Stephentown Historical Society – The Troy Draft Riots
by David Flint
“Sir: Your are hereby notified that on the 28th day of October you were legally drafted into the service of the United States for a period of three years…You will accordingly report on or before 5 December 1863 at the place of rendezvous in Albany, New York or be subjected to the penalty prescribed therefore by the rules and articles of war.”
[private]Just the threat of receiving one of these notices was enough to provoke a week of out of control mayhem in New York City in July of 1863, resulting in probably over 100 fatalities including at least 11 lynchings of blacks, thousands injured and property damage amounting to between one and five million dollars. The rioting also spread to other cities such as Akron, Toledo, Boston and Troy.
Speaking at the Stephentown Heritage Center on Monday, August 6, Michael Barrett, historian and Deputy Director of the Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway, said that there is no proof of any fatalities from the riot in Troy and it only lasted a day and a night but otherwise it mimicked in violence and hostility toward blacks, though to a much lesser extent, the insurrection in New York City.
The war was going badly for the North in 1863. Casualties were high and the patriotic fervor of 1861 that inspired so many to enlist had disappeared. Barrett said that those who hadn’t gone off to war were benefitting from higher wages. Bounties offered by state and local governments to encourage enlistment were not enough to fill the ranks.
A typical case would be Barrett’s composite figure of Mike O’Reilly. An 1847 immigrant from Ireland, O’Reilly had a wife, Maggie, and two babies to look after. He had, however, found a good job in one of the Troy iron foundries and worked his way up to the position of moulder, paying $35 a month. The draft law passed in March 1863 called for all able bodied men 18 to 45 years of age regardless of dependents. If drafted, O’Reilly’s pay would drop to $13 a month, and that pay was often notoriously late in coming. There were two legal ways he could get out of it. He could hire a substitute, or he could pay the government $300 to take his name off the draft rolls. The first was open to all kinds of swindles, and the second was unaffordable for most working men. People like Henry Burden, the Iron Works owner, were easily able to buy exemptions. Burden bought them for all of his sons. People like O’Reilly, Barrett said, began to consider it a “rich man’s war – a poor man’s fight.”
Another development in early 1863 helped to make the draft law so explosive. In January, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This may have been a “master political stroke,” Barrett said, ensuring that neither France nor Britain having already abolished slavery would side with the Confederacy, but it had the O’Reilly types seeing their wages cut 60% or more and themselves sent South to free the slaves who would then come up North en masse to take their jobs.
So when the names of the first draftees were posted, tempers flared just as they did in New York City. Barrett had a list of 347 names from Troy’s 5th Ward. “It’s like reading a phone book in Dublin,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, July 15 some 400 Burden Iron workers began a march from South Troy to the County Office Building to present a petition against the draft. Passing 17 foundries, along River Street they were joined by a crowd of collar workers. Someone got the bells of St. Peter’s Church ringing to stir more excitement. They arrived at Washington Square (now Monument Square) where the recruiting depot was situated and were met there by Congressman John Griswold and Rev. Peter Havermans, the Dean of the Catholic churches. This pair tried to calm the mob, but a large group broke off, heading for the offices of the Troy Daily Times a Republican and very pro-war newspaper. This building they sacked and burned but left alone the adjacent offices of the Troy Daily Whig, an anti-war newspaper.
The mob, some 2,000 to 2,500 strong, then proceeded down Second Street to the Court House where they were infuriated to find the doors locked and the windows barricaded. They then moved on to the Presbyterian Church on Liberty Street, the oldest black church in town and a center of abolition and the Underground Railway. Only thanks to Rev. Havermans and his assistant were they dissuaded from burning this church. They did, however, trash the nearby house of Martin Townsend, a prominent Republican. Again Havermans and Griswold tried to calm them down.
Hearing that some rioters had been arrested, the mob headed for the jail, broke in and pillaged the place. Six black prisoners were fortunately kept hidden by the Warden.
Someone then shouted, “Down with the bawdy houses!” and off they surged to the red light district, which for some reason they evidently associated with Union Army soldiers. At least four of the establishments there were looted and burned, the girls and managers fleeing for their lives.
Random groups roved through downtown and South Troy for the remainder of the night torching a number of warehouses and other buildings. The next day Mayor Van Alstyne deputized some 400 citizens to help restore order, and, gradually, things calmed down.
Barrett said that in the aftermath Troy followed the lead of New York City and voted to appropriate $200,000 to pay the commutation fee for any Trojan who did not want to be drafted.
They also approved money to reimburse property owners for damages. Curiously, the only businesses approved for reimbursement turned out to be the four bawdy houses that were burned. “Gotta keep the businesses running. We got trains coming through here with soldiers. They spend money,” Barrett had the Town fathers saying.