact that many Irish had already enlisted, and had been wounded or killed in the war. And now the government was going to force men to fight.
Adding to the resentment was a provision in the conscription act where someone could pay $300 to avoid being drafted. That obviously favored the rich, who could afford the fee.
These simmering tensions boiled over. The new draft, which would require all men from 20 to 45 years of age to register, went into effect when the first few names were drawn on Saturday, July 11, 1863.
On Monday morning July 13, more names were to be drawn. Mobs began turning up at the federal offices, throwing stones through windows and then sacking the premises.
By the end of the day, mobs of rioters were spreading throughout the city.
In this vintage engraving, the office of a Provost Marshal, an Army official who would implement the draft, has been set afire.