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  • Writer's pictureJill Newmark

Losing it All

William P. Powell Jr and the New York Draft Riots

In July 1863, over a four-day period, rioters protesting the new conscription laws ravaged New York City, destroying homes and businesses, especially those belonging to African Americans. The new laws required white men between the ages of twenty and forty-five to enlist in the army through a lottery process, while wealthy white men who could afford to pay the government $300 could avoid military service. Many working-class white men saw this as a move by the federal government to force their service in the army and felt the new law would open up opportunities for Black people to take their jobs while they served in the army. Rioters targeted Black businesses and homes. Over three hundred people were injured and at least one hundred were killed during the four-day melee.


The New York City Draft Riots directly affected Black Civil War surgeon William P. Powell Jr. who was serving at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D.C. His father ran a boarding

Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration

house in New York City for Black sailors that also served as the family home. Rioters attacked their home and they lost everything. After barely escaping the mob’s attack, they sought refuge at a local police department along with over one hundred other African Americans from their neighborhood.


After twenty-four hours at the police station, they were escorted to a boat that took them back to their home in New Bedford, Massachusetts and spent time there recovering from the assault. As a result of the great loss suffered by his family, Powell Jr. became the family’s sole supporter until his father was able to return to New York City and reopen their boarding house.



Learn more about William P. Powell Jr. in Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons. Order today at Amazon, Southern Illinois University Press and use SIUP20 for a 20% discount, and other fine bookstores.


© Jill L. Newmark, 2023


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