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Bread Riot in Richmond, 1863

The Confederate Home Front
By 1863, the combination of the Northern blockade of Southern ports, the diversion of Southern food supplies from the home front to the war front and the escalating inflation of its currency began to negatively affect the Confederacy's civilian population. Tensions boiled to the surface on April 2, 1863 when a group of hungry and desperate women descended upon the Confederate capitol in Richmond demanding relief. Rebuffed by the Governor, the mob took their complaints to the streets and sparked a spontaneous protest by a crowd estimated in the thousands. Shouting "Bread, Bread, Bread!" the mob vented its frustrations by smashing store windows and looted their contents.

The chaos was curbed only when Confederate President Jefferson Davis called upon the crowd to disperse, backing up his entreaty with troops armed with fixed bayonets

"Something very sad has just happened in Richmond…"

A Richmond woman described the scene in a letter written to a friend on April 2, 1863:

"Something very sad has just happened in Richmond - something that makes me ashamed of all my jeremiads over the loss of the petty comforts and conveniences of life - hats, bonnets, gowns, stationery, books, magazines, dainty food.

Since the weather has been so pleasant, I have been in the habit of walking in the Capitol Square before breakfast every morning. . . Yesterday, upon arriving, I found within the gates a crowd of women and boys - several hundreds of them, standing quietly together.

I sat on a bench near, and one of the number left the rest and took the seat beside me. She was a pale, emaciated girl, not more than eighteen. . . As she raised her hand to remove her sunbonnet and use it for a fan, her loose calico sleeve slipped up and revealed the 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. As soon as enough of us get together, 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.’

. . . The crowd now rapidly increased, and numbered, I am sure, more than a thousand women and children. It grew and grew until it reached the dignity of a mob - a bread riot. They impressed all the light carts they met, and marched along silently and in order. They marched through Cary Street and Main, visiting the stores of the speculators and emptying them of their contents. Governor Letcher sent the mayor to read the Riot Act, and as this had no effect on the crowd. The city battalion came up. The women fell back with frightened eyes, but did not obey the order to disperse.

The President [Jefferson Davis] then appeared ascended a dray, and addressed them. It is, said he was received at first with hisses from the boys, but after he had spoken some little time with great kindness and sympathy, the women moved quietly on, taking their food with them. General Elze and General Winder wished to call troops from the camps to ‘suppress the women,’ but [Secretary of War James] Seddon, a wise man, declined to issue the order. While I write women and children are still standing in the streets, demanding food, and the government is issuing to them rations of rice."

   This eyewitness account appears in: Gallman, Matthew J., The Civil War Chronicle (2000)

How To Cite This Article:
"Bread Riot in Richmond, 1863" EyeWitness to History, (2009).