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The New York City Draft Riots: A Role Play

In this activity students research roles as either Irish immigrants or African-American residents in the midst of the New York City Draft Riots that took place in July 1863. Students gather evidence from primary sources to develop their characters, based on actual census records, and then enact a role play debating whether to stay in the city or flee (if they are African American) and whether to participate in the riots or protect their black neighbors (if they are Irish immigrants).


  • Students will be able to describe the conflicting viewpoints of and weigh social pressures on African Americans and Irish Americans in the midst of the New York City Draft Riots.  

  • Students will perform a role play of characters debating their actions during the New York City Draft Riots.  


Step 1: Divide students into two groups, one to represent the African-American household and one to represent the Irish household. Tell students that they will be researching and performing a role play of black and Irish New Yorkers debating their options during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Explain the situation:

It is Wednesday, July 15, 1863--the third day of the riots.

In one house, three African Americans discuss their options.  Should they seek help from neighboring families, flee, or stay put?  They've heard about the violence in the streets, but know that they also may not be safe in their home.  They have lived on the block for many years and are friendly with their neighbors.  

Next door an Irish family discusses the violence.  They know that their African-American neighbors are in danger, but cannot agree on whether to help them or not.  

Step 2: Divide each group into smaller subgroups of 2-3 students each.  Assign each subgroup a different "character" to research for the role play.  

African-American household (Family #192 from the 1855 Census)

  • Matthew Fletcher, Male, 48: A well-established local printer and landowner

  • John Johnston, Male, 36: Although ineligible for conscription, is interested in enlisting in the Union Army

  • Hannah Day, Female, 42: Has heard stories about the violence in the streets--knows that the rioters are mainly targeting men

Irish household (Family #194 from the 1855 Census)

  • Edward Galher, Male, 53, Policeman: Has been out in the streets for two days for two days trying to put down the riot and has seen the violence firsthand

  • Catherine Galher, Female, 55: Sees many similarities between the experiences of the Irish and African Americans in America

  • John Galher, Male, 26: As a male citizen of draft age, is concerned about his future

Step 3: Give all students the two background documents (the background essay on the riots and 1855 Census page) and the character talking points worksheet.  Then, depending on whether they are portraying Irish or African-Americans, give them either of the two packets:

African-American household documents: "Men of Color, To Arms!"; African-American Victims Describe the New York City Draft Riots; The Emancipation Proclamation (excerpt)

Irish household documents: New York City Policy Respond to the Draft Riots; Congress Issues the Conscription Act; The People of Ireland Ask the Irish in America to Support Abolition

Step 4: Students prepare for roles by (in their subgroups) reviewing the readings and selecting evidence and information they wish to include in the exchange.  Students should record their talking points on the worksheet, noting the source where each point comes from.  Remind students to think about the arguments and evidence the characters would use, and how he/she would counter the arguments of the opposing household members.  

Step 5: Each subgroup should choose a member who will play its role for the whole class.  Have the three African-American characters perform first, then the three Irish characters.  Each character should explain what they think their household should do and try to convince the others of this position.  

Step 6: After the role plays have been performed, lead students in a discussion.  

  • How did different characters see issues differently, and why?

  • How did the perspectives of individual group members vary, depending on what role they played and on how they interpreted the role and the historical evidence?  

  • Were the arguments that were presented in the role play grounded in the historical evidence and context provided?  

Historical Context

In New York implementation of the National Conscription Act of July 11, 1863, triggered four days of the worst rioting Americans had ever seen. Violence quickly spread through the entire city, and even homes in wealthy neighborhoods were looted. Both women and men, many of them poor Irish immigrants, attacked and killed Protestant missionaries, Republican draft officials, and wealthy businessmen. However, New York City's small free black population became the rioters' main targets. Immigrants, determined not to be drafted to fight for the freedom of a people they resented, turned on black New Yorkers in a rage. Rioters lynched at least a dozen African Americans and looted the burned the city's Colored Orphan Asylum. Leading trade unionists joined middle-class leaders in condemning the riots, but to no avail. The violence ended only when Union troops were rushed back from the front to put down the riot by force. At the end, over one hundred New Yorkers lay dead.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “The New York City Draft Riots: A Role Play,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 4, 2023,

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