Saturday, April 6, 2013

Flashback, April 1863: Women Riot for Bread in Civil War Richmond

The first distinct sign that the Confederacy would experience a year from which it would never recover came after a cold winter. The citizens of Richmond, Va., already pinched by a Northern blockade of Southern ports, now experienced hunger when a snowstorm two weeks before stopped food shipments to local markets. On April 1, 1863, women gathered in a church decided to demand—and, if necessary, to seize—food. The following day, these women, now grown to a thousand participants, marched for a mile through the Confederate capital, looting stores and stopping only after a tense face-off with the city’s most important officials—the mayor, the governor, and Jefferson Davis himself.

In contrast with the New York City Draft Riots later that year (recounted in a prior post of mine), the Richmond Bread Riot resulted in no loss of life and far less negative publicity. But it was a far more disturbing harbinger of things to come for the South.

Part of what made the Bread Riot such a terrible omen was the blunt manner in which it exposed the South’s feeble foundation of sex, class and race. In the antebellum Southern view, poor whites could not be regarded as the lowest element of society because African-American slaves already occupied that position. Moreover, unlike in the industrial North, women might supervise the household, but they would be spared the hard menial work of men.

But two years into the fighting, a different reality had intruded. With the North already enjoying a manpower advantage at the time of Fort Sumter, there was a significant need for the services of virtually every able-bodied Southern male. But that meant fewer men to help with harvests that were increasingly critical.

The Confederate attempt to counter the problem only The “Twenty Negro Act,” passed in October 1862, exempted “owners or overseers of twenty or more slaves” from serving in the armed forces. While the legislators intended this as an incentive to plant, the lower classes perceived it otherwise. Most Southerner whites did not own slaves, and fewer still owned 20 or more.They saw favoritism at play.

The North had a similar problem that would later be at the root of the New York Draft Riot: $300 would allow a man to hire a poorer one to fight in his place. The South, with its oligarchic society, had an even worse case of what was shaping up to be, in an increasing slogan of the time, “a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”

While both incidents were markers of significant dissent in the North and South, the Draft Riots were sui generis, perhaps the worst point in Union feeling over the conduct of the Civil War in terms of how it affected the poor. In contrast, the Richmond Bread Riot was part of a larger wave of hunger-motivated civil disturbances that also affected Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, and Macon, Georgia; in Salisbury and High Point, North Carolina; and in Mobile, Alabama. The problem only became more acute as time went on. The need to keep word of this from leaking out, lest it undercut morale at the homefront, became more acute, making a necessity of press management and even censorship.

Nearly two years before, the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States had given Davis the power to censor the telegraph. Voluntary censorship guidelines had been distributed later to ensure no information about troop movements was made known. Denial of reporters’ access to battles was an additional weapon to restrict the flow of information, according to Anthony R. Fellows’ American Media History (2009).

Still, the inchoate unrest now made apparent by the bread riot required an entirely different exercise in press management. The Davis administration had to plead directly with reporters not to report the incident, arguing that it would be detrimental to the South. The plea worked, to some extent, as even those newspapers that seldom missed an opportunity to snap at Davis’ heels agreed to his request to spike the story.

Still, this censorship was not airtight. The Northern Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper contained an account of the incident nearly a month after the event, and more and more Southerners became aware, at least generally, of what happened.

The need arose to shore up, to any extent possible, the shaky edifice of Southern values. And so, the desperate women who participated in the march had to be marginalized, even de-feminized.

At the heart of the protest were a group of women who gathered in Belvidere Baptist Church on April 1--workers in Confederate ordnance establishments and the wives of laborers in the Tredegar Iron Works, the major arsenal of the Southern war effort. Besides all of the pressures discussed previously, they also faced problems associated with a bursting new national capital.

Richmond, like its opposite number, Washington, was thronged with transients, but two years into the war it wasn’t only those seeking work in a new capital, but also refugees fleeing war’s horrors. Rents rose drastically, leaving even less money for families.

The women in the church were addressed by Mary Jackson, a thirtysomething mother of four who worked in a local market. Over time, the justice of her complaint—that authorities were doing little if anything about their mounting misery—was cast aside by (largely male) historians, who focused on distinctly unwholesome descriptions provided by some at the time: that she was “large,” that she carried a bowie knife, that she was, variously, a “virago,” an “extortioner.” Those she would lead came in for equally defamatory treatment: “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows-birds from all lands but our own," in the words of the Richmond Examiner.

The women had determined to take their complaints to Governor John L. Letcher, but they were not satisfied (later accounts differed as to whether he actually met with them or not). At this point, they took to the streets, now joined by a number of men, in what was turning into a mob. A woman raised a rail-thin arm and screamed, "We celebrate our right to live! We are starving!" Other onlookers heard the chant "Bread or blood!"

Making their way toward the central business district, the crowd broke into government warehouses, grocery stores, and various mercantile stores, seizing food, clothing, wagons, jewelry, other luxury goods—whatever came to hand.

At Mayo Street, the crowd ignored the mayor’s reading of the riot act. Finally, Jefferson Davis himself came out. Accounts vary again about what he told them. Some said that he emptied his pockets of spare change and threw it out to the crowd; others, that he pleaded with the group to peacefully disperse; others, that he gave them five minutes to go, took out his watch, and began to count off the minutes before the crowd would be fired upon. With cannon squarely facing them now, the group gave up and went home. More than 60 men and women were arrested and tried for their role in the greatest civil disturbance to hit the South during the war.

Frightened by their close call, Southern officials stepped up their relief efforts for the poor. But by now, a terrible dynamic had taken control. More land was coming under Federal control, starting across the Alleghenies and radiating east. The spread of Union influence meant that slaves were also abandoning the plantations of their masters, in many cases forcing women and less able-bodied men into the fields.Now, it wasn't only the poor facing starvation, but also wealthy planters. Margaret Mitchell's treatment of slavery in Gone With the Wind might have been wrongheaded, but her description of the privations of Tara--leading to Scarlett O'Hara's climactic cry of the heart, "I'll never go hungry again!"--was based on reality.

At the same time, the Richmond protest—as well as other, smaller-scale ones (such as one six months later in Mobile that I described in a prior post)—demonstrated the growing futility of the national government of the Confederacy. Now local and state officials in the South increasingly interposed themselves when they thought that Davis’ actions were endangering the welfare of their citizens. It was the natural outcome of a movement inspired by the rhetoric of states’ rights. A year after the Richmond protest, Davis himself took to lamenting the turn taken by the movement he had spearheaded before the war: “If the Confederacy falls, there should be written on its tombstone: Died of a theory.”

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