1863: The Year Graduation Was Postponed

This year Baruch students are mourning the absence of a real graduation to celebrate their accomplishments, but this isn’t the first time that a graduation has had to be postponed because of unusual circumstances.

The year 1863 was eventful . The United States was in the throes of the Civil War and the loyalty of the citizenry was split in two. The Emancipation Proclamation was passed on January 1, 1863 and was celebrated by the city’s black populace, but it also sparked a wave of anti-black sentiments.

This came to a head in July 1863 when the first federal draft laws were passed. White, working class men feared that freed blacks would compete for their jobs and that the provision in the draft law allowing a $300 fee to hire a substitute benefited the wealthy.

Burning of the Second Avenue Armory

Burning of the Second Avenue Armory.
(New York Public Library)

July 17, 1863 was the date set for graduation from the Free Academy. However on July 13th the rioting began in Manhattan and lasted through July 16th. We are fortunate to have a first hand account of the events from an 1863 graduate of the Free Academy, Henry R. Howland. “Some Early Recollections of the City College” are part of the digital archival collection at the College of the City of New York.

Henry R. Howland

Henry R. Howland, Class of 1863.
(City College Archives)

“And so those years of storm and stress crept on while in July 1863, having finished our work and with our standing assured, we approached the day when we should be graduated and finally receive our sheepskins. But before that day came, a fury of midsummer madness swept our helpless city and held it in the terrible grip of the draft riots of 1863, the worse riots ever witnessed on our western hemisphere….”

” Our Commencement exercises were set, I think, for the evening of July 17th and all our preparations had been made. On the morning of Monday, July 13th, I took a third avenue car for the city, and as we passed the Provost Marshal’s office at the corner of Third avenue and 46th street where he drafting was to begin at 9 o’clock, the avenue was crowded with a dense mass of men, women and ill favored children, but we were allowed to pass unmolested and I went at once to the College on 23rd street. An hour later some one came in and told us that the mob had sacked the Provost Marshal’s office, had broken up the drafting wheel and had set fire to the building. I had occasion to go further down town and returning soon after midday, our street car was stopped at Union Square by the rioters, who compelled the passengers to leave it and proceeded to tear up tracks.”

“On Tuesday morning a train on the New York and Harlem R.R. took me down to Madison Square, but this was the last attempt to run a train on that or any road. So at noon a classmate and myself started to walk up 3rd avenue, seven miles to Harlem. The mob had possession and very soon we heard such ominous threats as “There go two damned Black Republicans” and the like, so stepping around a corner we took off our hats, and striving to hide respectability, made our way home. We were frequently stopped and questioned. As we passed my brother’s home on the corner of 90th street and 3rd avenue, the mob were tearing off the palings of his fence, to serve them¬† for clubs, and when a little nearer home, we saw a section of the mob, dragging a young man, who had been one of my school friends with the evident intention of hanging him at the nearest lamp post. Just then a negro appeared in sight and as the crowd yelled and started to capture him, my friend wrenched himself away, darted into a nearby alley and through the back yard, made his escape. At once, on reaching home, I went to the 12th ward Police Station, enrolled myself as a special policeman, and armed with a club, and an old fashioned pepper box revolver patrolled the streets, with my squad, during all the dreadful week.”

“Of course, our Commencement exercises were postponed. On the 12th of August 1863 I sailed on the Arago for Port Royal, S.C. having been sent thither by the United States Commissary General for service with the 10th Army Corps in the Department of the South and later with the Army of the James in Virginia and when in October our commencement evening came, and my name was called, it was starred as being “Absent at the seat of War.””

Henry R. Howland {1}

The announcement appeared the following October in the New York Evangelist that “The Commencement of the New York Free Academy, which was postponed last July in consequence of the riots, was celebrated in due form on Tuesday evening of last week.” [2]

As Henry Howland dealt with the injustices of his time, the present day Baruch community is also trying to adapt to the current crisis.


[1]¬† Henry R. Howland, “Some Early Recollections of the City College,” City College Quarterly vol.19, no.1, March 1923, p. 17-20.

[2] New York Evangelist, vol 33, issue 43, October 15, 1863, p.5.