Shortages during the Civil War touched soldiers and civilians alike. The citizens of the Confederate States were especially devastated by shortages: Civilian crops were appropriated for the military, livestock were stolen by the Union army, railroad and port blockades stopped precious supplies of food from reaching their destinations, and the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation took slaves out of the fields. To add insult to injury, hungry civilians had to contend with greedy merchants who used food as a source of speculative profit. It is little wonder that riots, generally referred to as "bread riots," swept across the South.
The Confederacy attempted to rectify the shortage situation in the South by encouraging farmers to replace cash crops like cotton and tobacco with food-bearing plants and grains. "[A]s long as the war lasts, let every man do all he can to raise and produce things that are required for food and clothing," insisted the Southern Cultivator; otherwise, "if we suffer for the necessaries of life it is our own fault" ("Planting in 1863," January/ February 1863, p. 30). Following this "good, sound, practical common-sense advice" would mean that while farmers would lose money from not raising cash crops, "the present high prices will quickly be materially reduced" and widespread starvation would be halted (p. 30).
By 1863 food shortages had made it difficult for the Confederate States of America to provision its starving army. James A. Seddon, Jefferson Davis's secretary of war, recommended the appropriation of civilian foodstuffs to feed the soldiers. Seddon called on each county, parish, or ward to appoint a committee of three or more "discreet citizens" who would be charged with ascertaining "what amount of surplus corn and meat, whether bacon, pork or beef" could be supplied to the military (New York Times, April 19, 1863, p. 1). Such committees would be expected to fix prices, pay citizens for the materials appropriated by the government, and make sure those materials reached the nearest military quartermaster. Seddon's dema-nd on the civilians of the South was taken as an encouraging sign in the North. Whereas "the President of the United States has not had to send a message to Congress on the danger of starvation[,] … Jeff. Davis and his Secretary of War, Seddon have," declared the Boston Independent. "[R]ebel authorities affirm that if they are vanquished it will be for want of food" (April, 23, 1863, p. 8).
Throughout the South, it was not only the military that suffered from a lack of food. According to the Christian Inquirer, for example, only the Union capture of New Orleans "saved this region from the starvation that was staring them in the face" (March 21, 1863, p. 2). In other Southern cities and towns, the hunger of civilian populations led to rioting and looting during 1863. Despite "the efforts of Confederate journals North and South to conceal the fact, or deprive it of its importance, no doubt remains that very serious bread riots have taken place," declared the New York Times ("Famine in the South," April 20, 1863, p. 4). "[W]omen have been leaders; and that fact alone proves that absolute hunger must be the cause" (p. 4).
The most famous of the bread riots took place in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy—on April 2, 1863. According to historian Alan Pell Crawford, these riots were the culmination of a series of factors. The quick rise of the population of Richmond after it became the Confederate capital, appropriation of food supplies by the military, hoarding of scarce foodstuffs by speculators, the destruction of valuable farmland throughout Virginia, and the diminishing value of Confederate money all made Richmond ripe for civil disturbance (Crawford 2002, pp. 21–23). To make matters worse, heavy snows during March made it difficult for rural farmers to get their produce to market.
Despite Jefferson Davis's command to send "nothing of the unfortunate disturbance of today over the wires for any purpose" (Crawford 2002, p. 26), news of the Richmond bread riot quickly reached Northern media outlets, which published a variety of somewhat contradictory accounts. The New York Times for April 8, 1863, quoted the eyewitness account of one Col. Stewart, a recently released prisoner of war. From his prison window Stewart saw "a great bread riot, in which about three thousand women were engaged, armed with clubs, guns and stones…. [They] broke open the Government stores and took bread, clothing and whatever else they wanted" ("Bread Riot in Richmond," p. 1). Also on April 8, the New York Herald weighed in on the significance of the riots: "Virginia is the most fruitful grain raising States in the South… and if the want of food manifests itself in such a demonstrative fashion as to bring out a hungry mob of three thousand women into the streets of the capital, we can readily imagine how dire must be the distress existing in the other States" ("The Situation," p. 4). On April 9, 1863, the New York Observer reported that "the rioters were composed of about 8,000 women, who were armed with clubs, and guns and stones[;] … they broke open government and private stores, and took bread, clothing, and whatever else they wanted" ("Bread Riot in Richmond," p. 118). The April 10 New York Times reported that neither Richmond's mayor nor General Winder could appease the crowd as it rioted through the streets; instead, Jefferson Davis himself had to be called on to quiet the rabble-rousers. Davis agreed to supply the rioters with "daily rations," after which the throng returned to their homes carrying their hard-won loot ("The Rebel Bread Riots," p. 1). According to the Times, a "renegade Confederate General … publicly stated that from all the information in his possession he thought the Southern Confederacy might, possibly, hold out for three months under the present circumstances, but no longer, unless they obtained better means of procuring food and clothing…. [S]tarvation and insurrection is inevitable, unless relief is obtained" (p. 1).
The April 17, 1863, edition of the New York Herald described the riot as a "popular movement" in "consequence of the exorbitant prices" of food and materials in Richmond, and provided the fullest account ("Interesting from the South: 'The Food Question,"' p. 1). On the morning of April 2, before the riot, the paper reported, "a large meeting, composed principally of the wives and daughters of the working classes, was held in the African church, and a committee appointed to wait upon the Governor to request that articles of food should be sold at government rates" (p. 1). The women who met with Governor Letcher found no help forthcoming, so took matters into their own hands.
The riot began when "a body of females, numbering about three hundred, collected together and commenced helping themselves to bread, flour, meat, articles of clothing, &c," at which "the entire city was thrown into consternation" (p. 1). The women were not to be stopped: "[H]atchets and axes in the hands of women rendered desperate by hunger made quick work, and building after building was rapidly broken open" (p. 1). In response, the governor called out the city guard to help storeowners control the rioters; "a few individuals attempted to resist the women, but without success" (p. 1). Finally, the mayor read the crowd the Riot Act, but to little avail—"during the reading of that document a portion of the crowd suspended operations; but no sooner had the Mayor concluded than the seizure of provisions commence again more vigorously than before" (p. 1). Governor Letcher then addressed the masses and tried to shame them by "characterizing the demonstration as a disgrace and a stigma upon the city" (p. 1). It was not until the "arrest of about forty women, and the promise of the Governor to relieve the wants of the destitute" that the riot broke up, however (p. 1). In the end, "a large amount of bread and bacon was carried off, and all engaged in the riot succeeded in getting a good supply of provisions" (p. 1). In an effort to hide the true nature of events from Northern officials, "leading men of the city attempted to circulate the report that the women were 'Irish and Yankee hags,' endeavoring to mislead the public concerning the amount of loyal sentiment in the city" (p. 1). However, "the fact of…[the rioters'] destitution and respectability was too palpable, and the authorities are forced to admit the conclusion that starvation alone incited the movement" (p. 1).
According to Crawford, the popular movement that led to the Richmond bread riots was begun when one Mary Jackson began discussing the practices of food speculators with her neighbors in the working-class neighborhood of Oregon Hill. Word soon spread of Mary Jackson's idea to confront the governor over the issue. A group met at the Belvidere Hill Baptist Church to put together a list of demands. When the governor tried to postpone a meeting with the women, they took to the streets, some of them armed with knives, hatchets, or guns. They marched down Capital Hill toward Main Street, where shops and the government commissary were located. Once they reached the shopping area, they broke into the commissary and smashed store windows, grabbing food and other supplies. Richmond's mayor and governor attempted to halt the progress of the throng but no headway was made until Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, appeared on the scene. According to the memoirs of Varinda Davis, "the president told the mob that rioting was not the way to redress their grievances[;]…such disorder…would only make matters worse…. [I]t would discourage farmers from trying to bring their produce to town, further restricting access to food" (Crawford 2002, p. 24). Davis declared, "we do not desire to injure anyone…but this lawlessness must stop…. I will give you five minutes to disperse, otherwise you will be fired upon" (Crawford 2002, p. 24). The crowd finally broke up, and arrests were made.
The Richmond riot resulted in pervasive unease and fear of further uprisings. Indeed, it was not the only April bread riot. The New York Observer and Chronicle of April 16, 1863, reports that "soldiers wives and others rose en masse" in Petersburg, Maryland, and "visiting the stores of the mercenary speculators who have been enriching themselves… helped themselves forcibly to what they wanted, pitching out goods to the poor and needy as they went" (p. 126). In Atlanta, Georgia, "some fifteen or twenty women… made an impressment of about 200 pounds of bacon belonging to private parties" (p. 126). Apparently, they first offered to purchase the bacon at government rates, but were met with denial so took the bacon instead. Rioters also rose in North Carolina that spring. The April 19, 1863, New York Times reported that near Raleigh, North Carolina, "a company of women, most of them soldiers' wives, went to the store of William Welsh[,]… [where they] rolled out several barrels of molasses and divided it" ("Bread Riots in Raleigh, N.C.," p. 1). In Salisbury, North Carolina, another band of women appropriated flour, salt, and molasses from private owners and then divided their takings equally amongst themselves (p. 1).
The summer of 1863 proved quieter than the spring, but the troubles were not yet over. Mobile, Alabama saw two riots on September 4, 1863. Demonstrators holding banners that read "Bread or Blood" and "Bread and Peace" marched down Dauphine Street "armed with knives and hatchets," and broke "open the stores in their progress,… taking for their use such articles of food or clothing as they were in urgent need of" ("The Bread Riot in Mobile," New York Times, October 1, 1863, p. 4). When ordered to halt the progress of the rioters, the Seventeenth Alabama regiment said they "would rather assist those starving wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of men who had been forced to fight in the battles of the rebellion" (p. 4). The mayor of Mobile halted the riot with promises and the women returned to their homes; "in the evening, however, the riot broke out again, more fiercely than ever" (p. 4).
Most Northern press coverage of Southern bread riots was sympathetic to the women who were forced into violence in order to feed and clothe themselves and their family members. Occasionally, however, a more mocking or censorious tone crept into reports. Vanity Fair, for example, noted that while "the 'Southern Chivalry' are fond of boasting that they are the best bred people in the world,…they lately had…the worst bread riots that ever the world heard of ("Our View of It," May 2, 1863, p. 35). The same publication, reporting on a riot in Milledgeville, Georgia, involving "about three hundred women…[who] pitched into a dry-goods store…and seized…fine goods," remarked that "the whole fray…would naturally resolve itself into a bonnet-box—that is, in a pugilistic, not modistic, sense…. [W]hile one half of the Southern females is contending with the other half in wild rushes over a box of ruches, the proprietor might be enabled to call in the police and quell the row" ("The 'Wayward Sisters' Down South," May 9, 1863, p. 54).
Regardless of how the bread riots are conceived, the undeniable fact is that some Southerners were left with no other recourse but to loot in order to meet their basic survival needs. The Civil War was a "total war," aimed at and affecting civilians as well as soldiers. Southern rioting and looting illustrate just how well Union tactics to demoralize and starve the Confederate States of America succeeded.
"Army Correspondence." Christian Inquirer, March 21, 1863.
"The Bread Riot in Mobile." New York Times, October 1, 1863.
"Bread Riot in Raleigh, N.C." New York Times, April 19. 1863.
"Bread Riot in Richmond." New York Observer, April 9, 1863.
"Bread Riot in Richmond." New York Times, April 8, 1863.
Crawford, Alan Pell. "Richmond's Bread Riot" American History 153, no. 4 (2002): 20–26.
"Domestic." New York Observer and Chronicle, April 16, 1863.
"Famine in the South." New York Times, April 20, 1863.
"General News." Independent, Boston April 23, 1863.
"Interesting from the South: 'The Food Question'; The Bread Riot in Richmond." The New York Herald, April 17, 1863.
"News of the Week." Circular, New York, January 10, 1861.
"Our View of It." Vanity Fair, May 2, 1863.
"Planting in 1863." Southern Cultivator, January/ February 1863.
"The Rebel Bread Riots." New York Times, April 10, 1863.
Seddon, James A. "The Food Question." New York Times, April 19, 1863.
"The Situation." The New York Herald, April 8, 1863.
"The 'Wayward Sisters' Down South." Vanity Fair, May 9, 1863.
"Shortages." Gale Library of Daily Life: American Civil War. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/shortages
"Shortages." Gale Library of Daily Life: American Civil War. . Retrieved March 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/shortages
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