little forgotten history this column:
The Richmond Bread Riot of 1863
The year was 1863, two years into the Confederate reign in Richmond. The city's population had tripled it's pre-war numbers due to a massive influx of soldiers, their families and hanger-ons. Overcrowding and lack of adequate food led to widespread thievery and a feeling of desperation. Exasperating the already delicate situation, in February the Confederate Army began rationing food supplies in the Richmond vicinity to conserve them for nearby troops. What scarce food remained was sold for increasingly inflated prices, primarily in the old city marketplace near what is today known as Shockoe Slip. Those hardest impacted by these cut backs were working-class women and their children.
The winter of 1863 lasted through March and into early April. On the first of April, a late-night meeting was held at Belvidere Baptist Church in Oregon Hill to discuss the mounting food crisis. German, Irish, Welsh and native-born women from Oregon Hill, Gamble's Hill and outlying counties were in attendance. Feeling their voices were being ignored, the women decided to take action the following morning with a rally on the capital. The crowd, which numbered in the hundreds and was led by women, demanded to speak to Governor Letcher to deliver their demand of “Bread or Blood.” Once they were told he wasn't there, they dispersed towards the marketplace along Cary and Main streets. Along the way, they were joined by more women, as well men and children. Many participants wielded knives, old pistols, axes and hatchets.
The starved Richmonders began looting stores and markets and seizing wagons to haul away their loads. They began by grabbing essential food items such as bacon, flour and bread and later expanded their search to include household goods, jewelry, clothing and shoes. As the mob reached a feverish pitch, Mayor Mayo, Governor Letcher and Confederate President Jefferson Davis arrived on the scene and attempted to disperse the crowd. At one point while Davis addressed the crowd, he was pelted with a loaf of bread. After the dignitaries had addressed the crowd to no avail, Davis ordered the city's Public Guard to fire upon anyone who refused to disperse within five minutes. After a long pause,
the crowd dispersed and continued looting on their way back to their respective neighborhoods. Many arrests ensued, primarily of older and poorer women, who were viewed as ringleaders.
The Confederate Military requested that the press not write about what was being referred to as the Richmond Bread Riot, out of fear of there appearing to be an unstable situation in the capital of the Confederacy. Indeed, little was written about the uprising or of the impact that food rationing was having in Virginia and throughout the south. Those accounts that did appear characterized the participants as professional thieves, Yankee opportunists and dregs of society. Although similar food riots occurred throughout the Confederacy, none was as large or as successful as the one carried out by the women of Richmond on April 2, 1863.
Endnotes: So, I've just finished retyping, reediting and reworking all twelve issues of Complete Control for an anthology book. My friend who runs the famed punk record label, Plan-It-X will be releasing it as PIX's first ever book release. It will be 220 pages and include stories from all past issues as well as some bonus stuff from other sources. If you want to pre-order a copy now, you can get them from me for $8 PPD at: PO Box 5021 Richmond, VA. 23220. I will have the books by the first week of June for shipping. They'll also be available through Clamor's mailorder website as well as several distros. I'll be on the upcoming ten band, 40 person PIX traveling festival/tour between mid-June and mid-July and will have plenty of books with me. Come up and say hello. Take care, Greg