Hungry History

Bread or Blood: The Richmond Bread Riots

By Stephanie Butler
richmond bread riots

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In the late winter of 1863, Richmond, Virginia, was a miserable place to be. Once expected by proud Southerners to be a short conflict, the Civil War was stretching into its third year. Things were not going well for the boys in grey, as Union troops took control of coastal trade ports to get a tighter grasp on the Confederacy. As an inland town stranded without functioning trade routes, Richmond was starving. Prices for staples like flour and bacon were a whopping 10 times higher than they had been in 1861, and wages, especially of the working class, hadn’t risen accordingly. Even the weather refused to cooperate: A series of heavy snowfalls had taxed the city’s sewer systems, while a sudden heat spell had melted the snow and left the city under heaps of slush.

Adding insult to injury, in a particularly tone-deaf move, Confederate President Jefferson Davis asked his nation to spend March 27 in fasting and prayer for the cause. Many saw requesting an already starving populace to go without food as an unforgivable mistake. In response, on April 1 a group of poor working women held a meeting in a Baptist church to organize a demonstration against the rising costs of food. Mary Jackson, a 34-year-old mother, and Martha Fergussen riled up the audience with tales of rampant speculation and price gouging happening in the markets. Soon the mob was angry enough to agree to meet the very next day, outside of the Capitol building, to extract bread and justice from the men in charge.

The women showed up at the Capitol around 9 a.m. the next day. They demanded an audience with the governor, John Letcher, but an aide informed them that the governor was too busy to be seen. This only made the women angrier, and soon a mob of hundreds of armed, hungry housewives was left milling about the Capitol building. Letcher finally heard the commotion from his office and came down to confront the women, but his dismissive words did little to satisfy the crowd. In a silent stream, the women filed out of the Capitol yard and into the streets, toward the market district.

In the space of an hour, the women put their axes to work as they looted shops, stole carts and broke into storage lockers. Chanting “bread or blood!”, the women seized a wagon of beef bound for a hospital, and 500 pounds of bacon from a warehouse. Food wasn’t the only item stolen–jewelry shops and milliners were victimized as well. Soon Governor Letcher was on the scene, as well as Jefferson Davis himself, who tried to appease the women by offering them his last loaf of bread. It wasn’t enough for the mob, and a riot guard began to load their weapons before the women finally started to take their spoils and run for their homes.

Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon urged the local press to keep events of the day quiet. If news of the riot reached the Union, morale at home would be even more undermined. But Union prisoners of war had witnessed the events, and just a week later the “Bread Riot” was on the front page of the New York Times. Jackson, Fergussen and a few other women were rounded up and incarcerated, but released within weeks. The reason? Overcrowded jails couldn’t afford to feed all the prisoners.

Categories: American Civil War, Bread, Food