Richmond’s population had swelled to more than 100,000 by the midpoint of the war. Overcrowding, high rents, and exorbitant costs for basic necessities increasingly affected all classes in the capital, but the burden fell especially hard on the working class—their wages could not keep pace with the inflationary spiral. The winter of 1863 was quite harsh in Richmond. Locals reported more than twenty measurable snow falls, with some storms dropping more than a foot of snow on the capital. Warmer temperatures turned the roads into quagmires that made the transport of food and fuel into the city virtually impossible.
In desperation, a group of women—workers in Confederate ordnance establishments and the wives of the Tredegar Iron Works laborers—met on April 1, 1863, at the Belvidere Hill Baptist Church located in the Oregon Hill neighborhood of the city. Led by Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith, the women resolved to gather at Capitol Square the next day to seek a meeting with Virginia governor John L. Letcher to discuss their plight.
The women gathered at the equestrian statue of George Washington and made their way to the governor’s mansion. Denied a meeting with Letcher, some of the women returned to the statue. Accounts of what happened next vary; some say Letcher did, in fact, meet with the women at the Washington monument. Dissatisfied with his response, the women marched out of Capitol Square and headed toward Ninth Street and in the direction of the city’s business district. As the women walked, they attracted hundreds—some accounts say thousands—of followers.
Curious onlookers, such as Confederate War Department clerk J. B. Jones, asked some in the group what they were doing. Several eyewitnesses reported seeing a gaunt woman raise a skeleton of an arm and scream, “We celebrate our right to live! We are starving!” Others heard a chant of “Bread or blood!” The mob then began attacking government warehouses, grocery stores, and various mercantile establishments, seizing food, clothing, and wagons, as well as jewelry and other luxury goods. Some merchants resisted the rioters while others watched helplessly as the looters seized bacon, ham, flour, and shoes.
Mayor Joseph Mayo quickly arrived at Mayo Street (the street was not named for the mayor), where he literally read the Riot Act to the mob; he was ignored. Letcher appeared shortly thereafter, as did Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Again, accounts of who summoned the City Battalion and who threatened the mob with violence differ. Varina Davis wrote in her memoir of her husband that he pleaded with the rioters to disperse and then threatened to have an artillery unit open fire on the mob. Others assert it was Letcher who ordered city forces to fire on the group if it did not disperse in five minutes.
Tense moments passed, but the crowd did scatter. Local officials carried through with their threat to post cannon on key thoroughfares. That factor served to discourage another group that gathered on April 3, 1863. Fears of further disturbances led the commander of the Department of Richmond to order troops to augment forces under the provost marshal.
The atmosphere in the capital remained jittery as the City Council met that afternoon. Although the riot was over in two hours, it had shocked locals. Many believed that the rioters did not “suffer real want,” while others accused outside agitators of causing the fracas. Confederate secretary of war James A. Seddon implored the local press not to publish accounts of the disturbance for fear it would fuel Union propaganda and undermine morale at home. To some extent Seddon succeeded, but Union prisoners of war in Richmond reported what they saw and the New York Times ran a front-page article about the bread riot on April 8, 1863.
More than sixty men and women were arrested and tried in connection with the riot. Fines and prison terms were meted out, apparently in a rather capricious way. Those who appeared at their trials better dressed and perhaps more contrite received lesser punishments than others who were obviously members of the working class or the ringleaders of the mob.
The city fathers of Richmond also moved in the aftermath of the riot to insure there was no further breakdown of public order. The city had a long tradition of poor relief and the City Council resolved to expand its efforts in that area. Richmond’s lawmakers were quick to distinguish between the “worthy poor,” those who did not participate in the riot, and the “unworthy poor,” those who did. Soon the city would operate special markets where the “meritorious poor” could obtain provisions and fuel at significantly reduced prices.
The bread riot in Richmond was not an isolated affair. People in the Confederate capital would read about similar revolts in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, and Macon, Georgia; in Salisbury and High Point, North Carolina; and in Mobile, Alabama. Local officials in those cities tackled the problem of poor relief in much the same way. But the stark reality was that people could not afford to buy food because prices in 1863 were almost ten times higher than they were in 1861. As one scholar has noted, a nation of farmers was, indeed, going hungry.
The situation would only grow worse as the Confederate transportation network broke down and as Union armies occupied more and more of the Confederacy’s arable land. The bread riots of 1863 underscored how desperate the situation had become on the home front. They also highlighted the slow but steady demoralization that profoundly affected the Confederate cause.