1863: Joanna Mills to Emma Louisa Mills

This mother-to-daughter letter describes the fear of NYC citizens during the draft riots, which extended from July 12-17, 1863, beginning the day following the NYC draft lottery. The letter itself was written on July 19, and expresses the hope that the riots were indeed over. It also indicates the role of the Catholic clergy in calming the rioters, most of whom were poor Irish who vented their anger at the U.S. government, at people with means, and particularly at Black citizens. They were angry at the government for establishing what they considered to be an unfair draft. They were angry at the middle and upper classes of society for having been given the option of hiring “substitutes.” And they were angry at Blacks who they blamed for being the cause of the war, and, in their view, for taking jobs away from them.

How Joanna might have looked

The letter is only signed “J. Mills” and there is no envelope to aid in the identity of the correspondents but given the names mentioned in the letter, I’ve concluded it was written by 50 year-old Joanna Mills (1813-1902) of 251 Madison Street in Brooklyn, New York. Joanna’s maiden name was Frost and she and her husband, Scottish emigrant George Mills, Sr. (1796-1867), had several other children besides Emma Louisa Mills (1836-1916) to whom she addressed her letter. They included John Mills (1823-1861), Charles Mills (1832-1866), Joanna (“Josey”) Mills (1833-1908), George Mills, Jr. (1838-1887) and Isabelle (“Bell”) Terese Mills (1847-1905). Most of these family members were buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

For those unfamiliar with the New York City Riots, I’ll state briefly that they were both the most violent and the most publicizedBy the time the names of the first draftees were drawn in New York City on July 11, reports about the carnage of Gettysburg had been published in city papers. Lincoln’s call for 300,000 more young men to fight a seemingly endless war frightened even those who supported the Union cause. Moreover, the Enrollment Act contained several exemptions, including the payment of a “commutation fee” that allowed wealthier and more influential citizens to buy their way out of service.

“Perhaps no group was more resentful of these inequities than the Irish immigrants populating the slums of northeastern cities. Poor and more than a little prejudiced against blacks with whom they were both unfamiliar and forced to compete for the lowest paying jobs, the Irish in New York objected to fighting on their behalf.  

On Sunday, July 12, the names of the draftees drawn the day before by the Provost Marshall were published in newspapers. Within hours, groups of irate citizens, many of them Irish immigrants, banded  together across the city. Eventually numbering some 50,000 people, the mob terrorized neighborhoods on the East Side of New York for three days looting scores of stores. Blacks were the targets of most attacks on citizens; several lynchings and beatings occurred. In addition, a black church and orphanage were burned to the ground.

All in all, the mob caused more than $1.5 million of damage. The number killed or wounded during the riot is unknown, but estimates range from two dozen to nearly 100. Eventually, Lincoln deployed combat troops from the Federal Army of the Potomac to restore order; they remained encamped around the city for several weeks. In the end, the draft raised only about 150,000 troops throughout the North, about three quarters of them substitutes, amounting to just one fifth of the total Union force.”

Source: The Civil War Society’s “Encyclopedia of the Civil War”. See also B. L. Lee, Discontent in New York City, 1861–1865 (1943); I. Werstein, July, 1863 (1957, repr. 1971); J. McCague, Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots (1968); A. Cook, The Armies of the Streets (1974); I. Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots (1989).

The burning of the “Colored Orphan Asylum” in NYC during the 1863 Draft Riots

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and was transcribed and published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]


New York [City]
July 19, 1863

My very dear Emma,

For fear I should become so wrapped in the arms of Morpheus if I indulged myself in an easy chair, I concluded to write my letter first and take a nap afterwards if necessary. I can’t keep the thought of Edward’s sudden affliction from forming in my own mind words of wonder and regret, that the poor old gentleman should have been taken away, when so nearly having his hopes of seeing his favorite son realized. I sympathize with poor Edward too, it seems so much worse to be so very near home and yet have been deprived the satisfaction of attending his last moments.

I am very sorry Sarah did not send for Elizabeth but perhaps the poor child had no thought for anyone but her suffering patient. I could not understand whether you saw the old gentleman while in health, or did you not call on Sarah until her father died? I do hope you saw him. You should not have waited on ceremony to see him for you could have gone when Sarah was in school if you thought she ought to call on you first. At all events, you must be attentive to her now in her affliction. She may feel kindly disposed towards you but being possessed of a peculiar disposition, may think the overtures of friendship should come from our side. And as Edward has always been so good and kind to you and George as well as highly esteemed by all of us, I hope you and Josey will do all you can to break down the barrier that has separated her from the family the past two or three years. I know Josey will do her duty whatever she may think that includes, and you must not let your pride restrain any good action you otherwise would perform.

Yesterday morning I mailed Bell’s letter to Josey and some papers for Aunt Lizzie, ordered my groceries, went home, read the news, took my dinner at twelve and half o’clock, after which the appearances of the clouds indicating the suns determination to gladded our eyes by its brilliant effulgence. We made immediate preparation to make a search for that wonderful round hat and feather. We rode to Broadway, or rather to Canal Street where you purchased yours and she had one exactly like yours and as it fitted and was very becoming, I took it at the same price, though she wanted more and did not seem much inclined to take my offer. We went in several stores. About the feather hat, the prices ranged from three and a half to six dollars where they were the real quill so we winded our way to Ridley’s where we had seen very handsome sewed feathers for one dollar fifty and there we got it to Bell’s entire satisfaction. I took great notice how they were trimmed in the store where we bought the hat so on my return home, after taking my tea, I sat down and bound it, and trimmed it and I flatter myself, you will have to acknowledge it looks as well as if a milliner had turned it out of her tasty fingers. I think I did a wonderful day’s work. Walked all the way except to ride over there, besides all the way up to Sloane. Bell has had it on her head two or three times to admire it and did not know how to sufficiently express her admiration, being I suppose so surprised to think I could do it so well.

I forget to tell you that Bell and I deposited the materials in the house on our return and went down to call on Cousin Eliza whom we had not seen since you left. We saw Mrs. Condit in the parlor so I talked to her a little before going to Cousin Eliza’s room—the latter having one of her headaches.

Poor Mrs. Condit. She is frightened out of her wits. What do you think she made Mr. Condit do?—take their name off the door because she thought it would correspond, she said, with the appearance of the neighborhood and the rioters would think that was a tenant house too. Quite and original idea and a good one too, I thought. It seems the gentleman, Mr. Condit, let the upper part of the house to do business for the government and was one of the enrolling officers and that is one reason Mrs. Condit stands in fear and trembling. So far we have been the most quiet Ward in the City, but we were enough frightened two nights last week as Bell told Josey.

On Monday night we all went to bed and slept soundly while our neighbors were awake all night watching. So I told Bell those that know nothing fear nothing. We had not heard of any intention to destroy that Station house so we had nothing to keep us awake. Not so on Tuesday night. Kate brought me in the news about ten o’clock. George was asleep and Charley out. I debated in my own mind a few minutes what I should do and went up in the parlor to take a view out of the window when I saw Miss Steckle and her friend running as fast as they could up the street with a large basket between them filled with things. In a few minutes, she was back and opened the door with her night key and took out another large basket which had been ready in the hall. I also saw some of the poor people that lived below the Station house taking out things for safe keeping.

I sat down a minute to think what I should do but could not think at that time of night one place that I could trust anything to be any safer than in my own house for they might be stolen if not burned. I went up and called George and consulted him and we decided to let things remain in the house. Then I got the key of Joseph’s wardrobe as quietly as possible out of my drawer (so as not to disturb Father) and took out the box Josey left in my charge. At first George thought it best to put the contents of the box about his person for the mob of course snatch everything out of a person’s hands, but I told him if he were robbed, then Joe and Tom might think if I had carried the box, it would have been saved. So I decided to put on a large shawl and keep the box out of sight if anything happened. I then took Father’s money and put it in my under skirt pocket and [your brother] John’s watch and things in another under jacket and my own watch on as much out of sight as possible and everything else I should have had to abandon—even my silver I could not have saved. I suppose though we intended to have Charley go in Mrs. Pomroy’s and we were going to break the blind out in your room by your bureau and George was to hand him other valuables.

But nothing happed, thank God. For two night s I had my things placed in my pockets and Josey’s box done up in an old flannel ready for a start and Father knew nothing about it. On Wednesday and Thursday night, I was not alarmed because there were plenty to guard against the invaders but on Monday and Tuesday nights, all the policemen were in other parts of the City.

Last night Kate was out in Avenue B & C and many places up town shopping for clothes for her brother but everything was just as quiet as any night. Mr. Farmer, the gentleman in Charley’s office, went home on Wednesday afternoon and found he had lost every stitch of clothes he owned and one thousand dollars worth of silver that was in his trunk all burned up in the house in which he boarded. Mr. Bull’s brother’s house was sacked and the inmates had to leave. Charley stayed home on Wednesday evening and George has not been out in the evening during the week. I hope everything will remain quiet now as the rioters have been addressed today in the different Catholic churches, I expect. Kate said the priest talked to them in her church this morning and told them if there were any rioters or any who had been engaged in stealing property as he knew there were some present, to return it and desist from such a course of conduct as they nor their children would never prosper. He also read them several parables so I hope Bishop Hughes and the rest of his brethren will have some influence over them.

Tomorrow Cousin Eliza is coming to spend the day as I thought I had better set the time as Bell and I want to go to see Mary Ellen and Mr. Carlisle just as soon as a day offers that the clouds are not just ready to deluge us. I am so sorry you went in July since you are to have nothing but fogs. George says it was just so last year this time. When he was in Poughkeepsie, it rained or looked like it all the time. George has gone to see Lizzie Legget and Miss Everett. This morning he accompanied Bell and me to church. It was as thinly attended as usual. We had a very good sermon on the mediation of Christ. None of the Vauns were there excepting Mr. Vaun and in fact, I think most of the congregation were strangers. 1

I expect Alexander went to Craneville yesterday or he would have been here. I have hard work to get rid of my pies though they are excellent—the paste being rich enough suit even Josey. But you know Bell don’t eat pies and Father hast not tasted them so they are left to George, Kate, and myself. I have one for tomorrow so Cousin Eliza can help me eat it. I tell Bell I have had to eat one piece for her and one for myself sometimes twice a day rather than let them spoil.

Father went down to dinner today the first time in some days. He is so lame he thinks it don’t pay. Two nights we did without gas and I had to burn candles so I would light a whole one when I went to bed and it would last till daylight. Last night we had the gas again but when Father went to bed, he said, “Ma, what made you burn the candle last night the full blaze?” “Why,” said I, “how could you burn a candle any other way?” “Oh, I could show you,” said he. So for the fun of the thing, I got a candle and lighted it and took it to him while he was all undressed sitting on the side of the bed, but the minute he saw it, he shook with laughter and decided it must have been something else he meant. I suppose he had been thinking of lamps.

I did not tell you that I finished my white waist and washed and ironed it thinking I could go last Friday or yesterday to Miss Carlisle’s but the weather prevented. Now, for awhile, I will not be busy. I intend to go out and read some if everything remains quiet. I had nothing in the world in the way of news as Bell told all that happened but I think I kept awake pretty we;; and my hand aches. I am so sorry for poor dear Joe. She is particularly unfortunate with her things but I hope it will be restored to its original whiteness. Father sends his love to each of you. Tell Lib I send her a good hearty kiss and hope her good husband will come home in good health to her and all safe. Tell her not to let you plague her to death. She must call on Josey to take her part which I know she will do.

George [said he] would write to her in a few days….Charley is well and would send his love if he knew I was writing. He has gone out as usual. We have not seen Capt. Livingston since Bell wrote word he was here and I guess nothing will be said about going down the stream. Bell sends her love and kisses to each one and told me to tell you and Josey she has not had to wake up at five or half past and gets up, puts on part of her clothes, and finds I am asleep, lies down again until six o’clock. Give my love and a sweet kiss to dear Joe and tell all the children I remember them with love and hope they re all good children. That will only apply to Harry and Lizzy as Augusta and Eddy are now grown to be young lady and gentleman since I was in Portsmouth. Nevertheless I send my love to them and good wishes for their welfare.

Now with love and kisses to yourself, I must close remaining your affectionate Ma, — J. Mills

1 The Mills family attended the All Saints Church on the corner of Henry and Scammel streets.

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