The Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act of 1863
A dwindling number of volunteers to fight in the Union Army prompted two very different measures in 1863 that seemed to create a double standard regarding race and military service. In January, the Emancipation Proclamation abolished the institution of slavery and permitted African Americans to join the military. A search on troops yields pamphlets such as “General Washington and General Jackson, on Negro Soldiers,” which offers a history of African Americans fighting for America since the Revolutionary War. It also locates“First Organization of Colored Troops in the State of New York,” which describes African-American soldiers responding to the government’s call by “sweeping forward in steady, solid legions . . . destined to wield the sword of just retribution,--to teach their former masters, on many a bloody battle-field . . . which of them is ‘of the superior race,’” (page 6).
While the Emancipation Proclamation allowed blacks to join the fight, the Conscription Act of 1863 made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five eligible for a draft. The wealthy could, however, avoid military service for a price. They could illegally bribe doctors for medical exemptions or legally hire a substitute or pay for a commutation of a draft. This ability to purchase a deferment heightened the resentment of many in the lower class who felt that they were being forced to fight for the freedom of African Americans.
Enrollment officers and blacks were occasionally attacked in retribution for the draft in several cities but the largest incident of its kind began on June 11, 1863, in New York City in which more than 100 people were murdered. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, a mob of lower-class whites focused its energy on killing African Americans.
The “Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering from the Late Riots in the City of New York” documents “Incidents of the Riot” with accounts of murder and other violent acts perpetrated by this mob of lower-class whites. Please note: These descriptions are often graphic and may not be suitable for some readers.
One example of violence comes in the events surrounding the death of William Jones, a black member of the community who walked into the mob while returning home from a bakery. Jones was hung from a lamppost where his body was mutilated for several hours after his death:
[S]o great was the fear inspired by the mob that no white person had dared to manifest sufficient interest in the mutilated body of the murdered man while it remained in the neighborhood to be able to testify as to who it was . . . The principal evidence which the widow . . . has to identify the murdered man as her husband is the fact of his having a loaf of bread under his arm.
- What were people’s expectations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act?
- Why did some people feel it was important to present a history of the African-American soldier in the U.S. military? Who is the intended audience of such a pamphlet?
- How were the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act meant to provide more Union soldiers?
- Did this legislation set a double standard for black and white soldiers?
- Was the lower class justified in feeling that they were being obligated to fight on behalf of African Americans?
- Why do you think that the mob was still influential after the riot?