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A New York Rioter Explains His Opposition to the Draft

In 1863, Congress issued a Conscription Act to draft more people into the army to fight the Civil War. The draft law also included a provision that allowed wealthy men to pay $300 to a substitute, thus avoiding military service. In response, in New York City protesters led four days of violent attacks against African Americans, draft officials, wealthy businessmen, and Protestant missionaries. One rioter attempted to explain why he participated in the draft riots, in this letter to the editor. The newspaper editor's response to the letter is also included. This letter contains racist language. 

New York Times, July 15, 1863, p. 4

A Letter from one of the Rioters
Monday Night—Up Town.

To the Editor of the New-York Times:

You will, no doubt, be hard on us rioters tomorrow morning, but that 300-dollar law has made us nobodies, vagabonds and cast-outs of society, for whom nobody cares when we must go to war and be shot down. We are the poor rabble, and the rich rabble is our enemy by this law. Therefore we will give our enemy battle right here, and ask no quarter. Although we got hard fists, and are dirty without, we have soft hearts, and have clean consciences within, and that’s the reason we love our wives and children more than the rich, because we got not much besides them, and we will not go and leave them at home for to starve. Until that draft law is repealed, I for one am willing to knock down more such rum-hole politicians as Kennedy. Why don’t they let the nigger kill the slave-driving race and take possession of the South, as it belongs to them.

— A Poor Man, But A Man For All That.

[Editor's reply]: 

Our correspondent is evidently very much in earnest, but he is in a very dense fog on the subject of the draft. It may be very hard that a poor man should be compelled to serve his country as a soldier, but he is not asked to do it gratuitously, and every possible precaution is taken to provide for his wife and children. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of such men have volunteered to defend their country now that its existence is in danger, and have never dreamed that they became either “vagabonds” or a “rabble” on that account. It is true that men who have $300 can purchase exemption from this honorable duty—but their $300 goes into the pockets of the poor men who may volunteer to take their places. Money will purchase exemption from a great many of the labors of life, and there always will be a great many men willing to use it for that purpose; and neither laws nor anything else can change this state of things.

But if our correspondent thinks that this justifies him in committing murder and arson, or that he shows his love for his wife and children by plunging the society in which they live into the midst of anarchy and crime, he will live to find out his mistake.

Source | "A Letter from one of the Rioters," The New York Times, 15 July 1863, 4; from William Friedman with Ronald Jackson, Freedom's Unfinished Revolution: An Inquiry into the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: The New Press, 1996), 96.
Creator | Anonymous
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | Anonymous, “A New York Rioter Explains His Opposition to the Draft,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 26, 2023,

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