frank leslie's illustrated newspaper


April 2nd 1863: Richmond Bread Riots

On this day in 1863, a riot occurred in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, which saw starving, working-class women demanding support from the city government. By 1863, citizens of the seceded Southern states were feeling the effects of Northern blockades, the diversion of supplies to soldiers on the front line, and rampant inflation. These conditions were exacerbated in Richmond by a harsh winter and overpopulation, and were not helped by Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s call for Southerners to fast. Hungry women in Richmond, organised by Mary Jackson and Martha Fergusson, initially intended to take their complaints to Virginia’s governor, arranging to gather at Capitol Square on April 2nd to meet him. When they were refused audience, the women decided to take matters into their own hands. They descended on the capital demanding food, raiding government warehouses and stores, looting bread and other foodstuffs; it was one of the largest disturbances seen in the wartime South. The riots only ended when President Davis personally addressed the crowd and threatened to call troops. Local authorities were particularly keen to downplay the riot and prevent further outbreaks to ensure they could not be used as Union propaganda and undermine the already flagging Confederate morale. Around sixty men and women were arrested, but the demands of the rioters were partially acknowledged and the city resolved to expand poor relief in Richmond. The event has received particular attention from historians as evidence of the political actions of working-class Confederate women.

“Bread or blood!”

The Indian Ocean; ‘Coolie operatic performance at Ceylon–the “Guru” singing the prologue’ (wood engraving), Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, 1878.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.