Top of page

Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Racial Tensions

During much of the nineteenth century, in areas with large Irish American and African American populations, the two groups were often pushed into conflict.

The Riot in Lexington Avenue

The Conscription Act of 1863 exacerbated tense relationships. This act made all white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five years eligible for the draft by the Union Army. Free African American men were permitted to "volunteer" to fight in the Civil War through the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation. However, African American men were not drafted or otherwise forced to fight. In addition, white men with money could illegally bribe doctors for medical exemptions, legally hire a substitute, or pay for a commutation of a draft. The less affluent could not afford to pay for deferments. The inequities in draft eligibility between African Americans, monied whites, and working-class whites, of whom many were Irish, increased racial tensions.

Several cities suffered draft riots in which enrollment officers and free African Americans were targeted for violence. The largest such incident began on June 11, 1863, in New York City when more than 100 people were murdered by an angry mob. After burning down a draft office and attacking police officers and well-dressed whites, this mob of white workers, including many Irish Americans, focused its energy on killing African American bystanders.