During the Civil War, lack of food, money, and supplies created unbearable conditions for women living in the southern United States. Inflation and the lack of supplies left families reeling. Women especially felt the financial pinch and had difficulty providing food for their families. The situation was further exacerbated when the drought of 1862 impacted the harvest. Meager food supplies became even scarcer. The salt needed for preserving meat was also hard to come by. It was imported from the North and generally unavailable, or too expensive to purchase.
Tensions reached a boiling point in the spring of 1863 when civil unrest broke out in cities across the South. The unrest was organized by women, enraged by the exorbitant price of bread. They attacked stores and warehouses, stealing food, clothing, and supplies. The largest of these riots took place in Richmond, Virginia, on April 2, 1863.
In March 1863, a Richmond woman named Mary Jackson began recruiting women to participate in an organized protest. She was the mother of a Confederate soldier and frustrated with the government’s inability to provide aid for her and other women whose men were away fighting. She garnered the support of about 300 women. On the morning of April 2, 1863, Jackson arrived at the market in Richmond. She was a peddler, but that day she brought nothing to sell. Instead, she increased recruitment efforts and began warning men that trouble was brewing. The growing crowd of women began marching towards the governor’s office in Capitol Square, where they were turned away. There are varying reports of what happened next, with some claiming the governor eventually came and met with the women. The angry crowd began marching towards Ninth Street. As the women marched, hundreds began to follow, and the crowd ballooned.
Armed with guns, hatchets, and household implements, the women began to chant “Bread or Blood!” They attacked grocery stores, warehouses, and other businesses, stealing food, supplies, and even fine jewelry.
Soon, Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo arrived and read the Riot Act aloud to the mob. They ignored him. Governor John L. Letcher sent for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He begged the women to disperse, warning that an artillery unit would open fire on the mob. Davis then emptied his pockets, throwing his money to the women. Tensions finally eased, and the crowd disbursed.
Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon asked the local press to refrain from publishing news of the incident, fearing it would fuel Union propaganda. Confederate deserters, along with Union prisoners who watched the scene unfold from their cell windows, leaked the story. The New York Times published a front-page account of the riot on April 8th.
Following the riot, more than 60 demonstrators were arrested, including Jackson. The women received varying degrees of punishment. Jackson’s punishment was merely nominal. The City of Richmond increased efforts to provide aid to the poor, restoring a measure of calm. The 1863 bread riots showed just how difficult life had become for women on the home front. If you would like to learn more about the Richmond Bread Riot, search Newspapers.com™ today.
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