The Boston Draft Riot of July 14, 1863, is remembered more as the “North End Draft Riot,” since it began in the North End and the worst part of it occurred in the nei. The context was the American Civil War and the resistance of many Irish immigrants to conscription into the Union Army. Immigrant resistance stemmed in part to the fact that the wealthy had the option to pay a $300 substitution fee, which was often purchased by the destitute to support their families, giving rise to the saying that the Civil War was “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight” (of course, many notable wealthy elite served voluntarily, such as the famous Robert Gould Shaw, grandson of a North End family, who led the all-black 54th regiment).
With resistance to conscription high, Federal draft agents Wesley Hill and David Howe came to the North End to deliver a draft notice on 146 Prince Street around noon on July 14 (a day after the more famous draft riots of New York City). They were met by an Irish woman who began to scream at them, attracting a large crowd, including workers from the gas works. The verbal abuse turned into a physical attack. Hill managed to escape but Howe was only rescued by a Boston police officer who waded in with his stick and pulled Howe into a store near the corner of Commercial. More police came to disperse the crowd, but this shifted the protests to other parts of the North End and then to Haymarket Square and Faneuil Hall.
In those days, it was not uncommon for Governors to call in State Militias to quell disturbances. Accordingly, Mayor Frederick Lincoln asked Governor Andrews to do just this. Andrews happened to be attending Harvard’s commencement that day and faced a dilemma. The only militia unit was the Black 55th regiment, which to call in would only make the situation worse. So instead he called on a Colonel Dimick and his forces at Fort Warren at George’s Island.
Dimick sent 3 Artillery companies (about 160 men) under Major Stephen Cabot. Reporting to the Mayor, Cabot was instructed to protect the city’s armories. Cabot sent one company to the armory on Marshall Street and then led the other two to the armory on Cooper Street (which was, I believe, situated about where the parking lot now sits). They got there by 7 p.m. and essentially had to barricade themselves inside against a crowd of hundreds who threw stones, bricks, bottles, etc. at the building.
At about 7:30, hearing that a late arriving soldier was under attack, Cabot sent troops with fixed bayonets to rescue him. The troops fired over their heads of the crowd, but this angered them even more. Cabot went out to order the men back in the armory. The crowd began using axes and hammers against the barred door, which began to give way. At that point, Cabot gave the fatal order to fire. The shot tore through the door and into the crowd, killing as many as 20 men, women, and children (the exact number was never determined).
The riot continued for a little longer, now near Faneuil Hall, where crowds broke into gun shops. However, by that time the police, militia, and military forces (helped by men attending a Harvard reunion at the Parker House) were fully organized and managed to quell the riot, which was over by mid-night. In the days following, Catholic leaders including the clergy in the North End, helped to calm lingering tensions.
Some say that on warm summer days, near the spot on Cooper Street, you can still smell the gun powder and smoke.