April 2, 1863 – A mob of mostly women stormed the business district of the Confederate capital demanding relief from the epidemic of shortages plaguing the Confederacy.
The winter of 1862-63 had been the worst ever for the new Confederacy. Dwindling supplies increased demand, resulting in soaring prices and civil unrest in various southern cities. This was especially true in Richmond, where the population had doubled since the war started and the armies had ravaged much of the food producing area in the state. The rising cost of necessities left many to go hungry.
Hundreds of angry citizens, mostly women, gathered at the Oregon Hill Baptist Church on Holy Thursday to express their rage. They then stormed Richmond’s business district, shouting, “Bread! Bread!” A witness recalled talking to a young woman involved in the protest:
“As she raised her hand to remove her sunbonnet, her loose calico sleeve slipped up, and revealed a mere skeleton of an arm. She perceived my expression as I looked at it, and hastily pulled down her sleeve with a short laugh. ‘This is all that’s left of me!’ she said. ‘It seems real funny don’t it? We are starving. We are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men.’”
Some men and boys joined the mob until it grew to about 1,000 people. Governor John Letcher and the mayor of Richmond came out to calm the protestors to no avail. They smashed store windows and doors on Main and Cary, seizing items such as flour, meal, and clothing. Ruffians and emboldened protestors soon joined forces to begin looting stores for luxury items such as jewelry, furniture, and other fineries.
Letcher dispatched state militia to restore order, and the Richmond mayor threatened to order the militia to open fire if the crowd did not disperse. The mob refused to comply, possibly because the militia consisted of acquaintances or even husbands of the rioters. President Jefferson Davis then appeared and climbed atop a wagon to be seen in the crowd. According to a witness:
“He urged them to return to their houses, so that the bayonets there menacing them might be sent against the common enemy. He told them that such acts would bring famine upon them… as it would deter people from bringing food to the city. He said he was willing to share his last loaf with the suffering people… and he trusted we would… continue united against the Northern invaders, who were the authors of all our sufferings.”
Davis yelled, “You say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have. It is not much, but take it.” He threw all the money from his pockets into the crowd. He then pulled out his pocket watch and said, “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 on.”
When a large crowd remained after four minutes, Davis held up his pocket watch and announced, “My friends, you have one minute more.” The rioters finally disbanded. Davis directed the police to arrest the most prominent members of the mob; they were tried and briefly jailed.
Davis unofficially asked the Richmond press to “avoid all reference directly or indirectly to the affair,” and he instructed the telegraph companies to “permit nothing relative to the unfortunate disturbance… to be sent over the telegraph lines in any direction for any purpose.” Davis feared that reports of incidents such as these would embolden Federal troops and demoralize Confederates.
Secretary of War James A. Seddon directed military authorities to order the Richmond newspapers to print no articles about the rioting because it would serve “to embarrass our cause (or) to encourage our enemies.” The lead editorial in the April 3 Richmond Dispatch was titled, “Sufferings in the North.” Meanwhile, women and other “non-draftables” continued gathering to beg for food until the City Battalion drove them off.
The Richmond Enquirer broke the press silence on the 4th, but in support of the administration. The Enquirer reported that rumors of the riot were unnecessarily harming morale because the rioters were merely “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows birds from all lands but our own… (they broke into) half a dozen shoe stores, hat stores and tobacco houses and robbed them of everything but bread, which was just the thing they wanted least.”
The Richmond city council approved a motion stating that the incident had been “in reality instigated by devilish and selfish motives,” but a week later the council members quietly approved allocating $24,000 to feed the citizens. This helped quiet the growing unrest. However, similar outbreaks occurred in Augusta, Columbus and Milledgeville in Georgia, in Salisbury, North Carolina, and in Mobile, Alabama.
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