Confederate Hardship: Southern Bread Riots
By April 1863 the Civil War had been going on for two years, and many people in the South were approaching starvation. Foraging armies—both Union and Confederate—had depleted many areas of food and animals. A severe drought the year before had diminished harvests, contributing to the shortages felt in the spring of 1863. Adding to the misery was the high rate of inflation which drove most food prices beyond people’s means, compounded by speculators who took advantage of the situation by charging ever higher prices.
On April 2, 1863, bread riots broke out in about a dozen cities and towns throughout the South—most dramatically in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital—when angry women began breaking into stores and warehouses, grabbing food for their hungry families. During the Richmond riot, Confederate President Jefferson Davis addressed the mob of desperate women and pleaded for calm, but they would not be mollified. It was only when Davis warned he would order the militia to fire upon the crowd that it began dispersing.
The following three newspaper articles are about the 1863 bread riots in the South. The first article is an account by a Union officer who witnessed the Richmond riot while he was held there as a prisoner of war. The second article is an editorial from a Northern paper confident that the riots indicate the impending collapse of the Confederacy. The third article contains an editorial from a Southern paper dismissing the seriousness of the Richmond riot.
This article was published by the Albany Journal (Albany, New York) on April 8, 1863:
Bread Riot in Richmond
Three Thousand Hungry Women Raging in the Streets
Government and Private Stores Opened
Baltimore, Tuesday, April 7.
Col. Stewart, of the 2d Indiana Regiment, one of the fourteen United States officers just released by the Rebels, and who has just arrived here, makes the following statement:
On Thursday last he saw from his prison window in Richmond a great bread riot, in which about three thousand women were engaged, armed with clubs, guns and stones. They broke open the Government stores and took bread, clothing and whatever else they wanted. The militia were ordered out to check the riot, but failed to do so. Jeff. Davis and other high officials then made speeches to the infuriated women, and told them they should have what they needed. They then became calm, and order was once more restored.
All the other released Union officers confirmed this statement.
Three days later, the Albany Journal followed up by publishing this editorial on April 11, 1863:
Famine in Dixie
The question of Food is coming home to the “business and bosoms” of the Rebels. We have fresh evidence every day that the people are on the verge of Famine. A bread riot occurred in Richmond the other day and a similar demonstration is reported at Petersburg. The Governor of South Carolina has called the Legislature together for the express purpose of considering the proper measures to be taken to provide food for the sustenance of the Army and the People.
There is no mistaking these signs. They point unmistakably to a period not far distant when the enemy will be reduced to the alternative of Submission or Starvation. They may defy Federal bayonets and bullets; but they must submit to the Coercive power of Hunger. While military success is indispensable to an honorable triumph of our Cause, and while it would be both foolish and unmanly to rely exclusively upon the poverty and social disorganization of the Rebels as “weapons of war,” these agencies must and will prove powerful auxiliaries to us in the future.
On April 7 the Richmond Sentinel published an editorial making the astonishing claim that the riot was “not due to suffering” and that there is “no distress among those persons.” It was reprinted, along with accounts of other Southern food shortages, by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on April 11, 1863:
News from the South
The Bread Riot at Richmond
The following is the editorial in the Richmond Sentinel of the 7th, on the Bread Riot:
“When the public peace was, for a time, somewhat disturbed here, on Thursday last, it was suggested to us, and to the rest of the city press, by many citizens, to refrain from any present notice of it, on account of the misrepresentations and exaggerations to which a publication would give rise. In assenting to the suggestion, in company with all the other papers, we felt that we were only paying a decent respect to the opinions of gentlemen certainly as well qualified to judge as ourselves, equally interested, to say the least, in a correct judgment, and entitled to deference on other grounds. Our compliance was voluntary and in good faith. We thus became a party to the reserve. We have no repentance for this, nor have we any quarrel, or any reproaches where our hand has been given. We have not even any regrets. On the contrary, we are glad that time was taken to ascertain facts with precision, and thus to prevent errors which a precipitate notice might have assisted to spread.
“It can now be said, upon authority of the sworn evidence, that the conduct of the few misguided women who on Thursday availed themselves of the tenderness with which their sex is ever treated in the South, was not due to suffering. Themselves, and the thieves in pantaloons who took shelter in their company, simply plundered milliners’ goods, dry goods, fancy foods, &c. It was no cry for bread; it was no riot, so far as they placed their action on any declared basis. It was opposition to the high prices; and upon this point they took shelter under the abstract sympathy of such as believe that speculators and extortioners have made the prices so high, and dispose them accordingly.
“But it is now proven that there was no distress among those persons; that the very leader was independent, and himself an extortioner; that there has been abundant provision made for the poor who may need it; and that the whole thing was simply a plundering raid under female impunity. An ebullition such as we have noticed would have excited no attention outside of the quiet South, where good order is so uniform and so universal. It amounts to nothing here.”
Under the local heading is “a riot case,” where Dr. Thomas M. Palmer, charged with encouraging a riot in the streets of the city, appears before Recorder Caskie, with his counsel, General George W. Randolph and John A. Gilmer, Esq. His loyalty to the Confederacy was vouched by the Secretary of the Navy and members of both branches of Congress. He was a member of the Convention that took Florida out of the Union, and has been in the Confederate service from an early period of the war. The testimony was to the effect that he refused to depart when the crowd was ordered by the Governor and the Mayor to disperse, and made use of some language not altogether suitable to the occasion.
The presence of the Governor and Mayor, the character and standing of the counsel employed, and the class of witnesses called by the defense, indicate plainly that there was more than the “ebullition” which the Sentinel would have us believe.
Under the heading of “Bread Destitution,” the Richmond Whig of the 8th inst. says: “Lee Mallory, the lessee of Metropolitan Hall, has established a depot at the hall, for the distribution of twenty-four hundred loaves of bread per month to the needy families of soldiers in the field. The Ladies’ Benevolent Society superintend the distribution, which takes place on Tuesday and Friday of each week, the beneficiaries being furnished with tickets for the bread.”
The Christian Association and the Famine
The Young Men’s Christian Association of Richmond reject an appeal to devote a portion of their funds to the purchase of food for the destitute, and publish a series of resolutions to that effect.
A Repetition of the Richmond Affair
The Atlanta (Georgia) papers state that a few days ago some fifteen or twenty women, residents of that city, all decently dressed, collected together on one of the principal streets, and made an impressments of about two hundred pounds of bacon belonging to private parties. They did it in a quiet, yet bold and determined manner, one of them quietly taking out a Colt’s revolver, and standing guard, while the others removed the bacon. They first offered to buy it at prices such as the Government is paying, but finding the holder unwilling to sell at such rates, announced their determination to seize it, which determination they resolutely carried out. They were soldiers’ wives who had large families to support.
Relief for the Starving People in Savannah
Seven of the different banks of Savannah have acceded to a proposition, made by the President of the Marine Bank of that city, to loan the city ten thousand dollars each, and one a loan of five thousand dollars, to be invested in provisions, which are to be sold at prime cost to the needy and others of Savannah.
Click here for more articles about the American Civil War.