Civil War: Starving Richmond women rioted for bread for their families

The women took to the streets chanting “Blood or bread!” Photo: Starving Richmond women demanded bread, the staff of life

VIENNA, Va., March 27, 2013 — The women of Richmond wore no fancy antebellum gowns, their hair was not piled fashionably atop their heads, and they were not out for a social function such had existed prior to “the late unpleasantness.”

These women had another goal in mind, one far more realistic for the time. They were hungry and so were their families. It was April of 1863 and the War had been going on for a year and a half and the economy was struggling to a dangerous point. Invading armies had destroyed the fields and crops upon which families relied.

Congress had enacted a new law, an “Impressment Act,” as well as an additional tax law that resulted in speculation and outright hoarding, at least for those living in an urban area such as the capital city of Virginia.

Richmond’s population was a little over 100,000 by that time, rents had escalated and even the most basic of needs were out of range for families. On top of it all, 1863’s winter had been extraordinarily harsh. It had snowed appreciably at least twenty times, and some of the snowfalls resulted in snow a foot deep in Richmond.

Getting Food in the Spring Was Impossible

As the snow melted with the warming temperatures, the basic roads were soon muddy paths, and it was almost impossible for food stuffs, groceries and even fuel to reach the inhabitants. Women – even Richmond’s Southern-style women – had had enough.

Two etchings of Richmond women taking to the streets

On April 1, 1863, a large group of women whose husbands worked at Tredegar Iron Works as well as in other places met in a local church to see what could be done. 

Two ladies,  Minerva Meredith and Mary Jackson, came up with a plan.  The women would descend upon Capitol Square on April 2 in an endeavor to get their needs and concerns heard by Governor John L. Letcher.

Bright and early the next day, they met at the George Washington statue and proceeded to the Governor’s mansion. To no one’s surprise, he refused to meet with them, though some accounts say he did. Either way, whatever response he theoretically gave them did not suit them, and the growing crowd of protesters left the Capitol and took aim at Ninth Street, where the business section could be found.

Women Demanded “Blood or Bread!”

As the little procession wound its way down the street, the inevitable happened, and more and more women joined in the throng, each demanding some respite from the lack of food and necessities. At one point, according to eyewitnesses of the time, a very thin, gaunt lady raised her wasted, almost emaciated arm and screamed, “We celebrate our right to LIVE!  We are STARVING!”  Still others maintain there was almost a chant of “Bread or blood!”

In a scene reminiscent of contemporary protests, the group, now a full-fledged mob, started attacking government warehouses where supplies and food might be stored, as well as regular stores along the street. In addition to food, the angry group began stealing clothing, jewelry, as well as necessities – bacon, flour, sugar, and other foodstuffs.

The city’s mayor, Joseph Mayo, arrived on the scene and literally (as the saying now goes) read “the Riot Act” to them. They simply ignored  him. The governor came, along with Jefferson Davis, President of the fledgling Confederacy, but they appeared to have little effect on the raging mob.

A letter written from Beauvoir by Varina Davis indicated that the women had already attacked provisions stores and bakeries, and that “while they had completed gutted one jewelry store and had also ‘looted’ some millinery and clothing shops…,”  they were still attacking other businesses.

Jefferson Davis Faces Off Against the Women

In a New York Times article, the reporter stated that when President Davis got there, he climbed upon an overturned wagon, and said to them, “You say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have; it is not much, but take it.”  Then emptying his pockets, he threw all of the money in them to the crowd, and then took out his watch and told them they had five minutes to disperse.

Most of the crowd drifted away at a safe distance, in spite of a warning that a cannon would be posted in the streets. The rioting was not as flagrant or as effective as at first, and soon the city authorities met with them to see if the severest needs could be helped in any way.

Some were punished for their activities with fines and prison terms, but in a discriminating manner. The women who came to the trials dressed well and who seemed more ashamed and apologetic for their actions, were punished less severely than those who appeared to be in the working class or who were identified as “leaders” of the cause.

The Richmond riots were not isolated, and when the Confederate press could manage publication, similar outbreaks were reported in Atlanta, Columbus and Macon, Ga., as well as in Mobile, Ala. and even in North Carolina.

Who could blame them when food prices were ten times higher than they had been in 1861? Truly, an agricultural economy in the South had produced farmers and families who were going hungry. 

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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