13 July 1863

Opponents of conscription begin three days of rioting in New York City.

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On July 13, 1863, as the second day of a new military draft lottery in New York City got underway, demonstrations broke out across the city in what began as an organized opposition to the first federally mandated conscription laws in the nation’s history, but soon morphed into a violent uprising against the city’s wealthy elite; its African-American residents; and the very idea of the Civil War itself. The New York City Draft Riots, which would wreak havoc on the city for four days and remain the largest civilian insurrection in American history, exposed the deep racial, economic and social divides that threatened to tear the nation’s largest city apart in the midst of the American Civil War.

Thanks to its status as the business capital of the United States, New York City was a deeply divided city at the start of the Civil War in April 1861. Its merchants and financial institutions were loath to lose their southern business and the city’s then-mayor, Fernando Wood, had called for the city to secede from the Union. Meanwhile, to the city’s poorer citizens, the war increasingly came to be seen as benefitting only the rich, as the coffers of the city’s elites filled with the financial spoils of battle and the conflict became known as a “rich man’s war, poor man’s battle.” The passage of the nation’s first military draft act, in March 1863, only worsened the situation. Not only did it allow men to buy their way out of military service by paying a commutation fee of $300 , it also exempted blacks from the draft, as they were not yet considered American citizens. Opposition to the draft was widespread across the North, and in New York, some of the loudest critics of the bill could be found in city government, as politicians railed against the legality of the bill and its impact on the city’s working class poor.

1 July 1863

The Battle of Gettysburg begins.

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The largest military conflict in North American history begins this day when Union and Confederate forces collide at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The epic battle lasted three days and resulted in a retreat to Virginia by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Two months prior to Gettysburg, Lee had dealt a stunning defeat to the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville, Virginia. He then made plans for a Northern invasion in order to relieve pressure on war-weary Virginia and to seize the initiative from the Yankees. His army, numbering about 80,000, began moving on June 3. The Army of the Potomac, commanded by Joseph Hooker and numbering just under 100,000, began moving shortly thereafter, staying between Lee and Washington, D.C. But on June 28, frustrated by the Lincoln administration’s restrictions on his autonomy as commander, Hooker resigned and was replaced by George G. Meade.

Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac as Lee’s army moved into Pennsylvania. On the morning of July 1, advance units of the forces came into contact with one another just outside of Gettysburg. The sound of battle attracted other units, and by noon the conflict was raging. During the first hours of battle, Union General John Reynolds was killed, and the Yankees found that they were outnumbered. The battle lines ran around the northwestern rim of Gettysburg. The Confederates applied pressure all along the Union front, and they slowly drove the Yankees through the town.

By evening, the Federal troops rallied on high ground on the southeastern edge of Gettysburg. As more troops arrived, Meade’s army formed a three-mile long, fishhook-shaped line running from Culp’s Hill on the right flank, along Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, to the base of Little Round Top. The Confederates held Gettysburg, and stretched along a six-mile arc around the Union position. Lee’s forces would continue to batter each end of the Union position, before launching the infamous Pickett’s Charge against the Union center on July 3.