New York City and the Civil War in 1863

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in the rebellious Confederate states. The proclamation marked a major transformation in the North's reason for fighting the Civil War. The war's first two years witnessed a string of Confederate battlefield victories and a growing realization throughout the northern states that the original war aim of preserving the Union had to be broadened to encompass the destruction of the racial slavery upon which the South's fortunes rested. By summer 1863, the Union army, which had been entirely white when the war started, began recruiting African-American soldiers, who would soon be fighting and dying to defend the Union and to destroy the institution of slavery.

But the North's sagging military fortunes did not immediately change with Lincoln's issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the initial recruitment of black troops into the Union army. In late spring 1863, Confederate forces, led by General Robert E. Lee, invaded the North through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Thousands of Union troops, many volunteers from New York City, now rushed to Pennsylvania to defend the Union. As July dawned, a titanic battle between Union and Confederate forces loomed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Fear swept New York City; if the Confederate army prevailed, southern troops could potentially invade a defenseless city within a matter of days. And fears of a Confederate plot to incite unrest in New York City and to set a series of fires further heightened New Yorkers' concerns about an imminent invasion.

Though Union forces would ultimately prevail at Gettysburg, driving the Confederate army back into the South, tensions remained high in New York City, largely as a result of the imminent enforcement by the federal government of the National Conscription Act. Passed in March 1863, the act made all single men aged twenty to forty-five and married men up to thirty-five subject to a draft lottery. In addition, the act allowed drafted men to avoid conscription entirely by supplying someone to take their place or to pay the government a three hundred-dollar exemption fee. Not surprisingly, only the wealthy could afford to buy their way out of the draft.

A City Divided