Bread Riots Break Out in the Confederacy
On March 23, 1863, the Carolina Watchman of Salisbury, N. C., reported the shocking news that “A Female Raid” had disrupted the city’s business. “Between 40 and 50 soldiers’ wives, followed by a numerous train of curious female observers, made an attack on several of our business men last Wednesday.” They “intended to make a dash on some flour and other necessities of life,” belonging to speculators, whom they blamed for exorbitant wartime prices. (1)
It was not the first or the last of a series of bread riots that swept across parts of the South in the spring of 1863. A drought the previous summer and military operations had disrupted farm production, while wartime inflation, Confederate troop demands, and the Union blockade caused prices to skyrocket. With their husbands serving in the Confederate army, many women were left to make a living and feed their children on their own.
Close to starvation, Martha Coltrane of Randolph County, had resorted to writing Governor Vance of North Carolina the previous fall. She explained, “we hav eight children and the oldest is not forteen years old and an old aged mother to support, which makes eleven in our family and without my husband we are a desolate and ruined family for extortion runs so hie here we cannot support and clothe our family without the help of my husband.” She hoped he would “look to the white cultivators as strictly as congress has to the slaveholders,” and keep the farmers in reserve at home to support their starving families. (2)
The female rioters in Salisbury, who were willing to pay the government but not speculators’ prices, decided to take direct action. They quickly overwhelmed the agent blocking access to storage at the railroad depot, rushed into the building, and rolled out barrels of flour. Others used hatchets to enter a local shop and threatened storekeepers to reduce prices. In the end, they secured 23 barrels of flour, molasses, salt and $20 in cash, and they avoided prosecution. Though the Watchman made light of the women, describing the riot as “one of the gayest and liveliest scenes of the age,” the sympathetic editor also blamed local commissioners for lack of aid.
News and sympathy for the raiders spread quickly and may have helped spark the notorious bread riot of Richmond, Va., on April 2, 1863. Far from spontaneous, the morning rampage had been planned days in advance by working-class women who gathered together hundreds of others, including boys and men, to march to the governor’s mansion and demand food. With knives, hatchets, clubs, and pistols, they looted shops on one of the city’s market streets, loaded goods into wagons, and drove away. Mary Johnson, described as a “toothless old woman,” broke through a butcher-shop door with an axe and carried off 500 pounds of bacon worth $500.
It took two hours before Governor John Letcher could marshal the Public Guard to quell the rioters; he demanded that they desist or his troops would fire. Approximately 44 women and 21 men were arrested, but most were charged with misdemeanors; few were jailed for long. But poor Mary Johnson was convicted of a felony and sent to prison for five years.
The bread riots were not only evidence that the war had taken a toll on Confederate supplies and social order, but that discontented white women were willing to step outside the bounds of traditional gender roles to challenge the policies of the government and male speculators as well.
– Submitted by Lyn Blackwell
1) March 1863 — The Salisbury Bread Riot, This Month in North Carolina History, University of North Carolina University Libraries
2) The Home Front: Hardships of War, Audio Excerpts, North Carolina and the Civil War,
Chris A. Graham, “Women’s Revolt in Rowan County,” Columbiad: a Quarterly Review of the War Between the States 3 (Spring 1999): 131-147.
Michael B. Chesson, “Harlots or Heroines”: A New Look at the Richmond Bread Riot,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 92 (April 1984): 131-175.
Maintaining Peaceful Relations with American Indians
March 27, 1863. The last thing that the Union needed in the middle of the Civil War was war with American Indians in the west. On March 27, 1863 President Lincoln received at the White House a distinguished delegation of Indian chiefs. He assured them of the government’s goodwill, urged them to be peaceful, and argued that they would only prosper if they live as the white race does. He said in part,
“The pale-faced people are numerous and prosperous because they cultivate the earth, produce bread, and depend upon the products of the earth rather than wild game for a subsistence. This is the chief reason of the difference; but there is another. Although we are now engaged in a great war between one another, we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.
“You have asked for my advice. I really am not capable of advising you whether, in the providence of the Great Spirit, who is the great Father of us all, it is best for you to maintain the habits and customs of your race, or adopt a new mode of life. I can only say that I can see no way in which your race is to become as numerous and prosperous as the white race except by living as they do, by the cultivation of the earth.
“It is the object of this Government to be on terms of peace with you, and with all our red brethren. We constantly endeavor to be so. We make treaties with you, and will try to observe them; and if our children should sometimes behave badly, and violate these treaties, it is against our wish. You know it is not always possible for any father to have his children do precisely as he wishes them to do.
“In regard to being sent back to your own country, we have an officer, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who will take charge of that matter, and make the necessary arrangements.”
The record reports that “The President’s remarks were received with frequent marks of applause and approbation . . . and their [the Indians’] countenances gave evident tokens of satisfaction.”
– Submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, Vermont Humanities Council Executive Director
Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 6, 151-52, The Abraham Lincoln Association
Southern Plains delegation 1863, photographs of the delegation