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Monday, October 17, 2011

A Witness to History

Richmond Bread Riot

     In last week's post I shared the sad story of Margaret, the servant of James T. Williams' business partner Samuel C. Tardy. The same year that Margaret was put to death, James himself was witness to another lurid spectacle that took place in Richmond. By the spring of 1863 hunger was becoming a serious problem in the old Confederacy, a problem that would only worsen as the war dragged on. A combination of factors was responsible for this unwelcome turn of events. With a large percentage of the able bodied men of the south serving in the army, the farming was left to wives, children and the elderly. Those families that had previously depended on slave labor (such as the Rows of Greenfield plantation) now found themselves without that work force, as tens of thousands of slaves were  escaping to Union occupied territory. The Federal blockade of southern ports was a major factor in causing shortages, of course, as was the destruction or seizure of miles of an already rickety rail system [Please note that all images in my blog may be clicked on for enlarged viewing].
     A sense of desperation began to grip those wives and mothers left to take care of hungry families while their men served in the military. In Richmond these women made their demands known to the government, which they believed had an obligation to take care of them. The Confederate authorities could do little to ease the suffering of their citizens, and the activities of hoarders and speculators only added to their difficulties.

Governor John Letcher

     On April 2, 1863 a large contingent of these poor women who had reached the breaking point took to the streets to get food for their families by any means necessary. In no time they became a rampaging mob of looters, smashing storefronts and stealing whatever was at hand. The city descended into chaos.
     The Richmond Dispatch published a retrospective look at the events of that dark day in the edition published on January 20, 1889. Included were letters submitted by some citizens who were present then, including James T. Williams. His memory of that historic riot appears below under the heading of "Honest John Letcher's Dues."

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