The Complicated Story of the Irish in the New York City Draft Riots

The Rioters Dragging Col. O'Brien's Body Through The StreetThe Rioters Dragging Col. O'Brien's Body Through The Street. (Photo: NYPL)

Most people who are passingly familiar with the Civil War or who have seen the film Gangs of New York likely know that Irish immigrants were the chief culprits in one of the most infamous incidents in that conflict: the New York City Draft Riots. From July 13 to July 17, 1863, mobs of mostly Irish-born rioters in Manhattan vented their opposition to being conscripted into the Union Army to fight in what they saw as a misguided antislavery war. Today, as it did 150 years ago, the anti-war, anti-black violence of the draft riots stands out to some observers as the definitive incident of Irish Americans’ Civil War. But a closer look at the events and aftermath of the riots undermines this view of a monolithic anti-war, anti-emancipation Irish-American experience in the Civil War.

The draft riots unfolded over four hellish days in Manhattan. Violence erupted on July 13 as mostly native-born artisans and skilled factory workers attacked anyone or anything associated with conscription and the Republican Party. But soon, the rioters directed their fury at African Americans. Irish-American longshoremen, pavers, cart men, and hack drivers attempted to wipe out blacks’ presence from the dockyards and streets where the groups competed for employment. From July 14 until July 17, the rioters – two-thirds of whom were Irish Americans – beat, murdered, and mutilated black New Yorkers. By the time that Union soldiers restored order in the streets, more than a hundred people (most of them rioters) were dead and many African Americans had fled New York for their lives.

To many observers, blame for the draft riots lay squarely on the shoulders of New York’s Irish immigrant population. The mob was “composed almost exclusively of Irishmen and boys,” wrote the New York Times in agreement with a similar charge made in Horace Greeley’s Tribune. In a postmortem of the draft riots, New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong wished “to see war made on the Irish scum” that he held responsible for the previous days’ violence. “No wonder St. Patrick drove all the venomous vermin out of Ireland!” Strong hissed. “Its biped mammalia supply that island its full average share of creatures that crawl and eat dirt and poison every community they infest.”

Strong tended to generalize when he wrote about the Irish, so he probably didn’t suspect that Irish-American soldiers in the Union Army shared his disdain for the draft rioters. After hearing about the riots, John O’Brien of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery wrote in a letter to his sister that he hoped “the leaders in those riots will suffer death and that none of the guilty wretches will be shielded from justice.” When the officers of the Irish-American 69th New York regiment caught wind of what was happening in their hometown, they gathered as a group to record their sentiments. Noting that “citizens of Irish birth” were responsible for the riots, the 69th New York’s officers requested to be “ordered to New York to…aid in repressing the violence and disorder which now afflict the people of that (our own) city.” A similar reaction emerged from the rank and file of the Irish-American 9th Massachusetts who, according to one of its officers, “wished for a chance to give those fellows [the rioters] a taste of our quality, and show them how the Irish Ninth could charge.”

There are several reasons behind Irish-American soldiers’ contempt for their rioting countrymen. The draft riots occurred mere days after crucial Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. Many Union soldiers, like Peter Welsh of the Irish-American 28th Massachusetts, thought that “one unanimous efort [sic] might finish up this accursed war in a few weeks.” But the draft riots threatened to derail the progress of Union arms, and so soldiers like Welsh argued that “every leader and instigator of those riots should be made an example of[.]”

Other Irish-American soldiers who condemned the draft rioters emphasized the legality and necessity of conscription. County Limerick native Edmund O’Dwyer, a soldier in the Irish-American 23rd Illinois regiment, asserted that the federal government had “the right to compel its citizens to bear arms for the common welfare.” More direct in making this argument was Michael Donlon, an Irish-born soldier in the 20th Massachusetts who requested of his family to “write soon and enforce the draft” in August 1863. Similar statements abounded in the letters of Irish-born soldiers eager to share the burden of fighting.

Perhaps most indicative of how the draft riots divided Irish immigrants is that the rioters targeted Irish-American soldiers. Ironically, the assistant provost marshal responsible for enforcing the draft in New York City was Colonel Robert Nugent, a veteran of the Irish Brigade who was recuperating from a wound in battle. On July 13, rioters ransacked his 86th Street apartment, destroying a battle flag used by the 69th New York and running a knife through a picture of Nugent with Thomas Francis Meagher, commander of the Irish Brigade.

Nugent was fortunate not to have been home when the rioters arrived. Colonel Henry O’Brien wasn’t as lucky. O’Brien was in Manhattan to recruit soldiers for his regiment when the riots began, and he volunteered his services to restore peace. Like Nugent, O’Brien caught the mob’s attention, and rioters vandalized his home. But unlike Nugent, O’Brien appeared on scene when the mob was still nearby. After brazenly walking past the mob and into a store, O’Brien was attacked when he reemerged. Over the next several hours, rioters bludgeoned him with a paving stone, dragged him through the streets, and hung him from a lamppost. Only the intervention of a parish priest stopped the mob from burning O’Brien’s body after he finally succumbed to its murderous rage.

Colonels Nugent and O’Brien were certainly unrepresentative of Irish immigrants’ involvement in the New York City Draft Riots. But their experiences call attention to broader patterns of Irish-American opposition to the riots and support for continuing the war to restore the Union, even if that meant conscripting immigrants into an army whose every advance brought the demise of slavery one step closer.

About the Author

Ian Delahanty

Ian Delahanty is a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College and soon-to-be Assistant Professor of History at Springfield College. His research focuses on Irish Americans' involvement in the Civil War and the intertwined histories of nationalism and abolitionism in Ireland and America.

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  1. Great article! Much of my knowledge of this event is indeed based on “Gangs of New York,” so this is really helpful. Random question: did many Irish fight for the Confederacy? That’s something I’ve never learned about, not even through Leonardo DiCaprio films.

    1. Thanks very much, Mike. In answer to your question, the most up-to-date research on this (by historian David Gleeson) suggests that around 20,000 Irish fought in the Confederate Army. That’s half of what had long been the accepted figure of 40,000. But, it’s still about 50% of the total “recruitable” Irish population in the Confederacy–if the Irish in the North had served at the same rate, there would’ve been 300,000+ in the Union Army, rather than the accepted estimate of 180,000.

      While I can’t promise any Irish immigrants will be in it, an upcoming Matthew Mcconaughey movie (coming in 2016)–The Free State of Jones–looks like it’ll give a fascinating and unexpected story about Confederate/anti-Confederate soldiers:

  2. Thanks for an interesting counterpoint – the knowledge of Irish involvement in the riots (as well as, it should be noted, other anti-abolition or anti-black violence in the antebellum North) is well known, as is the presence of Irish Americans in the military, but I hadn’t considered the impact the one might have on the other.

    So I guess my question would then be what the basis of this division within the Irish immigrant population was. Was it purely one of circumstance, with Irish immigrants and Irish Americans who were fighting opposing the riots because of their lack of support for the war effort, or were there divisions already in place? Class, county of origin, some other factor that might help explain why there was such a clear dividing line?

    1. This is an excellent question. Class was certainly important, especially given the centrality of labor competition to the draft rioters’ violence against African Americans (and, as you note, a larger, longer pattern of anti-black violence). But the soldiers’ main concern was fighting (and ultimately ending) the war, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds.

      So my argument is that the division emerged from the war as Irish-American soldiers (like most Union soldiers) accepted the necessity of emancipation and conscription. Iver Bernstein’s classic study of the draft riots emphasizes that the rioters acted within a longstanding struggle for control in New York City, but I don’t think that long-term perspective can explain the soldiers’ reactions I highlighted. Their side of the “dividing line” took shape in the context of war.

  3. That’s a fascinating concept; I’d love to see a wider study of that. I wonder, then, whether there’s a rhyme or reason in terms of who is going into the army at that point? I’m not entirely certain how NY militias or units would have been chosen before the federal draft itself, but how many of these soldiers self-selected – chose to join up? And is there a demographic pattern there? Sounds like a really interesting area of study, thanks for presenting it.

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