During the early spring of 1863 in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy—thousands of working-class Southern women were struggling as their husbands were either off fighting the Civil War or had died in battle. Then, hyperinflation from spending and a weak Confederate currency drove the prices of food and other goods way up, and families started to go hungry.

The nation had convulsed in division and the lives and futures of America’s enslaved hung in the balance, but frustration also simmered among white people within the Confederacy. Seething class resentment was building among working-class white women at the seemingly fruitless sacrifices they were making. Wealthy, families who owned several enslaved people weren’t affected as much by conscription and the economic struggles. By the beginning of April, it reached a boiling point, leading to one of the largest civilian uprisings during the Civil War. The Richmond Bread Riot became one of several throughout the South led by women.

“They had as many reasons to be mad as possible,” says Edward L. Ayers, a Civil War historian with the University of Richmond and founding chair of the board of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond.

“Not only are they losing their husbands, but they are losing them for a cause that doesn’t seem to offer any award for them,” says Ayers, Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities.

Richmond Leaders 'Alarmed' by Women's Actions

The women had tried demanding help from the government—to no avail. In fact, the government had recently made things worse with the March 26, 1863 passage of the Impressment Act, which empowered Confederate forces to seize food and other supplies as needed in the field. So, on April 2, the Thursday of Easter week in 1863, hundreds of women (and some men) took to the streets of Richmond and attacked and raided businesses. 

Gregg D. Kimball, director of public services and outreach for the Library of Virginia, says that Richmond leaders were alarmed by the women’s actions, and did their best to downplay it and condemn the rioters. Many said the participants “are from the dregs of society.”

“For women to do something this provocative in Southern society was not something that was looked upon positively,” Kimball says. “It went against this whole notion of the Southern woman that was constructed.”

The Bread Riot Ringleaders

History records two main women who planned and instigated the protest: Mary Jackson and Minerva Meredith. Jackson was a 34-year-old mother of four and a huckster who worked in the Richmond open market selling groceries, and loudly complaining about rising food prices to anyone who would listen. Little is known about Meredith, but she had a reputation of being very tall with a robust, and somewhat imposing presence, Kimball says.

Jackson and Meredith initially met with a small group of women on April 1 at Belvidere Hill Baptist Church. They resolved to meet at Capitol Square the next morning and demand to speak to Virginia Governor John Letcher, and word spread. On April 2, Jackson and Meredith and a group of as many as 200 to 300 women went to the George Washington Equestrian Statue, erected in 1857.

The leaders demanded to the governor’s aide that they speak to Letcher. There are some conflicting accounts: Some say the governor refused to see them, while others say he did speak to the women.

Regardless, the women were displeased with the governor’s dismissive attitude and unwillingness to help them. The protesters, many armed with knives and pistols, stormed off down Richmond’s 9th Street, crying out: “We celebrate our right to live! We are starving! Bread or blood!”

They marched along the cobblestones of 9th Street right by the capitol building, both of Virginia and the Confederacy itself. As onlookers watched the march, hundreds joined in. Some men also joined, most likely as opportunistic looters for merchants like jewelry stores rather than crusaders for hungry families, Kimball and Ayers say.

The rioters—at least 400 to 500 of them, by estimates—plundered warehouses where bacon and flour and other foods were stored, along with grocers and other stores. The Bread Riot name reflects stealing flour for baking bread more than stealing loaves of bread, Ayers explains. The word “bread” served as a general word for food. 

Although some injuries were reported, nobody was killed during the incident, which was more like a mass looting and protest than a violent riot. The mayhem lasted about two hours, during which both Gov. Letcher and Confederate President Jefferson Davis reportedly went out to the streets to tell the rioters to stop. Richmond Mayor Joseph Mayo read the protesters the Riot Act—a British edict for stopping insurgents that the American government adopted in the Militia Act of 1792, and individual states personalized. Law enforcement then came in to squelch the riot.

Aftermath of the Riot

Many participants later were brought to trial and charged with crimes for their rioting, but fewer than 100 were punished, Kimball says. A lot of the older and poorer women were convicted, but younger, better-dressed women were not.

Douglas O. Tice Jr., author of The Richmond Bread Riot: Women at War, says there are many conflicting accounts about details, and like war battles, it’s not likely any one person witnessed the whole thing. But the Richmond Bread Riot got women noticed, and the effects were lasting.

“Women, up until this event, were basically ignored as far as their needs and desires were concerned,” Tice says. “This was a desperate act, which took great courage and stamina to put in place. It was an enormous act to acquire the very basics for their struggling families and in doing so gave them some attention into the gravity of their circumstances. … They stood up for once and were noticed.”