A City Divided

The National Conscription Act, which was to be enforced initially in New York City on Saturday, July 11, exacerbated long-simmering class tensions in the city. The act proved especially unpopular among New York City's white working class, many of whom were recent immigrants from Germany and Ireland. New York City at mid-century had become an important destination for Irish immigrants, especially after the devastating Irish famine in the 1840s. By 1860, one of every four of New York City's 800,000 residents was an Irish-born immigrant. While many labored in several of the city's skilled trades, the vast majority of Irish immigrants worked as unskilled laborers on the docks, as ditch diggers and street pavers, and as cartmen and coal heavers. In several of these occupations they competed directly with the city's African-American workers.

African Americans had lived and worked in New York City-- some as slaves, some as free people-- since well before the Revolutionary War. The city's African-American community grew during the first four decades of the nineteenth century, establishing and sustaining churches, newspapers, literary societies, and free schools. Black workers lived in close proximity to white workers in racially mixed communities that dotted the lower half of Manhattan. Increased immigration from Europe after 1840 diminished employment opportunities for black New Yorkers. Working-class African Americans competed directly with immigrants, especially newly arrived Irish, for unskilled jobs, a competition that often turned ugly and violent in the years before the war.

When the Civil War began in 1861, large numbers of New York City's white workers did not embrace the fight to preserve the Union. Many resented the war effort, which brought economic hardship and increasing unemployment to the city's working-class neighborhoods, especially following a sharp economic downturn in the war's first year. Competition for jobs between Irish and black workers, already intense before the war, increased dramatically in the conflict's early years and racial tensions mounted in work places and in working-class neighborhoods throughout the city. Even the return of wartime prosperity in 1862 did not lessen these tensions, as living costs rose faster than wages, further undercutting working-class living standards. In spring 1863, in the midst of a strike of Irish dock workers, strikers attacked and beat African-American strike-breakers before federal troops arrived to protect the black workers.

NYC and the Civil War in 1863