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Bread riots

September 1, 2013
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

By 1863 things began to get dire for the Confederacy. The combination of the northern blockade of southern ports, the diversion of southern food supplies from the home front to the war front and the escalating inflation of currency began to negatively affect the Confederacy's civilian population.

On April 2, 1863, a group of hungry and desperate women descended on the Confederate capitol in Richmond, demanding relief. The Southern Bread riots were the events of civil unrest, which were triggered by the foraging armies both Union and Confederate, who ravaged crops and devoured draft animals. Also adding to the cause was the staggering inflation created by the Confederate government. The drought of 1862 created poor harvests that did not yield enough in a time when food was already scarce. Wheat prices had tripled and butter and milk quadrupled. It was far more profitable for plantation owners to grow cotton and tobacco instead of food.

Food riots were occurring before the arrival of Union troops. The Confederate army was suffering the same food shortages and was taking stock for its own needs. The Confederacy currency was devalued, inflating the prices of goods.

Complaints did not get results from the Governor, so they took their complaints to the streets, sparking a spontaneous protest by a crowd that was estimated in the thousands. Shouts of, "bread, bread, bread," were heard as the mob vented its frustrations by smashing store windows and looting their contents. Only by troops being deployed and authorities threatening to fire on the mob did the rioters disperse. More than sixty men and women were arrested and tried.

The bread riot in Richmond was not an isolated affair. People in the Confederate capital would read about similar revolts in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus and Macon in Georgia, in Salisbury and High Point, North Carolina, and in Mobile, Alabama. Lawmakers tried to distinguish between "worthy poor" (those who did not participate in the riot) and "unworthy poor" (those who did), but the stark reality was that people could not afford to buy food because the prices in 1863 were higher than they were in 1861. The situation only grew worse as the Confederate transportation network broke down and as Union armies occupied more and more of the Confederacy's land.

During the Richmond Bread Riot, President Davis himself gave a speech, and even threw money from his pockets to the rioters asking them to disperse saying, "You say you are hungry and have no money, here, this is all I have." The mob stayed put, and only when Davis threatened to have militiamen fire on the mob did they disperse. The riots of 1863 underscored how desperate the situation had become on the southern home front, no food, nowhere to go, and the situation only getting worse by the day.

 
 

 

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