Nast and the New York Draft Riots of 1863

The Draft Riots of 1863 was a public reaction to the United States Congress enactment of legislation to resupply dwindling Civil War volunteers. The new laws included those who voted or intended to become citizens. This particularly affected the Irish who appeared on new voter’s lists in great number, thanks to Tweed’s efforts to naturalize the Irish quickly so they could vote on pro-Tweed issues according to author Tyler Anbinder in his book, Five Points; The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum.). Wealthier, eligible men could buy out of their obligation for $300. For the Irish, who could not find work or high paying jobs, not having the option this placed additional pressure on the poorest citizens, most of who could not buy their way out (Anbinder 314). As a result of feeling forced to fight in a war, many eligible men decided to protest with violence.

According to The New York Times, the first draftees were selected under the observation of municipal and federal officials in mid-July and the city reacted “with the bloodiest week in their [sic] entire history.” Tyler Anbinder describes the media coverage of the “predominantly Irish-American mobs lynched a dozen or more African Americans and terrorized thousands” (314).  The New York Times unabashedly blamed the Irish, writing, “Scarcely had two dozen names been called, when a crowd, numbering perhaps 500, suddenly made an irruption in front of the building…attacking it with clubs, stones, brickbats and other missiles” (NYT  July 14, 1863). “Elated with their success” The Times reported other incidents of intoxicated mobs, smashing windows, looting goods and terrorizing women and children. Subsequent reports in The Times feature many Irish surnames as perpetrators.  Paine placed Nast in New York when the riots broke out as an eye witness for Harper’s Weekly.  These three drawings are part of what Nast turned in for publication.

Charge of the Police on the Rioters of the “Tribune” Office. Public Domain, Wikipedia Commons

On August 1, 1863, Charge of the police on the rioters of the “Tribune” office appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Three Irish thugs left, are part of a larger mob brandishing weapons. Note that not all of the mob is depicted in this manner.

The most visible rioters at front left are Irish and indicated by the simian facial features drawn by the unsigned cartoonist believed to be by Nast.  The Irishmen are typical of Nast’s later cartoons and represent the prevailing Protestant view of the Irish as violent ruffians. The squared jaws and heavy brows are suggested in the other individuals seen in the background. Clubs and weapons swirl above the turbulence. The offices of the New York Tribune, targeted for their early abolition stance, appeared in the background to place the mob at the scene and provide an anti-abolition motive for the mob.

Sacking A Drug Store in Second Avenue Detail UDel-Walfred scan

A second image, Sacking a Drug Store on Second Avenue, shows a mob tearing up the street, and a simian-faced man in top hat leaving with his booty – a bottle of whiskey. He presents the bottle to a female with a darker complexion; long dark hair and a cone-like hat. Her facial features could be construed as simian, but with a Native American to the right, she could be a companion to the Native American. Clearly, Nast’s mob is multi-cultural. He did not place the blame squarely on the Irish, though he did indicate their participation in the looting.

The particular subject of lynching in the final image in the August 1st Harper’s Weekly issue, Hanging a Negro in Clarkson Street is striking for several reasons as Nast repeated the draft riot lynching in future drawings against the Irish. A lifeless African American hangs from a tree noose on Clarkson Street, located on the west side of Manhattan, near Nast’s first boyhood home on Greenwich Street.

Hanging a Negro in Clarkson Street by Thomas Nast, 1 August 1863. Wikipedia Commons

The hanging elevates the African American’s body. Not content with his hanging, his murderers are in the process of burning the body. Standing at the foot of the pyre, flames, and smoke reach up, guiding the reader’s eye to focus on the victim rather than the perpetrators. The man on the wagon is firing a gun in the direction of the hanging body. Hanging, burning, gunfire – the leaders of this crime deliver an unmistaken message by  punishing their symbolic victim. It is a torrential excess of violence.

While Nast placed the Irish in the mob scenes of the first and second images, he does not make the same visual indictment in the Clarkson Street image. This is significant. If Nast possessed a cultural bias against Irish or Catholics, as may have been the case, one would have expected him to draw the mob predominantly as Irish.

Several news accounts, including the New York Times, placed the Irish center stage of the violence and accused the Irish directly for lynching and burning down the Colored Orphanage or Asylum. Beyond the trees, in the shadows, is large mo. Depicting the Irish in mob formation was a common stereotype. This mob is turning the corner as it approaches the bonfire. Was the suggestion of Irish involvement explicit?

Harper’s Weekly cautioned their readers not to blame the Irish exclusively. Although Harper’s Weekly acknowledged some Irish involvement, they were quick to point out that other groups also contributed to the melee, and in fact, provided examples of Irish police who put their lives at risk to stop the violence:

Some newspapers dwell upon the fact that the rioters were uniformly Irish, and hence argue that our trouble arises from the perversity of the Irish race…It happens in this city that, in our working classes, the Irish element largely preponderates over all others, and if the populace acts as a populace, Irishmen are naturally prominent therein…But it must be remembered…in many wards of the city the Irish were during the late riot stanch friends of law and order; that the Irish men helped to rescue the colored orphans in the asylum from the hands of the rioters; that a large proportion of the police, who behaved throughout the riot with the most exemplary gallantry, are Irishmen….–James T. Brady, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

And so, while there is some suggestion of Irish participation in Nast’s 1863 drawing, it was only mildly suggested in keeping with the accompanying coverage of the riot.

Whatever the reason, Nast held back his caricature and lampooning. He treated this scene with reverence. This picture is not about looting. It is about a horrific murder of an innocent human being. Nast’s hazy ambiguity about the mob is curious because, years later,in subsequent images Nast directly implicates the Irish and places them on the scene as lead aggressors in the Draft Riot lynching.


Upon closer look (see detail) the man standing next to the wagon wheel could be considered as the most Irish face in this image drawn with slightly simian features. His posture is curious. Unlike the other individuals, he holds no weapons. What do his outstretched hands mean? Is he eager to participate and play a role or is he trying to intervene and stop the violence?

Immigration historian Graham Hodges suggests that the Irish and African Americans “coexisted far more peacefully than historians have suggested” (124). Communities appeared to tolerate interracial marriages of Irish women with African American men, however, some Irish objected to forced military conscription to defend slavery.

Irish Catholics did not object to slavery. Robert Heuston’s extensive research is very clear on the Catholic stance on slavery, “The Catholic and Irish press, North and South, uniformly rejected abolitionism and all who sympathized with it” (207). At the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, Archbishop John Hughes predicted that his flock “will run away in disgust if forced to fight for emancipation” (Anbinder 311).

Timothy Meagher reaches the same conclusion. Despite a gradual warming of Vatican sympathies against slavery, “Archbishop Hughes and another American clergy steadfastly opposed abolition, lest they endanger the Catholic Church’s tenuous position in the United States” (218). For Republicans and Protestants who championed abolition and equality of African Americans, the Catholic position, and their alignment with the Democratic Party, North, and South, must have been untenable.



Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points; The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum.

Hodges, Graham. Desirable Companions and Lovers: Irish and African Americans in the Sixth Ward, 1830-1870,”

Hueston, Robert Francis. The Catholic Press and Nativism

Meagher, Timothy. Columbia Guide to Irish AmericaColumbia University Press, New York. 2005. Print

10 thoughts on “Nast and the New York Draft Riots of 1863”

  1. You are relating a “Loyal League” version of the July 1863 protests, highly inaccurate and propagandistic.

    A) The protests were not spontaneous “riots,” they were organized demonstrations, supported by a majority of New Yorkers, from the governor on down.
    B) The protests were not about the new draft per se; the conscription law was merely the latest outrage of the Lincoln police state, following upon the suppression and roundup of journalists, politicians, lawyers, generals, and others thought to be “disloyal” to the Radical Republicans’ agenda.
    C) The protests were not “Irish” (except in the sense that a slight majority of New Yorkers at this time were of Irish extraction, and so half the protestors were; you might as well characterize your so-called “Draft Riots” as being “North European” ).
    D) There were no “Irish immigrants” being drafted; this was never an issue. As British subjects they could not be conscripted.
    E) You discuss the hanging of negroes but don’t tell us why this happened. It happened because these negroes were running around with guns, shooting people. A self-styled “Colonel” named Henry O’Brien was also hanged and beaten to death, and for the same reason.

    1. Thank you Sallie. This is a work in progress, particularly as I move through more material. Many papers of the time did refer to the rioters as Irish, and listed people with Irish surnames that were arrested.Fair or not, the word “mob” was synonymous with being Irish – specifically Irish-Catholic. My research has shown that Harper’s Weekly did not pile on the Irish bandwagon during this incident, though it did not exonerate their involvement. Harper’s also pointed out that other ethnic groups were part of the riot. In reading Tyler Andbinder’s terrific book on Five Points and other scholars, it was very common for Irish immigrants to be quickly, and might I add, illegally made U.S. Citizens. This was needed to obtain the influence of their vote in local elections, and therefore made them eligible for the draft. Tammany Hall’s expense account to bribe judges was extensive.There were several Irish-born regiments, estimated to be about 140,000 with one third of them coming directly from New York. Some of these were voluntary conscripts – the choices for the Irish in NYC being rather meager.

      What is your source of the negro hangings. I will check into it. Thanks. ~Michele

      1. My sources for the reportage on the negro hangings are primarily the NY Herald, the NY World, the Evening Express; and the telegraphed (early wire-service) stories from New York papers that appeared in out-of-town papers such as The Philadelphia Press. This last is an excellent source, as it ran multiple versions of the “riot” tales, from different editions of several newspapers (generally credited).

        I have also reviewed the coverage in the NY Times and the NY Tribune; however, their coverage is largely fictional and propagandistic*; seldom on-site reporting.

        The Times and the Tribune (and Harper’s Weekly) had a strong anti-Catholic bias, going back at least to the 1850s. When they repeatedly describe the protestors as an “Irish mob,” this is no more than a fig-leaf for their real target, the Catholic Church. The venom became particularly strong in 1862-64, because some of the most articulate spokesmen for the moderate Democrats were Catholic (McMaster, Mullally, perhaps you could count even James Gordon Bennett), and furthermore the Republican Party itself had roots in the Know Nothing Party.

        I have been collecting the various tales for a little book, because I have too many distractions to make a big book.


        *(For example: the Times and Tribune say 800 orphans lived in the Colored Orphan Asylum, rather than the usual number of ~233. They carelessly blame the “rioting mob” for the fire, without offering a shred of evidence. They imply that the orphanage was burned with the young colored folk still inside. In reality the orphans had been evacuated, with valuables removed, well in advance of the fire. In some newspapers the opinion was advanced that the burning of the orphanage, and Allerton’s stockyards, the Croton Cottage, and other buildings, was premeditated arson on the part of property investors seeking to develop the area between 42nd St and Central Park. These property interests would seem to include the key founding members of the Union League Club. Which might incline some casual historians to cough out a grave “Ahem!” in comment.)

  2. This is nothing but a slanderous anti-Irish regurgitation of the propaganda of the times ,describing Irish as “simian” is a racist hate crime.If you are looking for historical accuracy then do your homework without repeating the lies that were designed to stir up hatred against the Irish Catholics,I find this whole page insulting and repugnant and should be taken down immediately before charges are brought against the authors.To excuse your ignorance by saying it’s a work in progress is totally unacceptable,if you propagated lies about Jews or Muslims in such an historically inaccurate way you would be before the courts in short time.

    1. Wow. I am approving this comment, complete with your accusations that this research is illegal and I should be thrown in jail. First of all, my background is Irish Catholic. I am not inventing this stereotype, or condoning it. I am curious why it has occurred, why it prevailed in particular, in New York City, and why artists like Nast, and there were many, who chose to depict the Irish as such, drew this type of work, and why it was so accepted. The words “simian” and other descriptors such as “ape like” “orgre” “lantern-jawed” are commonly referred to in my writings because that is how the Irish were depicted. That is not a lie. That is just the way it was. I am not ignorant on the subject and have read many historians’ accounts, many of whom are Irish and who are confident enough of the facts to call things as they were.

      During the 1863 riots, Harper’s, Nast’s employer, was one of the few that said “not so fast” in blaming the draft riots solely on the Irish. They were decidedly more fair about placing the blame, unlike the New York Times and other publications who had a field day quoting Irish names as perpetrators. My point in discussing this is to lead to a later discussion about Nast’s attitudes and how they changed and were reflected in his art. Nast’s treatment of the Irish in 1863 was tepid compared to how he referred back to the same incident later, wherein he depicted the Irish far more unfavorably. He would bring up draft riot imagery again and again in his cartoons, and in those later versions, his exaggerations of the Irish were harsher and far more cruel. I found that curious. I want to know why that happened. I am within my rights to examine it.

      I have had people tell me I don’t know what I am talking about, and I understand that seeing these images is painful. Tyler Anbinder, who is the authority on Five Points, and served as a consultant for the film, Gangs of New York, in part I would suspect to correct misconceptions from the original book, is very careful about saying the riots were all Irish or that they were all Five-Pointers. They were not. The Irish were a large population by 1863, and it goes without saying that if there is a big city riot, the population of that riot might represent the population of the city proportionately. One person wrote me and said the Irish were not upset about the draft riots because they weren’t American and therefore could not be drafted. The fact is, and as Andbinder’s research makes clear, Tammany Hall, Tweed and other local governments were keen to naturalize Irish immigrants as soon as they could so they could vote. Judges were bribed to stamp naturalization papers, making many brand new Irish immigrants instant Americans, who could vote for the Democratic ticket. This subsequently made them vulnerable to being drafted.

      You will also be amazed to find out, that in Protestant circles (the majority of the population), the Irish were actually considered sub-human – and critics of the Irish had science to thank. Darwin’s new theories on evolution gave Irish detractors “science” to point to – proving without any shadow of a doubt, that the Irish belonged in a Evolutionary step lower than white-Europeans, but higher than African Americans. There are tons of drawings depicting this at the time, in case anyone living during this time had any doubt. I didn’t make this stuff up. I am just talking about it.

      And other Irish historians – particularly Timothy Meagher, has done a lot of research and reflection on how the Irish behaved here in America. He examines the question, why, if they were so oppressed in Ireland (by the English) did they become oppressors to African Americans and Chinese. Not all of them were oppressors, but many were. Meagher evaluates the findings of several “whiteness historians” to get at that very question. It is not an easy one to answer.

      For Nast, his attitude toward the Irish only worsened, his images grew more coarse and exaggerated. As far as I can ascertain, Nast’s attitude was formed in large part to their affiliation with Tweed, Democratic politics and the Catholic Church’s entry into political affairs. I am not saying he was right. I am simply stating that his views were shared among many.

      What lies have I propagated? Did the New York Times not blame the Irish? Did Protestants in New York, across the America really, not have deep concerns about Catholics? Did the Irish align themselves with Tweed or did they not? And yes, as a work in progress, there is more to look into, and share. But you mistake me for aligning with those I am writing about.

  3. Michele, you’re just way off base. You are recycling fictionalized and propagandistic history as fact. The fables you relate simply did not happen. Just few points at random, since there are too many to cover:

    1) Citing Tyler Ambinder’s advisory role to a fictional film (partly based on a book of fictionalized journalism) does not help your case. Ambinder himself considers Asbury’s book to be little more than pulp fiction.
    2) There was no instant naturalization of Irish immigrants that would enable them to be drafted. You are confusing naturalization with declaration of intent, which might in fact enable one to enlist, or to be eligible for the (state) militia, but would normally take at least five years. This is not to say illegal draft-enrollment never occurred. In the archives of the War Department (viewable at you can see hundreds of genuine Irish immigrants who were put on the draft rolls but refused to enlist because they were British subjects. Many were imprisoned, but the War Department couldn’t prosecute them, and invariably released them by the end of the War.
    3) Your notion that “the Irish were actually considered sub-human”: this simply isn’t true. Abraham Lincoln was frequently called an ape, “the original gorilla.” This was the idiom of the time. You called your political enemies stupid, you called them backwards, you called them apes.

    Thomas Nast worked in the service of a crackpot Abolitionist cult, and like a hack journalist he produced what he thought his masters wanted. The fact that Nast was misshapen, dwarfish, and rather ape-like in appearance himself (and not incidentally a renegade Catholic) surely had some bearing on his bent of mind. Perhaps he envied all the tall, fit, handsome Irishmen he saw about him. For example, W.J. Hennessy, the suave young illustrator who both preceded him at Harper’s Weekly and was a far better draftsman to boot…a Truly ‘Special Artist.’

    1. Margot,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      I was not very clear in why I mention Andbinder’s role as adviser to the film Gangs of New York. It was merely to highlight his bona fides. If you read my bibliography, I make clear that Asbury’s book is not a respected scholarly work. Andbinder however is a highly-respected expert on Five Points, and this era of New York, and I thought it was curious that he served as an adviser to the aforementioned film – as if to try and correct or prevent some of the perceptions of the book making their way into the film. That I mention this is not germane to my discussion of Nast, I would agree.

      To claim that the Irish were not considered sub-human by Protestant Americans, i.e., the ruling elite, is simply ridiculous. There are hundreds of history books devoted to the subject. I am NOT saying the Irish were sub-human. I am saying that others were declaring this and used this trope as an excuse to victimize them. The trope, the stereotype developed in England and it migrated to America where it prevailed for some time. Of course, in cartooning, one aspect of caricature is to compare the subject or victim, to an animal. What better way to lampoon an enemy, but by comparing them to lower beasts.

      Specifically, where Nast is concerned I am trying to get at the bottom of his beef with the Irish, which later encompassed and merged with Catholicism.

      But during this time, no other group of people were visually punished and discriminated against more than the Irish, save perhaps the Chinese in the West and the African American in the South. Nast was the most famous in America, but he was certainly not alone. He drew a great deal of inspiration from Sir John Tenniel, artist for Punch magazine in the UK, among others. One way in which this prejudice is allowed to take hold, and tolerated in the community, was to paint the offending group, race or ethnicity as an “other.” Something different than normal. “Nast did not originate the stereotype of the violent, simian Irishman, but he may have carried it further than any caricaturist before him,” (John Adler, Draper Hill, 66). I also urge you to read Paddy and the Republic by David Knobel to see how prevalent the stereotype was, and also the work of L. Perry Curtis. Though Wikipedia is not a scholarly source, their article on scientific racism has an interesting image on how people classified the Irish as something less,

      Now Andbinder is clear that fraudulent naturalization of the Irish was rampant in Five Points. He is also clear about the Irish’s attitude toward slavery and he is clear that it is hard to pinpoint views held in Five Points specifically. But as followers of the Democratic Party, the Irish and the Catholic Church in NYC, at that time, were clearly on the side of slavery. “Many New York Democrats insisted that slavery was beneficial to blacks and whites alike” (Anbinder 303). Irish and Catholic newspapers also “consistently argued that both abolitionism and the more moderate movement to prevent the creation of additional slave territory threatened the survival of the nation” (303). “One factor that the antebellum Irish never mention when explaining their opposition to abolitionism was economic competition from African Americans,” Anbinder 306). He also adds, “the extent to which Five Pointers discussed the slavery issue is impossible to determine.”

      Anbinder’s research somewhat defends Five Point Irish widespread rioting in and coming from Five Points during the draft riots, but he does not exonerate them. The truth, Anbinder says, is somewhere in the middle of the Irish being completely peaceful and not concerned about the draft, and being completely irate and responsible for the riots. Anbinder says there was actually little threat to the Five Point Irish over the draft…”Of the 161 Five Pointers drafted, 59 were exempted from service…Eleven of the 161 hired substitutes” (317) and the rest, just needed not to show up at the enrollment office, since there was no real way to track or enforce the draft. Still, Andbinder can not disguise that nearly every African American from Five Points fled the area, and never came back. But Andbinder and other historians do document where Irish and Blacks co-existed peacefully in the wards of NYC, and this is a fact that has to be considered as well. It is also a fact that the 69th All Irish Infantry served valiantly in the Civil War, and their efforts and bravery did much to dispel a great deal of the Nativist sentiment against the Irish.

      Anbinder continues, “One reason that the New York’s Irish Americans reacted so violently to the prospect of a draft was that they were increasingly distrustful of the Tammany leader’s who claimed to represent them (338). “Every conceivable form of fraud was practiced” to naturalize Irish immigrants so that they could vote on the democratic ticket (321). Anbinder and his research goes into great detail concerning bribing judges to naturalize immigrants. After the war, the “strategies were pursued to an extent and with a shamelessness unprecedented even in New York Politics” (323). The Catholic Church’s position against abolition is well documented. As a Catholic, it is disturbing to know that leaders of my faith held that position, but it was true at the time.

      As Nast’s star rose with Harper’s…and they coined the term “Our Special Artist” just for him, it is not my invention, Nast increasingly became autonomous in what he chose to draw and submit. In 1863, for this riot, no…he was assigned to cover the draft riots for the paper. Later however, he drew what he wanted, much to the chagrin of general editor George Curtis. Although Fletcher Harper and his magazine were clearly in the Union camp, were pro-Lincoln advocates and staunch abolitionists, and as such, rarely had issues with Nast’s images, Curtis did. Curtis may have agreed with the liberal Republican philosophy, but he disagreed intensely with Nast’s crude methods. It is why, after Fletcher Harper dies, in I believe 1877, that Nast’s influence at the weekly begins to wane as Curtis takes over. At Harper’s, anyone aligning with the Democratic Party or its positions, was fair game for criticism and satire. The Irish – the Catholics – Tweed, all fell in this category as enemies of the Union, of the state. It is this political trinity, I feel, that is at the heart of Nast’s anger. It is the inspiration for his visual attacks, rather than an inherent racism.

      This later fuels the ire in Nast’s ink. His images of the Draft Riot of 1863 are MILD compared to how he reprises the event in later.

Leave a Reply to sallieparker Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Thomas Nast's cartoons of Chinese Americans

%d bloggers like this: