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150th Anniversary Of Draft Riots In West Rutland

Public Domain
Illustration: New York Draft Riots, 1863

During the Vietnam War, protests and marches against the draft sprang up on many college campuses. 

But even bloodier draft revolts erupted a century earlier during The Civil War. 

150 years ago Federal Troops had to be called to West Rutland in when anger over the draft boiled over there.

Rutland Civil War author and historian Don Wickman says by 1863, Americans were getting tired of the Civil War, which had begun two years earlier.

“I think what people started seeing was death notices,” says Wickman. “A lot of people thought early on, after Fort Sumter, that the war would be over in three months.   But you started seeing affairs like Bull Run and Shiloh, which exceeded like 24-thousand casualties in two days.  Reality,” says Wickman, “came to the forefront.”  

With thousands of soldiers dying, the Union Army needed replacements.  Wickman says an old militia law from the 1700s was no longer working.   So in March of 1863, Congress passed its first Enrollment or Draft Act.

“Basically, they said anybody between 18 and 45 had to put their name in,” says Wickman.

Each state had a quota of soldiers they had to provide and names were randomly drawn to meet it. 

If someone had a medical problem or was their family’s sole provider, historian Don Wickman says they were typically excused from military service.

“But here was the different catch,” he adds. “For $300, you could also buy your way out of the draft.  You could pay commutation.”   Or you could hire a substitute to serve in your place he says.

“Consider that a family could survive on $400 for a year, “  says Wickman. “$300 was a lot of money, so people started throwing out a new phrase that it was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.  Because,” he says, “it was the poor who were going to be drafted and have to fight.”

By the summer of 1863 anger was boiling over in several communities - New York City saw the worst of it with four days of bloody violence.  

According to Wickman, “What happened there was a lot of the Irish that were in New York; they were poor and they figured they were going to be the ones drafted. They took out their frustration against the free blacks in the City. “ There were over 120 fatalities,”says Wickman, “primarily free blacks.  There were lynchings on the street, there were buildings being burned. There were 2000 injured,” he adds, “and I saw where it equated to 5 million dollars worth of business in 1863 dollars.”

It took federal troops to finally restore order.

Federal troops were also needed in Vermont after a West Rutland quarry worker named Jerry Connell refused to register for the draft.

Wickman says before the troops were called local deputies set out to arrest Connell because he wasn’t following the law. 

“Well,” says Wickman,“that brought out a whole flurry of quarry men who came out to protect him.“

“The next day,” Wickman says “the head of the draft district with another deputy and a few others came over with a few deputies and they were received even more brutally by the workers.  There were hundreds of workers who came out of the quarries. They started pelting them with pieces of marble and they got out of there with their lives.”

Two hundred armed soldiers arrived in West Rutland several weeks later to provide back up and ensure the local men received their draft notices.

“And it was really interesting,” says Wickman, “they started serving the papers, but to prevent the Irish workers from coming out of the quarries, the troops went over and pulled all the ladders up.  So they were stumped,” says the Rutland historian, “all these irate Irishmen were stuck in the bottom of the quarries with no way of getting out to help the people who were being issued papers.”

The papers were served without additional violence and by the end of August, Wickman says the federal troops left Rutland, job done.

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