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Teaching Guide: Exploring the Northern Draft Riots

This teaching guide helps instructors use a specific primary source set, Northern Draft Riots During the Civil War, in the classroom. It offers discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis tools. It is intended to spark pedagogical creativity by giving a sample approach to the material. Please feel free to share, reuse, and adapt the resources in this guide for your teaching purposes.

Discussion questions

  1. In the excerpts from The Volcano Under the City and The Battle of New York, how are the rioters described? In particular, how do these texts address the rioters’ nationalities or relationship to America?
  2. Compare the 1863 illustration and the 1887 illustration. How are the riots depicted? How is the militia depicted? What inferences can you make about the illustrators’ perspectives on the draft riot?
  3. Using the excerpt from the “Report of the Committee of Merchants” and the illustration of the burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum, describe how the riots impacted the African American community in New York City.
  4. The Civil War has been described as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” How does this connect to the tensions in the North over newly arrived immigrants?
  5. Using the items in this set as evidence, describe how Northern racism was a factor in the riots.

Classroom activities

  1. Split students into groups either supporting or opposing the draft and have them craft arguments for their position. What might their argument be for or against the bill? For or against the riot? In what ways might their description of the riot differ, depending on their perspectives on the draft?
  2. Ask students to discuss in what ways the draft riots mirror more modern day political protests (for example, protests against the Vietnam draft). What are some of the differences? Some of the similarities?

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