The Richmond Bread Riots, Conclusion

Today, we welcome back guest author, Ashley Webb.
(part two of two)

The Richmond Bread Riot. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Richmond Bread Riot. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On April 1, several women met at Belvidere Hill Baptist Church in Oregon Hill, Richmond, to discuss their plans. Starting peacefully, the group planned to march through the streets, intent on “the purpose of saving themselves from starvation,” making their demands known, and if not by negotiation then by force.[i]  To illustrate this force, the women decided to carry weapons, and many wielded axes, hatchets, clubs or knives.  Several accounts outline what transpired the following morning.  Gathering in Capitol Square, women, children, and a few men quietly proceeded through the streets, all “saying they were hungry, and must have food.”[ii]

The accounts including the number of rioters vary, depending on the source, with some citing between a few hundred and a few thousand.  In one exaggerated account, the number grew up to 20,000.[iii] The crowd continued, eventually stopping at their final destination:  Governor John Letcher’s mansion, where they demanded an audience.  Instead, the governor’s senior staff advisor appeared, attempting to waylay the crowd.  After a little prodding, Governor Letcher stepped out, telling the crowd that “it was out of his power to afford them any relief, as the government demanded all the provisions it was possible to get for the army.”[iv]  Upset and unsatisfied with the response, the group began looting stores lining Main and Cary Streets, commandeering wagons and drays to hold their spoils. The group didn’t stop at food; they plundered what stores they could, and in one instance, “a boy came out of a store with a hat full of money.”[v]  Varina Davis, Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ wife, wrote in her memoirs that “though the mob claimed that they were starving and wanted bread, they had not confined their operations to food-supplies, but had passed by, without any effort to attack, several provision stores and bakeries, while they had completely emptied one jewelry store, and had also ‘looted’ some millinery and clothing shops in the vicinity.”[vi]

From this point on, the records and first-hand accounts are a bit garbled, assigning a handful of actions, speeches, and responsibilities to a variety of Richmond figureheads. It is quite unknown which individuals said what precisely, but  at some point during the two hour riot, Richmond’s mayor, Joseph Mayo, read the Riot Act to the mob, of which largely ignored him.  In some accounts, President Jefferson Davis came out and gave an impassioned speech to the rioters.  In his diary, J.B. Jones commented that Davis “said he was willing to share his last loaf with the suffering people… and he trusted we would all bear our privations with fortitude, and continue united against the Northern invaders, who were the authors of all our sufferings. He seemed deeply moved….”[vii]  In another instance, Davis emptied his pockets, and “threw all the money they contained among the mob.”[viii]  In other accounts, the Public Guard was called: some sources credit John Letcher, others credit Jefferson Davis, for giving rioters 5 minutes to disperse or the guard would start shooting.  The riot lasted two hours, with the crowd dispersing after the warning from the Public Guard.  The following day, approximately forty-four women and twenty-nine men were apprehended and arrested.  The majority of these were eventually acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.[ix]

Confederate officers, as well as Jefferson Davis, attempted to keep news of the riot out of the papers. The Confederates recognized that if the Union learned of an insurrection in the southern capital, it would be detrimental to Southern victory.  The Richmond Examiner disregarded the request to report on the event.  Additionally, several Northern newspapers learned of the riot through imprisoned Union officers who were transferred to Baltimore shortly after the riot.  One newspaper backed up Confederates thoughts on the insurrection: “These riots certainly show a deplorable state of things in the South; and will have a great tendency to force the leaders of the rebellion, sooner or later, to succumb to the National authorities.”[x] The Examiner attempted to push the blame onto the Union, declaring the participants were “prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows-birds from all lands but our own.”[xi]  While the Examiner attempted to create the illusion of miscreants behind the mob, the participants came from diverse backgrounds.  A majority of them were indeed from the poorer sections of the town and were guilty of some of the stereotypes outlined in the Examiner; however, at least one woman arrested was from a prosperous family who owned a farm outside the city, several slaves, as well as a house and property within the city.[xii]  Twenty-five years later, the Richmond Dispatch wrote three lengthy articles on the riot, weaving facts and fiction together.  In two out of the three articles, the Dispatch cited the date as April Fool’s Day, creating a lighthearted tale of the drastic measures women needed to take to combat the extortionists, as well as open the government’s eyes to the extremity of poverty in the capital city.

The Richmond bread riot highlighted several weakened areas of the Confederate cause. Despite the number of first-hand accounts, reminiscences, and memoirs describing the event, only a handful are potentially accurate, and discrepancies can be found when comparing texts.  Regardless, food shortages, harsh winters, diseases, and the exorbitant prices maintained by shopkeepers and extortionists led to riots as the Civil War continued.  The Richmond bread riot is just one example of numerous smaller riots throughout the South.

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[i] “Bread Riots in the South,” The Raftsman’s Journal. 15 April 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85054616/1863-04-15/ed-1/seq-2/

[ii] Jones, 285.

[iii] Edmonston, Catherine.  Diary of a Secesh Lady: The Diary of Catherine Ann Devereaux Edmonston, ed. Beth Crabtree and James Patton (Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, 1974), 378.

[iv] “Life in Richmond: Particulars of the Recent Bread Riot,” The Potter Journal. 20 May 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86081096/1863-05-20/ed-1/seq-1/

[v] Jones, 285.

[vi] Davis, Varina. Jefferson Davis: Ex-President of the Confederate States of America, A Memoir by his wife, Volume 2 (New York: Belford Company, 1890), 375. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2001.05.0038%3Achapter%3D36

[vii] Jones, 285.

[viii] Davis, 375.

[ix] Chesson, Michael B, “Harlots or Heriones? A New Look at the Richmond Bread Riot,“ The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 92, no. 2 (1984),  155.

[x] “Bread Riots in the South,” The Raftsman’s Journal. 15 April 1863. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85054616/1863-04-15/ed-1/seq-2/

[xi] “Riot in the Streets of Richmond.” Richmond Examiner. 4 April 1863. Civil War Richmond. http://www.mdgorman.com/Written_Accounts/Examiner/1863/richmond_examiner_441863f.htm

[xii] Chesson, 161.

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2 Responses to The Richmond Bread Riots, Conclusion

  1. Max Terman says:

    Later on in the summer, Belle Island prison for Union soldiers captured at Gettysburg and other encounters exploded in numbers which I am sure added to the shortages and discontent in Richmond. http:hiramshonor.blogspot.com

  2. Pingback: The Richmond Bread Riots, Part I | Emerging Civil War

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