Sewing Women at A.T. Stewart's Store. Collection New-York Historical Society.


New York City manufacturers became essential to the mobilization for war, as city-made products provided for the many needs of the Union army.

  • Two million head of cattle were slaughtered annually, more than in Chicago. Six new sugar refineries were built.
  • Working round the clock, 11,000 men built and repaired warships at Brooklyn Navy Yard — the largest on the East Coast — and at private shipyards.
  • The Civil War made New York the garment-making capital. With cotton scarce, the Army turned to wool for uniforms.
  • Edward R. Squibb's pharmaceuticals shop near the Navy Yard turned out thousands of medical kits, each containing 52 ingredients and dressings used by stewards to treat battlefield ailments.
  • Wall Street financed the war, and secured its centrality in American finance. The city's share of the federal debt grew 4000% to $2.7 billion. Small wonder New York could not allow the Union to lose the war.

The Pain of War

Huge fortunes were made by some commercial leaders in the war, and spent on luxury goods, on entertainments in the theater and the race-track, at dances and picnics. Peace democrats, however, remained opposed to the war. And most New Yorkers' enthusiasm for war collapsed quickly, as everything conspired to weaken commitment to the Union. The wives and children left behind by soldiers faced destitution, even starvation. Food prices doubled, while wages rose only slightly. Veterans found scant work and plenty of opportunity to blame black New Yorkers for their plight.

Despite recruitment efforts, the army was seriously understaffed. The National Enrollment Act, passed March 1, 1863, provided that the Provost Marshal General's office collect the names of all able men, age 18 to 35. Exemptions were available upon payment of $300 or hiring a substitute. The lottery would select names to fill each district's quota.

The "Wheel of Misfortune"

The lottery started peacefully on Saturday, July 11, at the Ninth District Office on 3rd Ave. and 46th St. Half the 2,500-man quota had been selected when the doors closed for the day. One name rankled, however. John Masterson, brother of the foreman of the Black Joke Engine Company 33, had been called. Volunteer firemen were traditionally exempt from militia duty. Over a hot weekend, the Black Jokers decided to "muss" the lottery office on Monday. Others decided to come and watch the spectacle.

On Monday morning, the crowd's anger erupted into the worst civil disorder in American history. Many buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum and Brooks Brothers, were attacked or destroyed in the draft riots. At least 119 people were killed. Over 110 soldiers and police were injured. Probably several hundred civilians were hurt. Many of those attacking blacks knew their targets beforehand, and were motivated by intense racial hatred. Because blacks were scattered in neighborhoods across the city, they could not form any communal defense for themselves.

In the end, after four days of terrible violence, few New Yorkers were actually drafted — once again, the wealthy subsidized the bounties sought by desperate and hungry men.

War for Freedom

Northern governors refused to permit black enlistments in state military units. Protesting black leaders were supported by a few prominent citizens and newspapers with anti-slavery leanings. Units in Kansas and Massachusetts (the 54th) were organized in late 1862. Short of manpower and already committed to emancipation, the other states followed suit. The New York Union League Club helped form the 20th U.S. Colored Troops over the winter of 1863-64.

New York's Colored Troops

Nearly three-quarters of the black men of eligible age volunteered for the Union army. Because white soldiers did not trust them in actual combat, most black soldiers were assigned to support roles, though they sometimes engaged with the enemy. New York registered 4,125 soldiers in its three black regiments, the 20th, 26th, and 31st United States Colored Troops. Trained at Riker's and Hart's islands in the East River in early 1864, they were dispatched to Louisiana, South Carolina, and Texas, respectively. The 31st was at Appomattox Court House when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his army.

Almost all the commissioned officers in U.S. Colored Troops regiments were white. David J. Pilsworth (1841-1895) enlisted as a private, suffered wounds in 1862, and was promoted to a captain of the 20th USCT after his recovery.

Returning Home

Black service in the war had contributed to victory, a fact that was acknowledged and sometimes celebrated in the North. In Washington, it was translated into political support for the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution. But in New York, the welcome home was cold.

On June 17, 1864, Ellen Anderson, a respectable-looking widow, was ordered to leave the "whites only" car of the 8th Avenue Railroad. "I said I was sick and wished to ride up home. I said I had lost my husband in the war. The conductor said 'he did not care for me, or my husband either,' and he and the police officer threw me off the car." She sued the railroad company and won. By July, all the streetcars in New York were open to blacks.

Until the secretary of war intervened, city authorities forbade blacks from marching behind Abraham Lincoln's body from City Hall to the Hudson River docks. Two thousand blacks brought up the end of the march, carrying a banner that read "Abraham Lincoln, Our Emancipator." By that time, the body had already left the city.

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