The Richmond Women’s Bread Riot of 1863
Fortunately, I have not experienced wartime conditions and their concomitant deprivations (yet) but it is easy to understand how things can get desperate. Take Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy in the American Civil War.
The population had tripled in pretty short order as civilians and soldiers took refuge there. The Union blockade meant that little in the way of imported foodstuffs was making its way to the capital. The problems were compounded by the fact that most of the menfolk who worked on the land were now fighting for the Confederate cause, farmland had been destroyed during the fighting and what food was available was used to feed the troops. The consequence of all this was that the cost of food increased tenfold from their pre-war levels.
In March 1863 the city was struck by a massive snowstorm which, when the snows melted, made the roads impassable, further exacerbating the logistics of feeding a population that was growing daily as a consequence of the influx of wounded soldiers. A call from the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, for a day of fasting on March 27th went down like a lead balloon.
A group of women, led by Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith, the latter described by Davis’ wife as “tall, daring, Amazonian-looking,” decided that enough was enough. They summoned a meeting of like-minded women at the Belvedere Hill Baptist Church on 1st April and decided to march on the Governor’s office to demand that he, John Letcher, do something to alleviate the food shortages. So the following day a group of some one hundred women, armed with axes, knives, and other assorted weaponry, assembled in front of the Governor’s office, shouting “Bread, bread” and “Bread or blood.”
Letcher came out and tried to pacify the crowd, to no avail. Instead, his words seem to have inflamed the situation and the women – by now their numbers had grown considerably to upwards of a thousand, broke into the government’s storehouses and neighbouring shops and took whatever they could lay their hands on. Although Letcher summoned the public guard, their numbers and resolution were insufficient to hold the crowd back. Order was eventually restored when the Confederate President, Davis, summoned some troops, and climbing on top of a wagon, threatened to order them to shoot, if the crowd didn’t disperse. He pulled out his watch, ostentatiously measuring the passage of time.
At first, it seemed as though the rioters would defy the President but as the fifth minute was beginning, they started to disperse and make their way home. Some 60 rioters, including Mary Jackson, were arrested and indicted on charges of rioting and theft.
Did the bread riots make any difference? There were no further civil disturbances in Richmond because the authorities increased the security around the city by positioning cannons at strategic points. But the authorities did redouble their efforts to improve the distribution of foodstuffs to the poorer residents. A case of carrots and sticks. Interestingly, the Confederates realised that news of the riots would have an adverse effect on the morale of their troops and did their best to suppress the story. However, you cannot keep a good story down and rumours of the disturbance gained a wider circulation, thanks to some Union prisoners who had been in the city at the time, and made the front page of the New York Times on 8th April. The civil war, of course, rumbled on for another couple of years.