The Riot's Targets

By analyzing who and what the rioters targeted for attack during the riot we can begin to understand the complicated social, economic, and political conflicts that divided New York City's citizens in July 1863.

The city's black citizens were perhaps the most obvious and visible targets of the rioters' wrath. By the end of the first day of rioting, It was not safe for African Americans to appear in public. Rioters beat individual black citizens and, in several instances, brutally murdered and mutilated African-American men. Black New Yorkers weren't even safe inside their homes as roaming bands of rioters attacked black neighborhoods. Not only were African Americans in danger; rioters also attacked white New Yorkers who provided shelter for endangered African Americans, sacking and burning the homes of white sympathizers. The crowd even attacked and burned brothels that catered to both white and black New Yorkers.

The largely Irish crowds also subjected persons and institutions linked to the Republican party to a variety of attacks. The Republican party had an influence in New York City that reached beyond its relatively small numbers, a function of the wealth and power of Republican business and civic leaders who had benefited from the growth of the city as a commercial center before and during the war and controlled many of the city's major institutions. The Republican-led federal government started the war, instituted the hated draft, and expanded Union war aims to embrace the abolition of slavery. Irish Catholic workers also resented the continual efforts of Republican and Protestant reformers to close saloons and limit drinking in the city's Irish wards.

In lower Manhattan, rioters attacked and set fire to Horace Greeley's New York Daily Tribune, the city's most pro-Republican newspaper. Rioters even assaulted well-dressed pedestrians whom they presumed to be Republicans and sacked the homes of wealthy citizens, which the crowd assumed must be owned by Republicans. The crowd also targeted the badly outnumbered Metropolitan police force, not only because of police efforts to contain the rioting but also because of the Metropolitans' close political affiliation with the state Republican party.

Rioters also attacked city merchants and their stores throughout the four days of upheaval. While many of the crowd attacks on mercantile establishments were merely acts of looting-- rioters especially prized weapons, luxury goods, and liquor--other assaults had more complicated roots. The looting and destruction of the Brooks Brothers' store in lower Manhattan on the second day of rioting, for example, reveals a variety of crowd motivations, both political and sartorial. Brooks Brothers, a leading clothier of the city's wealthy citizens, also produced clothing for the Union army under contract to the federal government. And Brooks Brothers had been involved in a lengthy and very public labor dispute with four hundred of its tailors during the spring. In attacking Brooks Brothers, the crowd lashed out at an anti-labor symbol of the city's wealthy citizenry that also happened to be a major supporter of the Union war effort.

The Riot Begins