On a summer day in the middle of the Civil War, immigrants furious about conscription notices delivered to their homes instigated the Boston draft riot.
The Boston draft riot was overshadowed by the much worse anti-draft violence in New York City, but an unknown number of rioters were killed and injured.
The rioters were mostly Irish, mostly working class. They included women and children who feared poverty and starvation if the men who supported them went off to fight the Civil War.
For $300, draftees could pay for substitutes, but that sum was out of the reach of Boston’s working-class immigrants. They viewed the conflict as a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.
Boston Draft Riot Begins
July 14 was a dog day, foggy and hot, remembered Maj. Stephen Cabot, called up to quell the violence.
Around lunchtime, David Howe and Wesley Hill, federal draft agents, were trudging through the tenements of Boston’s North End, then a working-class Irish neighborhood.
They were delivering the first federal draft notices in U.S. history.
When they reached Prince Street, irate Irish women began screaming at the draft agents. Men coming home for lunch from the gas works nearby heard her and began crowding around them.
Hill fled, but Howe was trapped and beaten. A police officer managed to rescue him, swinging his club and escorting him into a store for safety. Howe was beaten again when he tried to leave the store.
By late afternoon the angry crowd had grown. Boston police barricaded themselves in the station house for safety.
Gov. John Andrew was at the Harvard commencement. He called in troops from the forts in the harbor and local camps. Mayor Frederic Lincoln used the police telegraph to summon the militia. He ordered the troops to protect the armories.
One company went to protect the Marshall Street Armory, two went to Cooper Street under the command of Stephen Cabot.
Cabot took up position in the armory, aiming two cannon at the door as the mob converged outside.
Call in the Troops
He got word the crowd was beating a militiaman, so he sent soldiers with bayonets to save him. By then the rioters were tearing bricks from the sidewalk and threw them at the building.
Many of the rioters were women. Some held up their babies and dared the soldiers to fire at them.
The Boston Herald later described “one Amazonian woman, shouting and screaming, and urging the assailants on in their desperate work…with hair streaming, arms swinging, and her face the picture of phrenzy, she rushed again and again to the assault.
The mob began to attack the armory with sledgehammers and axes; the doors began to give way.
Inside the armory, Stephen Cabot gave the order to fire the cannon through the door. The soldiers fired and killed several in the crowd, including a 12-year-old boy.
The mob headed for the gun shops on Dock Square, but the police arrived ahead of them. They held off the rioters until more regular troops arrived and restored order.
The Harvard classes of 1852 and 1857 were holding reunions at the Parker House. They marched up School Street to the Statehouse to be mustered into all-night duty.
Tensions were easing, though small knots of people lingered. City and state officials asked for calm, while Catholic priests walked through the immigrant neighborhoods.
The next morning brought no more violence – unlike New York, where the riots raged for four days and killed 120 people.
With thanks to Historical Digression and Civil War Boston: Home Front and Battlefield by Thomas H. O’Connor. This story was updated in 2022.