Monday, April 02, 2007

April 2

Two years into the Civil War, the Southern economy was in disarray. Cotton producers -- unwilling to bid farewell to the cash crop that sustained the slave society for which the Confederacy fought -- refused to convert their fields to food production. As the war in Virginia trampled the farms and pushed tens of thousands of refugees into the city of Richmond, food shortages combined with price inflation and overcrowding stretched the population to the limits of its patience. The melt from a March snowstorm destroyed the roads into the capital, adding to the misery of a city whose population had swelled from 40,000 to nearly 180,000 since the outbreak of hostilities. Diaries from the period record conditions approaching starvation. For some, rat meat was the only available source of protein.

On 2 April 1863, a crowd of women armed with clubs, rocks and guns took to the streets of the Confederate capital and demanded “bread or blood.” The disturbance in Rochmond would prove to be the largest of the 1863 Southern food riots, which occurred as well in Mobile, Atlanta, and Petersburg among other cities and towns. The Richmond uprising was unique in a number of respects, not the least of which was that it was carried out almost entirely by women. They were led by a mother of four named Mary Jackson and a butcher’s apprentice with the improbable name of Minerva Meredith, both of whom organized a meeting on April 1 to plan a march the following day on a local bakery. After Virginia’s governor John Lechter refused to consider their pleas for relief on April 2, the women -- who eventually numbered between one and three thousand -- stormed through the Old Market, looting anything that wasn’t nailed down -- bacon, flour, sugar, candles hats, and brooms were among the goods pilfered by the enraged and war-weary crowd. Newspaper editorials and angry Confederate leaders denounced the women as prostitutes, communists, and paid agents of the Union government, although they were in fact nothing of the sort.

In 1878, the New York Sun published an account of the bread riot as told by an eye-witness named John W. Daniel, who portrayed the disgruntled participants as machine-like in their efficiency:
The women took the stores in line, one after the other. They proceeded systematically. The goods were piled upon wagons drawn by horses driven by female sympathizers. Not a word was spoken. The work was done with terrible earnestness. When the mob entered a grocery a certain percentage of them piled the goods upon the outstretched arms of the others, and they were borne to the streets and dumped into the wagons. The women had it all their own way. Neither soldiers nor police were in sight. Meanwhile the crowd increased. Other women heard what was going on, and flocked to Main Street for a share of the plunder. Not a man joined them, and for a long time no one made an effort to stop them. At last Colonel Baldwin, of Virginia , jumped upon a dry-goods box, and made an impassioned appeal for law and order. He might as well have talked to the wind. No one paid the least attention to him. The women went on with their sacking, and the bystanders drowned Baldwin 's voice with their whoops and cheers.
When Jefferson Davis and a detachment of the Virginia Public Guard arrived on the scene, the president of the Confederacy offered a few words to the rioters. John Daniel described it as “the most eloquent speech [he] had ever heard.” Another bystander -- less impressed with Davis’ attempts to soothe the crowd -- tossed a loaf of bread at the president but failed to strike him. Davis then ordered the militia captain to fire on the crowd if it did not disperse within five minutes. Several witnesses later recalled that a cannon was rolled up next to the St. Charles Hotel, where it was aimed down Main Street at the assembled women.

And so the bread riot concluded.

However unsuccessful it may have beenin the short term, the women’s uprising in 1863 helped alter the course of the war. Confederate armies badly needed reinforcements, but the threat of further disturbances kept thousands of troops tied down in the streets of Richmond, where they served a much less dangerous role guarding a dying society.

Two years to the day after turning the state’s guns against his own citizens, Jefferson Davis fled the city of Richmond on a late-night train as the Civil War neared its conclusion.