The Confederate army and cause were victorious upon the field of battle throughout much of 1862, culminating in the resounding victory at Fredericksburg in December. But the winter of 1863 had been an undeniably harsh one, especially to the women left behind by those fighting the war.
Nowhere was this felt more than in Richmond. The Confederate capital’s population had exploded following the outbreak of war, tripling its population from pre-war figures. Aristocrats and the social elite that made up the government had taken up residence, making Richmond much like Washington in the North. In addition, refugees, wounded soldiers and criminals followed. While the elite planter class always did well, the women whose husbands were serving and the widows whose husbands had died did not.
Over the winter, food had become a concern. Much of the farmland had been destroyed by the war waged for Southern independence. With the scarcity of crops came higher prices. These prices were edged even higher by speculators looking to make a quick buck.
This rapid inflation drove prices for essentials like flour and sugar beyond the means of anyone who wasn’t part of the upper class. Women who survived off of whatever their husbands sent home, mothers who had to take menial jobs to make ends meet, and factory workers were not paid enough to match the explosion of costs.
Some women turned to begging in the streets, while still others turned to prostitution. Such were the unforeseen side effects of waging a war beyond their new nation’s means.
Through March, needed goods and supplies still trickled into Richmond. To be sure, there was a scarcity, but there was not yet an emergency. And then came the snows, dumping eight inches across the countryside and bringing everything but want and hunger to a dead stop. For ten days it fell, until March 29th, when people could again leave their homes in search of their next meal.
When prices rocketed even higher in the last week of March, the Confederate government decided it would best to commandeer the food from the farmers as they brought it into Richmond to sell. To the farmers, this was thievery, and so they simply stopped coming into the city.
Prices went up again and it became a luxury not to starve to death. The word “famine” was tossed around openly by rich and poor alike, the latter actually experiencing it, while the formers’ lives changed little. Amidst the hunger and privations, President Jefferson Davis, one of the richest men in the South, decreed March 27th as a day of fasting and prayer. Many saw this as a slap in the face. Weren’t they already fasting? Hadn’t they already prayed? This is what possibly touched off the events of April 2.
In the morning of this date, several hundred women and children met at a Baptist Church in the Oregon Hill section of the city to figure out how they were supposed to feed themselves and their emaciated children. They talked over their situation and decided to take up their plight with Governor John Letcher, who lived in a mansion on Capital Square.
As the women and their children marched towards Governor Letcher’s home, several hundred more women and children joined them. By the time they reached the square, rumor had it that they would receive satisfaction or they would take it by force.
A delegation of women was selected to confront the governor. But when they entered, his aide told them that Letcher was already at work and couldn’t meet with them now. When they pleaded that the food in Richmond be sold to them at government rates, the aide could do nothing and kicked them out of the house.
This infuriated the gathered throngs, now numbering in the thousands. A woman named Mary Jackson led them towards the business district. Rather than starve, they would turn to what the soldiers, both north and south, might refer to as “foraging.”
They broke open storehouses and helped themselves and each other to everything. Those who did not take part in the foraging, cheered the ladies on. The head of the local YMCA, Col. William Munford, invited in as many ladies as he could, giving them all the food he was able to provide. This could not, of course, feed everyone, and most continued to do the needful.
Some even joined the rioters to loot nonessentials. Of course, much was made of this, but largely, what happened was due to the very real fear of starvation.
As this tumultuous morning was reaching its crescendo, Governor Letcher finally decided that these women meant business. He put in an appearance, trying to put them in their place and get them to behave, but it was far too late. Before long, a column of Confederate troops was dispatched to deal with the crowd. They pushed back the ladies and made way for President Jefferson Davis, who had come to talk some sense into the rioting women.
The President climbed atop a cart between the ladies and the soldiers. He was greeted with epithets and hisses. Without acknowledging them, he demanded that the crowd immediately disperse. He told them that this riot would cause farmers to refuse to bring food into the city again (as if his own measures hadn’t already accomplished that).
He then took out his wallet and in a fit of arrogant audacity, flung his money at the crowd. This brought fevered cries for “bread,” “no more starvation,” and even “Union.” Seeing that this was not working, that he could not literally throw money at the problem to make it go away, he ordered the troops to load their weapons and fire into the crowd of women and children if they did not leave the square and return to their homes in five minutes.
At first it seemed to many that he was bluffing. But as the minutes ticked by, they realized that perhaps this man, this oblivious aristocrat, would indeed do such a thing. Before the time was up, the crowd had dispersed. Many had gotten enough to feed themselves and their families, and from the beginning, that was the point.
For the rest of the day, the government officials met and did everything they could do to convince themselves that there really wasn’t a serious food shortage, that this mob was mostly made up of criminals out to take whatever they could get. They city council ruled that the entire riot was “in reality instigated by devilish and selfish motives.”
To keep this little smudge off the record, Secretary of War James Seddon forbade the newspapers to print anything about it. And for the war effort, the next day’s Richmond Dispatch featured an article about the “Sufferings in the North.”
The next day, with the misleading (and misled) papers on the racks, some women returned to the streets, again demanding they not starve to death. They were met with the threat of artillery and promptly dispersed.
Though oblivious to the actual sufferings of the lower classes, the riot made the Richmond and Confederate officials take notice. While they refused to admit that the riot was caused by anything other than criminals and probably Yankee spies, a week later, $24,000 was allotted to feed the hungry. Not surprisingly, once the starving women and children were fed, the threat of riots disappeared.
At least, that’s how it ended in Richmond. Similar such riots were cropping up all over the South. In Mobile, throughout Georgia, and North Carolina, women took it upon themselves to provide for their families. Spring of 1863 was the very opposite of the model picture of a united South.1
- Sources: Starving the South: How the North Won the Civil War by Andrew F. Smith; The Confederate State of Richmond: A Biography of the Capital by Emory M. Thomas. [↩]