In July 1863, the infamous “draft riots” roiled New York. Among those caught up in the violence were the two people most associated with the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s husband, Henry Stanton, had been appointed Deputy Collector of the New York Custom House in 1861. Elizabeth Cady Stanton seized this opportunity to move from Seneca Falls to the metropolis with her family. In 1863, the family was living at 75 West 45th Street.
To their frustration, women’s rights advocates had paused their activities during the Civil War, but in 1863, Stanton and Anthony conceived the Woman’s National Loyal League, to press for the expanded emancipation of slaves. As secretary of the organization, Anthony established an office at the Cooper Institute and lodged with the Stanton family.
On July 13, 1863, the draft riots, which would last for a terrifying four days before being put down with the aid of Union troops, began with an attack on the assistant provost marshal’s office at Third Avenue and 47th Street. Soon the mob began to vent its hostility on New York’s blacks, killing at least ten as well as a white woman defending her mixed-race child. Many more fled the city, some never to return. Among the rioters’ targets was the Colored Orphan Asylum, which they burned to the ground, although the children escaped. Estimates of the total number of people killed in the riots vary, but the official toll was 119.
Susan B. Anthony wrote to her family on July 15, 1863:
“These are terrible times. The Colored Orphan Asylum which was burned was but one block from Mrs. Stanton’s, and all of us left the house on Monday night. Yesterday when I started for Cooper Institute I found the cars and stages had been stopped by the mob and I could not get to the office. I took the ferry and went to Flushing to stay with my cousin, but found it in force there. We all arose and dressed in the middle of the night, but it was finally gotten under control.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, writing to Ann Smith, the wife of her cousin Gerrit Smith, from Johnstown, New York, on July 20, 1863, gave a more detailed description of the violence, during which her son Daniel (“Neil”) was seized by the mob as a “three-hundred-dollar fellow”—meaning that he could avoid the draft by paying for a substitute:
“Dear Cousin Nancy,-
“Last Thursday I escaped from the horrors of the most brutal mob I ever witnessed, and brought my children here for safety. The riot raged in our neighborhood through the first two days of the trouble largely because the colored orphan asylum on Fifth Avenue was only two blocks away from us. I saw all those little children marched off two by two. A double portion of martyrdom has been meted out to our poor blacks, and I am led to ask if there is no justice in heaven or on earth that this should be permitted through the centuries. But it was not only the negroes who feared for their lives. Greeley [Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune] was at Doctor Bayard’s a day and night for safety, and we all stayed there also a night, thinking that, as Henry, Susan, and I were so identified with reforms and reformers, we might at any moment be subjects of vengeance. We were led to take this precaution because as Neil was standing in front of our house a gang of rioters seized him, shouting: ‘Here’s one of those three-hundred-dollar fellows!’ I expected he would be torn limb from limb. But with great presence of mind he said to the leaders as they passed a saloon: ‘Let’s go in, fellows, and take a drink.’ So he treated the whole band. They then demanded that he join them in three cheers for ‘Jeff Davis,’ which he led with apparent enthusiasm. ‘Oh,’ they said, “he seems to be a good fellow; let him go.’ Thus he undoubtedly saved his life by deception, though it would have been far nobler to have died in defiance of the tyranny of mob law. You may imagine what I suffered in seeing him dragged off. I was alone with the children, expecting every moment to hear the wretches thundering at the front door. What did I do? I sent the servants and the children to the fourth story, opened the skylight and told them, in case of attack, to run out on the roof into some neighboring house. I then prepared a speech, determined, if necessary, to go down at once, open the door and make an appeal to them as Americans and citizens of a republic. But a squad of police and two companies of soldiers soon came up and a bloody fray took place near us which quieted the neighborhood.”
Stanton’s fears that her house might be targeted, though unrealized, were not unfounded. Julia Gibbons, whose abolitionist family’s home had been vandalized earlier that year after the family illuminated it in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation, wrote to her mother on July 15, “The rioters yesterday gutted our house completely.” Her father, James Sloan Gibbons, added, “I had a revolver in my desk. Left the house only thirty minutes to get a paper, and on my return, the mob had possession. I went in among them and up to my desk, making room, as I entered towards the library, for the villain who had our mattress; but seeing that the place was fully in possession of the mob, with my pistol in hand, I could go no further. . . . Those grand widowed mothers . . . who sent their only, or all their sons, to the war, have mortal and incurable wounds—we, only a scratch. I am ashamed to have deserved no more.”
Iver Bernstein, The New York Draft Riots
Sarah Hopper Emerson, ed., Life of Abby Hopper Gibbons: Told Chiefly Through Her Correspondence
Lori Ginzburg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Leslie M. Harris, “The New York City Draft Riots of 1863” (online excerpt from In the Shadow of Slavery)
Ida Husted Harper, The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony
George Theodore Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blanch, eds., Elizabeth Cady Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary, and Reminiscences