The Richmond Bread Riot

The winter of 1862-63 had been the worst ever for the Confederacy. Dwindling supplies increased demand, resulting in soaring prices and civil unrest throughout the South. This was especially true in the capital of Richmond, where the population had doubled since the war started and the armies had ravaged much of the food producing area in the state. A snowstorm in late March had turned the roads to mud, preventing farmers from bringing their crops to market. The shortages coupled with the rising cost of living left many to go hungry.

A group of angry women, whose husbands worked at Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, gathered at the Oregon Hill Baptist Church on Holy Thursday to express their frustration. They resolved to confront Governor John Letcher about the problem, and they marched over to the governor’s mansion on Capitol Square. Many others joined the march, including men and boys, until the number of protestors swelled to several hundred.

Letcher agreed to listen to the grievances, but he could provide no immediate solution. When a passerby asked a girl on the outer edge of the crowd if this was some kind of celebration, the girl replied, “There is. We celebrate our right to live.” The passerby then recounted:

“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.’”

When Letcher went back into the governor’s mansion, the angry crowd stormed Richmond’s business district, shouting, “Bread! Bread!” By this time, the mob had grown to about 1,000 people. They smashed store windows and doors on Main and Cary, seizing items such as flour, meal, and clothing. Hundreds of pounds of beef earmarked for the city hospital were taken. Ruffians and emboldened protestors soon joined forces to begin looting stores for luxury items such as jewelry, furniture, and other fineries. Damages were estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Letcher hurried to the scene and tried to reason with the looters. Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo also arrived and implored them to stop. Few likely heard these pleas, and they did nothing to stop the pillage. As the mob descended on one of Richmond’s main marketplaces, a militia unit from the city armory appeared. A rioter set up an empty wagon in the middle of the street as a barricade between the mob and the militia. As a violent confrontation seemed imminent, President Jefferson Davis arrived on the scene.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

Davis climbed atop the wagon in the street so that he could be seen by all. 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 upon.”

A standoff ensued. It was unsure whether the militia would actually fire into the crowd, especially considering that many of the militia members were related to the protestors on the other side of the wagon. After four minutes, Davis held up his pocket watch and announced, “My friends, you have one minute more.” The militia commander hollered orders to load rifles, and 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 the enemy and demoralize Confederates.

Secretary of War James A. Seddon ordered 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. Two infantry battalions supported by cannon were brought up to guard the business district.

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 needy. 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. The misery would not let up as long as the war went on.


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