From the Richmond Dispatch, 12/30/1888

Reminiscences of a Memorable Period of Our War History.
Military Called Out to Disperse Them - How it was Done An Unsolved Question.

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 other valuables.

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 Seventeenth street.

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 on 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 name of Richmond. His remarks were few, but when they were ended the rioters had stolen away as if ashamed of their conduct.


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.


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 stepped into 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.


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.


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.


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 Government.

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 disturbance.


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.


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 marched down 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 Main.


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 Main street and Rocketts, the street was completely blocked. After sacking the most of the stores below Thirteenth street 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 Main street 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 that point:

“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 Cary street 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 the proprietor.

All this time the scenes of violence were visible on Main 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 station-house.

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.”


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:

LEXINGTON,VA., 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.

Your friend,                        JOHN LETCHER.

Judge French says he well remembers that the incident related by Governor Letcher took place on Franklin street 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 following:

[Richmond Whig, May 10, 1878.]

We are in danger of a newspaper war about the bread riot in Richmond during the war. Major Daniel [quoted in the New York 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.


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 Confederate 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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