On July 13, 1863, Chief Engineer John Decker of the New York City Volunteer Fire Department stood before a mob that had ransacked a building and were now intent on setting it afire. It was known as the Colored Orphan Asylum, a refuge for hundreds of black children located on Fifth Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets. As the rioters set fire to the first floor, Decker scattered the burning pieces and extinguished the flames. The second time the crowd started a blaze in three different places, and Decker and half a dozen others snuffed out the “incendiaries,” as Harper’s Weekly said in its account. The mob became even more incensed.
Still, Decker wouldn’t give up. Despite threats to his life, he pleaded with the angry crowd “to do nothing so disgraceful to humanity as to burn a benevolent institution,” recounted Harper’s Weekly. Those bent on destruction, however, didn’t stop and soon struck up fires that engulfed the entire asylum, burning it to the ground. The asylum’s matron and others led out some 233 children, who somehow escaped with their lives.
Hundreds of miles from the Civil War’s battlefields, with their bloody fighting and horrid scenes of death, New York City 150 years ago this week suffered days of violence, death, and destruction in its neighborhoods. The Draft Riots of July, 1863, first erupted as a protest of Union Army conscription but exploded and then encapsulated so much more – class division and warfare, racism, immigrant unrest, and workers’ grievances. Whatever had been seething for many years spilled over as crowds attacked other citizens, set fire to public buildings and houses, and made scapegoats especially of black residents and those who sought to end slavery. After four days of rioting from July 13-16, federal troops brought order to the terrorized city. When it was through, an estimated 119 people had died (though some put the toll much higher). The rioters lynched 11 black men. The unrest drove hundreds of thousands of black residents from the city and left many buildings destroyed.