Richmond Dispatch, 12/30/1888
BREAD RIOT OF 1863.
Reminiscences of a Memorable Period of Our War History.
A MOB OF WOMEN.
Military Called Out to Disperse Them - How it was Done An Unsolved
Two weeks ago there was published in this paper an account
of memorable mobs in
Richmond, the most remarkable of which was that known as “the bread riot.” This
occurred on April 2, 1863
, and in the beginning was composed chiefly of women who clamored for bread, and
who in their extremity thought it right and proper to break into stores and
warehouses and help themselves not only in food but to shoes, clothing, and
It was the fashion of that period to style these women
“termagants,” “viragoes,” &c., and no doubt any tough characters
were among them; but those were days when wives, mothers, and daughters had to
support the families of soldiers, and provisions were terribly scarce and high,
and it requires no imagination to understand that desperation must have seized
many who, under favoring circumstances, would not have dishonored their sex.
However that may be, the women started out to pillage the stores, and gangs of
men followed them and helped them and the town was in great excitement and the
shop-keepers with big stocks in much alarm. The result was that the Public Guard
had to be called out. It was only by threatening to fire into the crowd that the
riotous ad roguish men and women were dispersed.
Restrained by fear of giving information of our straitened
circumstances to the public enemy the newspapers of that day had precious little
to say about the affair. Some of them did not mention it at all. Others referred
to it briefly. The Examiner made full reports of the examination by the Mayor of
those who were charged with theft. In one case, Governor Letcher testified that
when he commanded the mob to disperse the prisoner (Palmer) remarked to him that
“there is a power behind the throne mightier than the throne.” The rest of
the crowd dispersed, but the prisoner remained and still refused to depart, and
was thereupon ordered into custody. When Palmer was asked what the power was he
said the people.
Mr. Andrew Jenkins testified that the Governor “went down
to the corner of Fifteenth street” and ordered the crowd to disperse. The crowd dispersed except the prisoner.
Reputable witnesses now living declare that it was not
Governor Letcher but President Davis who dispersed the mob. Some others
attribute this action to Mayor Mayo. Here is direct contradiction.
Now the question is, who gave the mob five minutes to
disperse or be fired into? Was it President Davis, Governor Letcher, or Mayor
Mayo? When that point is settled the next question is, Whereabout in the city
did this occur? To the solution of these problems the following eye-witnesses,
all intelligent gentlemen, speak at the request of the Dispatch:
Mr. D. S. Doggett: The day before I left for the Valley to
join a cavalry command I had occasion to pass through Capitol Square on my way
up-town, and as I approached the Washington Monument I saw a number of women
congregated about it. Asking some one what it meant and getting no satisfactory
answer I passed on. After awhile returning by the same route and missing the
crowd I inquired what had become of it, and was told that what I had seen was
the beginning of the riot then in progress about the Old Market. Upon learning
this I ran down
Main street, and up Seventeenth to
Franklin, where I encountered the mob.
On reaching the corner I saw Mr. John B. Baldwin standing
in the door of a shop driving back the infuriated women as they attempted to
plunder it. He was a large man, and his stalwart figure never appeared to better
advantage than on that occasion, when, with his sleeves rolled up and stern
determination upon his manly features, he stood between the frenzied mob and the
frightened vender of boots and shoes and clean clothing.
While this scene was being enacted some one shouted that
the soldiers were coming, and sure enough the Public Guard, with Captain Gay at
their head, were seen marching rapidly up
At this unexpected turn of affairs the mob took to their
heels and dashed up
Franklin street with the soldiers after them. When they reached the intersection of Governor
and Franklin streets, whether out of breathe or reassured, they stopped as if
determined to resist any further advance o them by the military. At this
juncture his Honor Joseph Mayo, Mayor of the city, ordered the mob to disperse,
giving them five minutes in which to do so, and telling them if they didn’t
the soldiers would be commanded to fire on them.
Then old Captain Gay stepped forward and with tears
streaming down his cheeks besought the rioters to go peaceably to their homes,
and spare him the pain of turning his guns upon the bosoms of his own people.
But this dread alternative never became necessary, for just
as the Captain finished speaking President Davis clambered into a cart which was
standing at Binford & Porter’s corner (now Rountree & Brother’s),
and for a few seconds, calmly - one might say mournfully - looked into the faces
of that turbulent throng. When he spoke his voice was quiet and his tones were
gentle. A hush fell upon the crowd. He didn’t upbraid them, he didn’t
threaten them, but in thrilling words he told them that was not the way to
redress their grievances, and begged them not to fasten a reproach upon the fair
Richmond. His remarks were few, but when they were ended the rioters had stolen away as
if ashamed of their conduct.
NOT DAVIS BUT
Mr. George L. Herring: You say in your issue of the 21st
that there is great conflict of authority as to when the bread riot ended and
where it was that President Davis halted the mob with a speech, &c. It was
not President Davis, but Governor Letcher who made the speech. Captain Gay, with
a detachment of the Public Guard, had just arrived, and the Governor told the
mob if they did not disperse at once (I think he gave them five minutes) he
would order Captain Gay to fire into the crowd. This occurred on
Main street between Fourteenth and Fifteenth, very near or just in front of Thomas R.
Price’s store. I was doing business at the time a little lower down on the
opposite side from Price’s ad on the same square, and heard the speech and saw
the mob disperse.
SAW A CANNON.
Mr. James H. Bluford, now of
Rocky Mount, Va.: I was in
Richmond on furlough during the bread riot. I was on
Main street, near Richardson & Co.’s carpet store, between Fourteenth and Fifteenth
streets, when the cannon was brought out and stationed near the St. Charles
Hotel, pointing up
Main street. Orders were given for the mob to disperse. As soon as the order was given I
Richardson’s store, and in five minutes the crowd had dispersed in every direction. This
I think ended the riot, at least I never heard of any demonstration afterwards.
SPEAKS AT ANOTHER PLACE.
Mr. W. W. Davies, who was the messenger in the office of
President Davis; Did President Davis address this mob more than once? I think
not, and if not the locality was at the northwest corner of the custom-house, in
which at that time the offices of the Executive Department (State and Treasury
departments) were, I then being messenger in attendance upon President Davis.
President Davis mounted a barrel of rice, which was rolled out of the old
Madison House, near the corner of Tenth and Bank streets and adjoining the
custom-house, from the northwest corner of which he addressed the mob. After the
address the rice was distributed to them. This I saw from the top of the portico
on a line with our department (the Executive). After the address was ended the
President came to the department and his office in quite an excited frame of
mind, and on the following morning I had quite a long talk with him upon the
general impression caused by this riot and his action in the matter.
FROM THE NEWSPAPER
Major G. A. Baskerville: In my war scrapbook there is a
somewhat detailed account of the so-called “bread riot” of April 2, 1863
. The scraps were taken from the Examiner of
April 3, 1863, and subsequent dates during the trials before the Mayor’s Court.
During the reading of the riot act by Mayor Mayo the Public
Guard, Lieutenant Gay commanding, arrived on the ground, halting about midway
the square between Fourteenth and Fifteenth streets, and were stationed ready
for action on either side of the street. Soon after the reading of the act and
the arrival of the Guard, the riot subsided. I think I saw Governor Letcher with
the Mayor. I did not see the President. My recollection is that he started for
the scene, but yielded to persuasion and returned to his office. In this I may
be mistaken, but am certain he was not there at the time the riot act was read,
nor after that time, as there was no occasion.
THE ELOQUENCE OF
Mr. W. G. Bentley, of
Suffolk: Having noticed that there is a controversy about the localities of the point
where President Davis checked and dispersed the mob of women at the time of the
bread riot in
Richmond during the war, I wish to contribute what I can to the solution of this fact.
I was at the time on duty in Richmond in the service of the
Confederate army, and my recollection of the matter, of which I was an
eye-witness, is that Mr. Davis met the mob, entirely composed of women, near the
intersection of Cary and Thirteenth streets, just after they had broken open and
partially sacked the house formerly and afterwards occupied by Messrs. Tyler
& Son, in which there were at the time of the mob supplies belonging to the
I do not think that Mr. Davis dispersed them by threats,
but mainly by promises to look into their grievances, which he did to their
satisfaction. It was the eloquence of Mr. Davis, together with the confidence of
the women in his willingness and ability to do them justice, which quelled the
AND MOUNTED POLICE.
Dr. A. S. McRae: During the progress of the bread riot in
Richmond, in company with the late Dr. Junius Archer, of Bellona, Dr. D. S.
Hancock, and Mr. Austin E. Moore, both of Chesterfield, I was standing in the
door of the grocery store of which Mr. Moore was the proprietor, which was
located a block or two below where the Columbian Block now stands. We were in
constant apprehension of an attack upon this well-filled store by the mob. We
did not have to wait very long before a crowd of three or four hundred men and
women gathered in front of the store, yelling and shouting as if maddened by
liquor and determined upon serious mischief. They immediately demanded the
surrender of the store ad announced their determination to break into it if the
door was not opened. Mr. Moore showed a great deal of nerve and firmness, and
with a six-shooter in his hand told them that he would defend his property at
the risk of his life. There were standing in about ten or twelve feet of us
several stout, rough-looking men, with axes in their hands. Mr. Moore’s
evident determination to shoot the first person who attempted to break down the
door held them at bay until Mr. Joseph Mayo, then Mayor of the city, and
President Davis rode up at the head of fifteen or twenty mounted police. Mr.
Mayo read the riot act, and then told them that he would give them five minutes
to disperse, and that if they did not do so e would fire upon them. They
immediately rushed down
Cary street and scattered in various directions. My recollection is that they did not
afterwards reassemble or do any further damage. They had previously broken into
a number of stores.
I am entirely confident in the statement that Mr. Davis was
present on that occasion. This is all that I am able to state of my personal
knowledge about this, one of the most exciting and alarming events that has ever
occurred in this city.
THE SACKING OF THE
Mr. G. A. Purks: Rumors were prevalent several days before
it came off that a riot would take place, and that a woman huckster in the
Second market would lead the women in a break for bread. She being well-to-do
herself, sought to benefit herself by espousing the cause of the less fortunate
and also to add to her own stress.
The first I knew of the actual mob was on Cary street
between Twelfth and Thirteenth streets. Here an immense crowd had gathered. The
first house broken into was Pollard & Walker’s, the next ----- Tyler’s -
both grocers; the next was J. T. Hicks’s a shoe dealer; all of which were
gutted in a short time, the goods put in wagons in waiting and carried off.
During this time the riot act was read and the crowd
ordered to disperse, which they aid no attention to.
They then formed in line, two and two, and marched to
Main street, corner Thirteenth, turned down Main
until they got to a Mr. --- Knott’s shoe store. Here, led on by some
desperate men, they commenced breaking the windows, and putting some of the men
inside they soon had the doors open and the work begun, the men inside throwing
the shoes to the women on the sidewalk and the citizens, of whom I was one,
throwing them back as fast as they were thrown out.
While this was going on a citizen recognized a man as the
leader and seized him and called for help. Several of us caught hold, and at
that time a Confederate officer came up, drew his pistol, and we took the rioter
to prison, ad I think he was sent to the penitentiary.
Later in the morning Colonel Elliott’s City battalion
Main street, and as he went warned the people to retire from the street.
Knott’s shoe store was situated about where Mr. M.
Millhiser’s store now stands, between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets on
DAVIS QUELLED THE MOB.
Mr. Polk Miller: In your Sunday’s issue you give an
account of the “bread riot” which occurred in this city in the spring of
1863. Major Daniel was not misquoted in saying that “Jeff Davis” gave orders
to Captain Gay. I was in three feet of Mr. Davis, and not only heard the grand
speech made by him, but heard his order to Captain Gay. The first public officer
who appeared upon the scene was Colonel Munford, who, mounted upon a furniture
wagon at the corner of Twelfth and Cary streets, told the motley crew that he
had come from the Governor’s mansion and that the Governor said that he would
see to it that there should be no suffering among the people i this city, but
that it was his duty to see that the laws should be observed, and at all hazards
he would put a stop to the proceedings if they commenced to pilfer. The crowd,
composed mostly of women and half-grown boys, listened to his appeal for a few
minutes, but the door of the Confederate commissary had by this time been forced
open, ad the various articles stored therein were being “toated off” in the
direction of the river. Long lines of women and boys came pouring in from the
direction of the Tredegar, and the turns of “fat middling” that some of the
women carried on their shoulders would have done credit to the strongest man.
Having emptied this store of its component, and the mob by this time having
become completely wild, they commenced to break into private stores on the south
side of Cary (near the Bank of Richmond) occupied by people who sold shoes and
clothing which had come in through the blockade. The half-grown boys were pushed
in through the windows, and on reaching the upper stories they would throw down
the goods to the women. Many women would be freighted with shoes, blankets, and
other articles of general merchandise. Here the Mayor (Mr. Mayo) came up and
read the riot act to no purpose. The crowd then went down to one of the
Government storehouses between the bridge and the market, and, joined by a
caravan from lower
and Rocketts, the street was completely blocked. After sacking the most of the
they started for Watkins & Ficklen’s and Samuel M. Price & Co.’s.
The friends of the houses had by this time rallied to their rescue, and although
the large windows were smashed and the boys pushed through the apertures by the
women from the outside, the defenders from the inside, composed of soldiers on
leave and convalescents from the hospitals and citizens exempted from the
service by reason of age or physical disability, fought them back and saved
these establishments from utter ruin. The main body of the rioters were below
Thirteenth street, and to that point the foiled “levers of fine dry goods” retreated to
rejoin their friends.
At this juncture the State Guard, under Captain Gay,
appeared on the scene, and, marching down
from Ninth, they halted at the corner of Thirteenth and stretched from Purcell,
Ladd & Co.’s over to Putney & Watts’s. At the same time Jefferson
Davis, who had come down
Governor street, mounted a dry goods box at E. B. Spence’s side door and made not only “a
grand speech” but a kind one. He told the people that he would see to it that
their wants in the way of food and rations should be supplied, but it should be
done in the proper way. He also told them that if they started out for bread it
had wound up in a regular pilfering expedition. He ordered Captain Gay to fix
his bayonets and load his guns, and turning to the crowd, he said: “I will
give you five minutes to disperse.” Holding his watch in his hand he told them
four minutes had passed. At this time the crowd had not shown the slightest
disposition to move off, but as the military brought their guns from an order to
carry arms on the call of “time’s up,” the greatest stampede I ever saw
took place. In ten minutes the streets were depopulated of the rioting element.
I was in three feet of Mr. Davis when he gave Captain Gay the order to get
ready. He was as cool as if on parade, and the great crowd of hard-looking
women, armed with knives, hatches, and spindles with “corn-cob” handles saw
that he had the “old boy” in his eye and meant what he said. I very often
see men on the streets here now who were (as boys then) engaged in the riot, and
for years after the war, I remembered many of the females. The first attack made
was on a Confederate commissary, and for that reason I consider that Jefferson
Davis was the proper man.
Dr. J. W. Anderson: The following account of the “bread
riot” is taken from my war diary, and I can vouch for its accuracy so far as
it goes. Like a soldier in battle, I saw only a small part of the “row. “I
saw nothing of President Davis nor of Governor Letcher on the ground, and
certainly neither of them was present when Lieutenant Gay dispersed the mob at
“April 2, 1863. This morning as I ended my way towards the office I was surprised to see a
crowd of women assembled in the Square at the foot of
Washington’s equestrian statue. It soon became apparent that a “bread riot” was in
contemplation, and I mingled with the throng to witness their proceedings. After
a short consultation they marched in a body to the Governor’s house, and told
him they must give them bread or they would take it wherever they could find it.
‘If you do,’ said he, ‘it will be over the point of the bayonet,’ Not at
all intimidated by this significant threat they rushed down the street, and
dividing into companies attacked four or five stores at once. They were ‘armed
and equipped’ in a most whimsical style. Some had rusty old horse pistols,
innocent of powder ad ball; some had hatchets and axes, some clubs, some knives,
and many carried bayonets in their belts, and specimens of those huge old
home-made knives with which our soldiers were wont to load themselves down in
the first part of the war.
About a thousand men followed these women, taking no part
and seeming half amused, half indignant. I moved down to
with one party, and mounting on a bag of potatoes standing beside a store door
obtained a good view of the whole proceeding. They halted in front of Pollard
& Walker’s store. A brief parley ensued, and I saw the owners attempt to
close the doors. Instantly a shower of blows with fists, sticks, pistols, axes,
and hatchets fell upon it. Glass flew in every direction. The doors gave way,
and in a moment more the crowd rushed through with a fierce roar of triumph. The
began a scene of wild confusion and pillage. The women streamed out, carrying
away bacon, flour, sugar, brooms, hats, and everything they could find. They
seized upon - or to use a military term, they ‘impressed’ - sundry carts and
wagons that happened to be at hand and loaded them with provisions. Partly
appeased but not satiated, they next broke into the adjoining building - a shoe
store - and in ten minutes it was thoroughly eviscerated - not a single article
left in it - and a large part of the crowd literally ‘stood in the shoes’ of
All this time the scenes of violence were visible on
and Broad streets. The rioters did not confine themselves to articles of food,
but stole silks, ribbons, millinery, laces, hats, shoes, cigars, and everything
they could lay their hands on. Doubtless some of those ragged women considered
new bonnets and dresses as much “necessaries of life” as bread and meat.
They did not, however, escape scot free in all cases. As long as the crowd held
together they were safe, but the moment one of the female warriors separated
with her booty she was gobbled up by the police and lodged in the station-house.
One of the policemen met an Amazon with a big piece of
bacon on her head and a ham in each hand. “Madam,” said he, suavely,
“where did you get that meat?” “I got it from a store on
Cary street.” “Did you ay for it?” “Oh, no! We don’t pay for bacon nowadays.”
Indeed!” said the guardian of the outraged law. “In that case I must run you
in.” No sooner were the words uttered than, dropping one of the hams, his
prisoner drew a pistol, clapped it at his breast, and pulled the trigger.
Luckily, it failed to fire, or that policeman had been then and there abolished.
He held on, however, to his prey and lodged her, bacon and all, in the
An enterprising huckster-woman mounted a cart well laden
with bacon, candles, &c., and setting gallantly on the top of the pile drove
away in triumph. She had scarcely gone one hundred yard from the crowd and
turned a corner when a policeman, emerging like a big spider from his ambush,
pounced upon her and her commissary supplies and captured the whole concern
without the firing of a gun. The cart and contents thus left standing without a
proprietor soon attracted attention and a new-comer coolly took possession, but
no sooner had she gathered up the reins for a start than forth came the
inevitable policeman and she followed her predecessor to the cage.
After awhile the State Guard, under Lieutenant Gay, made
its appearance, and forming across
Cary street, made ready for action. ‘I give you five minutes to disperse,’ said the
stern old man, as with a sharp rattle the bright bayonets were fixed. The hint
was enough. In less than one minute
not a single crinoline, nor anything in the likeness thereof, remained in sight.
The end of the affair was that the Young Men’s Christian
Association distributed a large quantity of provisions and promised further
help. Thirty or forty of the rioters were arrested, and are now in jail awaiting
trial and punishment.”
A LETTER WRITTEN
BY GOVERNOR LETCHER.
Ex-Judge S. Bassett French, of
Manchester, was Governor Letcher’s aide-de-camp, and he furnishes the Dispatch with the
following letter - written to him:
April 10, 1878.
Dear Colonel, - I enclose a paper published in St. Louis
which contains an article from the New York Sun on the Richmond bread riot which
occurred during the war. Mr. Davis is given great credit for quelling it and I
am hardly known in the matter. You will recollect that it was I who gave the
order from the cart, holding my watch in hand and allowing five minutes to
elapse before the order was given to fire. The order to make ready was given and
they stood waiting the word “fire,” when the crowd dispersed.
You will recall all the facts and I request that you will
have the matter set right as soon as convenient ad oblige.
Judge French says he well remembers that the incident
related by Governor Letcher took place on
near the Old market.
Judge French thinks that upon the reception of this letter
from Governor Letcher he made a publication of the facts in the Whig. He
searched the files of that paper, and all he cold find on the subject was the
May 10, 1878.]
We are in danger of a newspaper war about the bread riot in
during the war. Major Daniel [quoted in the
Sun] gave the glory of dispersing it to President Davis. Colonel French gives
the post of honor to Governor Letcher. The Goodson Gazette ascribes the glory to
Colonel John B. Baldwin. The Petersburg Index says there is a gentleman in that
burg who was an eyewitness, and supports Major Daniel’s version.
HOW THE QUESTION
Above are all the facts that the Dispatch has been able to
obtain so far. They conflict very much. To reconcile them seems quite
impossible; but that the President of the
States, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of the city, and several State
functionaries, aided by the military, took part in the suppression of the riot
seems certain, and it may be assumed, therefore, that the affair was regarded as
one of some consequence.
It remains for the historian or some one gifted in
examining and weighing testimony to sift a clear and connected account out of
the mass of contradictory evidence.
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