From the Archives: Draft riots

A July 22, 1863, letter discussing planned draft resistance in Sunapee, NH.

A July 22, 1863, letter discussing planned draft resistance in Sunapee, NH. Courtesy


For the Monitor

Published: 07-08-2024 9:37 AM

Ashley Miller shares this month’s story with ConcordTV. Watch the episode on YouTube.

In early July 1863, news of the Battle of Gettysburg was flooding the media. Casualty reports were streaming in for what would become the bloodiest battle of the war, and to date, in the western hemisphere. The photographic aftermath of the battle was plastered in newspapers.

The battle waged on from July 1 through July 3. While it was a major victory for the Union, enthusiasm quickly dissipated when the public realized that the war would continue. Resentment grew too at the missed opportunity to follow and destroy the fleeing Confederate army.

In early 1863, a new conscription law was passed, which made all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 35, and all unmarried men between the ages of 35 and 45, subject to military duty. All eligible men were entered into a lottery; however, they could buy their way to safety by hiring a substitute or paying the government $300 — about $7,500 today.

At the time, the sum for a substitution was the average yearly salary of an American worker. Only the wealthy could afford to buy themselves out of harm’s way. Additionally, Black men were excluded from the draft, brewing hostility in the white working class.

When a lottery was announced in mid-July, riots broke out in New York, Boston, and Detroit. Federal draft agents delivering the first conscription notices in U.S. history were faced with violent, large-scale opposition. Thousands started by attacking military and government buildings, turning their aggression on anyone who tried to stop them. Then, these rioters turned their attention to Black citizens, homes, and businesses.

In New York, the scene of the worst of it, the riots lasted four days and claimed the lives of over one hundred people.

On July 15, aware that draft riots had occurred in other cities, the city of Concord appropriated funds to buy one hundred revolvers and ammunition for self-defense. It also authorized the mayor to appoint one hundred special police officers. No draft riots occurred in Concord.

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The city of Portsmouth was not as lucky. An angry mob gathered outside of the provost marshal’s office on July 15. Soldiers were brought in from Fort Constitution and the naval shipyard. Stones were thrown through the windows of the building. On July 16, the police and military worked to break up any large gatherings. Few were arrested with several severely wounded. A rumor circulated that the crowd would try to take Fort Constitution, but no further action occurred that evening.

According to the July 18 issue of the New York Times, “Some rowdies attempted to get up a riot in Portsmouth, N.H., last night, but they were summarily squelched by the Mayor, with a posse of police and citizens. Three of the leading rioters were badly wounded. A detachment of marines from the Navy-yard, and a company of Regulars from Fort Constitution, were promptly on hand, but the mob had dispersed, and quiet has since been maintained.”

Further acts of anti-draft sentiment occurred later in September and October 1863 in northern New Hampshire. Drafted men from Carroll County fled to Canada. In Conway, Democrats and Republicans burned each other’s properties. In Jackson, an angry mob burned down the hotel where the deputy provost marshal who was delivering draft notices was staying.

In tensions that would extend far beyond the war, the draft riots were the culmination of issues of race, class, privilege, and what it means to be an American.

From the Archives is a monthly column highlighting the history and collection of the New Hampshire State Archives, written by Ashley Miller, New Hampshire State Archivist. Miller studied history as an undergraduate at Penn State University and has a master’s degree in history and a master’s degree in archival management from Simmons College.