Joseph F. Smith and the New York City Draft Riots, Part 1: Background

By July 10, 2013

Image:  ?The Riots in New York: The Mob Lynching a Negro in Clarkson-Street? [1]



One of the things that first interested me about Joseph F. Smith was his personality as a diarist.  He liked to pen elaborate descriptions of impressive places he visited, such as the ancient Mo?okini heiau (temple) in Hawaii, the famous Mauna Loa volcano, or the Wentworth Castle and Estates near Barnsley, England.[2]  He cataloged what he saw as faults in others, ranging from family members, to LDS church enemies, to people he encountered as a missionary.[3]  He recorded seemingly insignificant details and used trite or repetitive phrases (some of which have crept into my own journaling vocabulary), in the process illuminating much about his education, priorities, biases, and spirituality.[4]  And we can?t leave out the infamous cat massacre that Amanda HK described in a post some time ago.

He also wrote about how the major events of his time affected him personally, including culturally and politically momentous occasions (yes, I’m somewhat stretching for a connection to this month?s theme).  This will be the subject of a quick trio of posts over the next few days commemorating the 150th anniversary of the New York Draft Riots.  In this post I will focus on the early context for Joseph F.?s experiences during the riots; in the remaining two I will examine his day-by-day account of the riots, striving to uncover in his retelling relevant insights into his personality and mindset.

Two weeks following the pivotal battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and the successful conclusion of the siege of Vicksburg (July 4, 1863), a riot broke out in New York City that lasted for four long days (July 13-16, 1863). The riots were caused by a perfect storm of intersecting factors:  pressing manpower needs in the Union military; an unpopular conscription law that many New Yorkers–especially those of Irish descent–saw as unfairly drawing on the poorer classes; simmering tension over the effects of emancipation; and the war’s continuation due to bungling Union leadership and despite victories like Gettysburg.  These all converged and exploded in the sweltering heat of New York as the draft began to be enforced.

Joseph F. Smith, taking a few days? respite in Manhattan following the conclusion of his first mission to the British Isles (1860-1863), was there to witness this largest riot in American History.  Like most Mormons, he had observed the war from afar (though from the ?other side of the pond?).[5]  He followed the major events with what could be best described as detached interest, mentioning in his diary only a few war-related developments between 1860 and 1863.[6] He likely shared with his relatives and many other church members a fatalistic attitude about the war, regarding it as a continuation of the fulfillment of Joseph Smith Jr.?s 1832 prophecy that war would soon be ?poured out upon all nations,? (D&C 87:2-3).[7]

His level of interest also mirrored that of the British among whom he lived and labored for the greater part of the war–focusing on developments that impacted the English.  He noted British events that were a direct result of the American Civil War, in one particular case a town containing 23 textile mills that had been forced to close by the halt of Southern cotton being imported into Britain.[8]

Beside a passing interest in American developments, it seems that Joseph F.primarily spent his mission focusing on his missionary labors among the British Saints.  He thoroughly enjoyed himself, to be sure, taking advantage of educational and recreational opportunities that had been unavailable during his previous mission to the Hawaiian Islands and were unparalleled in their grandeur in the Salt Lake Valley.  Half-British himself, he was occasionally swept up in the culture of Old England and, I think, returned to the United States feeling more British than American.  This comes through in his formal, observational descriptions of the Draft Riots, which I will discuss more in the next two posts.


Image:  Parade honoring George McClellan?s appointment as General over the Army of the Potomac, 14 December 1861 Illustrated London News.  (JFS mentioned McClellan?s appointment in his diary on 23 November 1861.)[9]


[1] Found in the Illustrated London News, vol.43, no.1216, p. 129, August 8, 1863, available online at, accessed 30 June 2013.  The News was a weekly paper which Joseph F. often read (and sent copies home to Utah); it was in publication until 2003.

[2] See JFS Diary, April 19, 1856; Aug. 22, 1856; and Jan. 26, 1862, Joseph F. Smith Papers, MS 1325, Church History Library.  The 1862 entry on the Wentworth Castle is most interesting, as JFS spends 12 ½ pages in his diary copying portions of John Gray Bell?s Stamborough and Rockley, Their Historical Associations, and Rural Attractions, 2nd ed. (London:  the Author, 1853).  Having visited the place himself, Joseph F. apparently found Bell?s description more eloquent than any he could voice, and spent numerous hours copying the Englishman?s prose.  He transcribes portions of or the entire text from pages 1-9, 36-40, 43-50, 52-54, 56-58, and 61-62, then adds what appears to be his own reaction to the Stainborough area on several additional pages.

[3] See JFS Diary, April 23-25, 1862 (criticism of his Fielding relatives); June 27, 1857 (description of bible-bashing session with a member of the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions); and May 4-5, 1857 (wayward Saints living on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai), JFS Papers, Church History Library.

[4] Insignificant details:  include English and other language vocabulary words, verb conjugations, names of books he was reading, names of people he visited or taught, and much more.  Phrases like ?spent the day reading,? ?found all well,? and ?enjoyed myself first rate,? are scattered throughout his diary between 1856 and 1863.

[5] It cannot be argued that the Mormons were untouched by the war, of course.  In August I will be reviewing for the JI Kenneth L. Alford?s Civil War Saints (Provo, UT:  BYU Religious Studies Center, 2012), which explores many avenues of Mormon connection to the larger Civil War.

[6] See, for example, JFS Diary, 26-27 April 1861 (attack on Ft. Sumter); 2 May 1861 (Lincoln?s call for volunteers); and 16 Sept. 1861 (nondescript battle mentioned), JFS Papers, Church History Library.

[7] See Scott C. Esplin, ??Have We Not Had a Prophet Among Us??:  Joseph Smith?s Civil War Prophecy,? in Kenneth L. Alford, ed., Civil War Saints, Ch. 3.  Specific treatment of the use of the prophecy during the Civil War is found on pp. 46-52.

[8] JFS Diary, 25 April 1862, JFS Papers, Church History Library.

[9] Additional images from the Illustrated London News related to the American Civil War are available online at  A completely searchable collection of the paper, print, images, and all, is available at (subscription to Gale Digital Collections required to view).  On the appointment of McClellan, see JFS Diary, 23 Nov. 1861, JFS Papers, Church History Library.

Article filed under Biography British Isles Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period From the Archives Miscellaneous Politics


  1. Very cool, Nate. I look forward to reading more about JFS’s reaction to the riots.

    Comment by Christopher — July 10, 2013 @ 7:29 am

  2. Cool, Nate. How would you compare JFS and Wilford Woodruff as diarists?

    Comment by David G. — July 10, 2013 @ 8:25 am

  3. I had never thought of JFS as potentially having a British identity before. Fascinating.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 10, 2013 @ 8:44 am

  4. I’m interested in your observation that he felt “more British than American.” Do you think that his feelings lingered, into the 1870s or 1880s for instance? Or did his Americanness return shortly thereafter?

    I look forward to the rest of the series!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 10, 2013 @ 8:50 am

  5. I second Joey’s question. I also wonder to what extent he identified as British before his mission. Mary Fielding Smith certainly identified as British throughout her life. Do you know to what extent she passed that onto her children?

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 10, 2013 @ 9:15 am

  6. Chris: Thanks! The diary entries are remarkable; they’re coming in the next few days.

    David: Wilford Woodruff is definitely more consistent as a diarist over his lifetime. But in terms of choosing what to write about, I think they’re pretty similar. It’s been a while since I’ve been through WW’s diaries, but I get the sense that JFS betrays more emotion, knowingly and unknowingly, than WW. JFS often writes to justify his actions and portray himself as someone who was wronged/is in the right in situations.

    J: I think this is something that definitely develops over time during the British Mission. One of the first things JFS does, on his first day in Britain in 1860, is buy British clothing (a couple of shirts and a stovepipe hat in the British style). While this is more in line with what tourists do–“When in Rome” and all–he identifies more and more with British Culture as time progresses. He takes tea regularly with Mormons and non-Mormons; he tours British sites and watches British actors perform British plays; he reads British books and British newspapers; he uses the British railway system and writes about the British Royal family–it goes on and on.

    However, I think we could carry that too far. JFS would probably see himself later in life as cosmopolitan: first and foremost a Mormon, but having cultivated his connections to his roots while developing a knowledge of the world based on firsthand observation and experience. John A. Widtsoe wrote of JFS that, “Of broad and generous sympathies with everything that is noble and good, he has acquired a culture, which none dares question.”

    So in this sense I think that the British Mission was a stepping stone to JFS developing an appreciation for culture, and not just British culture.

    Comment by Nate R. — July 10, 2013 @ 9:15 am

  7. Very interesting. I’ll look forward to reading the posts. My great grandmother happened to be in Newark, New Jersey, during the 1967 race riots, and I’ve always found her observations rather curious.

    About Footnote 8, last year I spent some time looking up Utah newspaper references to the Lancashire Cotton Famine for a project I was doing for someone. (It was about a family in the Martin Handcart Company. They had come directly from Lancashire and had family members remaining there who must have suffered unemployment during the Cotton Famine.) I’d be curious about JFS’s references to the Cotton Famine. Does he speak about it more extensively than that single entry?

    Comment by Amy T — July 10, 2013 @ 9:25 am

  8. Joey and Amanda: It’s hard to say how much transmission of British identity there was between JFS and his mother. I think it’s safer to infer that others reinforced the idea of his mother’s Britishness as a unique kind of refinement, and that became something JFS associated with his mother in creating an image of exceptionality for her later in life. I’m thinking here especially of his aunt, Mercy Thompson, and others who would have known his mother as both a recent convert and a recent immigrant.

    Comment by Nate R. — July 10, 2013 @ 9:30 am

  9. Amy T: the relevant portion of that entry says only this, I “left Preston by the ½ past 7 train for Manchester. came through Blackburn, a small Town containing about 60,000 inhabitance, 8,000 of Whom are out-door Paupers. There are 23 Cotten Milles Closed for want of Cotten, and many others only run[n]ing 2 & 3 days per Week.”

    So here we see JFS the travelogue writer–he was traveling through Blackburn after visiting his Fielding relatives in the Preston area. He occasionally mentions in his diary other tragic circumstances (like mine disasters and abject poverty), and will sometimes share a few details of people involved whom he knows–but he was never assigned to labor in Lancashire.

    Comment by Nate R. — July 10, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  10. Thank you, Nate.

    Comment by Amy T — July 10, 2013 @ 11:04 am

  11. Nate, thanks for your response. I think your characterization of JFS as cosmopolitan is brilliant. Between his American citizenship, extensive time in Hawaii, British heritage and Mormon “Kingdom of God” mentality, he may have been unique within Mormonism.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 10, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

  12. Thanks, Joey! You are so right that JFS had so many influences. His longevity contributed to this, as well. I’m excited to see how S. Taysom blends the many and disparate parts of his life together.

    Comment by Nate R. — July 10, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

  13. J – …or exemplary. Don’t forget that Parley Pratt was born in the US but spent extensive time in Britain and Chile or that Addison Pratt (not related as far as I can tell) lived in New Hampshire, Hawaii, Tahiti, California, and Utah before his death. There’s also Susa Young Gates who traveled to Germany and Great Britain, lived in Hawaii and Utah, spent significant time in New York, and had a son who was a Hollywood producer.

    Comment by Amanda HK — July 10, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

  14. Amanda:

    There’s also John Taylor who was British, Canadian, American and spent extended time in Europe. I suppose that I just think of early Mormons as either immigrants or “American.” I’m not sure why I have such a homogenous view of Mormon pioneers.

    Comment by J Stuart — July 10, 2013 @ 5:41 pm

  15. I think JFS represents 2nd-generation Mormons who went out and saw the world, then incorporated the world into their religion rather than the other way around. “Yeah, I’ve seen volcanoes, and the Pacific, and NYC, and London, and Paris, and everything in between, and I’m going to go home to Utah and make that a part of my identity as a Mormon,” essentially.

    We ask basically the same thing of LDS missionaries today as we send them out to “find themselves” in the process of “losing themselves” in service to others and the Church.

    JFS is just a very, very prominent example because he went on to become an apostle early, then ascend to the Church Presidency.

    Comment by Nate R. — July 10, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

  16. This is great stuff, Nate. I look forward to the balance.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 11, 2013 @ 12:43 am

  17. […] This is the second in a three-part series of posts about Joseph F. Smith?s experiences during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863.  See the first part here. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Joseph F. Smith and the New York Draft Riots, Part 2: 13 & 14 July 1863 — July 12, 2013 @ 1:00 am

  18. Finally got around to this, Nate, and it’s top-notch scholarship. Well done. Your post and the following comments make clear that we need to reassess our notion of how 19th century Mormons understood national identity–JFS would be a great case study.

    Someone get on that, please?

    Comment by Ben P — July 13, 2013 @ 8:20 am

  19. […] F. Smith?s experiences during the New York Draft Riots of July 1863.  See the first two parts here and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Joseph F. Smith and the New York City Draft Riots, Part 3: 15-18 July 1863 — July 16, 2013 @ 1:01 am


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