Poor people in Civil War Richmond attempted peaceful negotiations to alleviate their destitution.

Their efforts yielded some results …
but were they enough?

In both the Richmond Bread Riot of 1863 and the current protests against police brutality, we hear the voice of people who suffer from inequitable systems. During the Civil War, for these protestors, it was food distribution and inflation. Now, the oppression is systemic racism in the law enforcement and criminal justice system.  

Though not the same, placing the two protests side-by-side suggests enduring questions about protesting in America. Why are people compelled to do it? What happens when those in authority do not listen to the cries of their citizens? Is there a legitimate or illegitimate way to protest? What kind of solutions can protestors force authorities to concede, if any?

Richmond Uprising is a preview of the American Civil War Museum’s upcoming exhibition, Richmonders at War, which examines the social stresses on a community when war comes home.


When the weight of war and the worry of waiting was too much, Richmond rose up.

In the third April of the American Civil War, women in the city of Richmond had enough. Pushed into cramped conditions, the population had grown three-fold since 1860. A harsh 1863 winter meant little food. What food there was seemed hoarded by the greedy and the profiteering.

When Mary Jackson and others met in Oregon Hill, they gathered women from across the city. Many had suffered.
Lost husbands and sons.
The tragic deaths of sisters and mothers at the Ordinance Lab Explosion just two weeks earlier. The women brought with them their pain.

And they formed a plan.

From the merchants, they would demand the price the government paid for food. If denied they would take it by force.

Arriving at the Capitol Square on April 2nd, the women stood in the shadow of the George Washington Monument, ready to act.

And act someone did. One of the crowd questioned if, before going through with their plan, they should ask the Governor first. Surely he would be sympathetic to their plight?

They asked for Governor Letcher to come out and speak with them. Once again, pleas fell on deaf ears. Letcher refused them. Those gathered did what those who have been long denied do. They would wait no more.

They rose up.

“Armed with six barreled pistols, bowie knives, and hatchets forced their way into numerous stores, emptied them of their contents, impressing drays and carts in the street to haul off their loots, and holding off the police at gunpoint.” - John B. Jones, Clerk in the War Department

The women turned down 9th Street. Now joined by children and men, their numbers were in the hundreds as they shouted.

“Bread or Blood!”

The mayor arrived. Reading word for word the Riot Act, he ordered them to disperse. This time the deaf ears upon which the words fell were the people’s, not the officials. They persisted.

“We celebrate our right to live!” - a rioter said to a Richmond bystander.

When the City Battalion arrived it was unclear who was at the helm. Was it the President of the Confederacy himself? Had Letcher come out at last? Was this what it took to get the Governor from his Mansion? Whoever it was had brought the armed forces of the Confederacy.

Tension broke when the women’s ranks did. They dispersed, taking with them the spoils of their movement - food, shoes, necessities, and commodities.

In the days that followed more than 60 women and men were arrested for their part in the riots. Most were acquitted. Some were made examples. After some time newspapers, silent in the immediate aftermath, now denounced the participants.

“a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags [and] gallows-birds from all lands but our own.” - The Richmond Examiner

Yet five days later, the city council appropriated $20,000 to assist wives and children of soldiers in the field. Four days after that, it passed an ordinance establishing a city operated market stall where the poor could pick up food every week--but only the “meritorious poor”

To some, the concessions may have seemed small. For those in need, they were something.

Richmond's bread riot was not the first, nor was it the last. In Atlanta, Mobile, and Salsibury, similar conditions resulted in similar action.

But what if officials had acted sooner?

What if they had listened?