150 Years Ago This Week: The Richmond ‘bread riot’

March/April 1863

As the month of March 1863 began closing, much of the military focus was on the Union efforts to capture the Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg. Things were not going well for the Federals. The Union gunboat USS Diana was captured by Confederates at Pattersonville, La.

Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s Union troops were hand-digging yet another canal to circumvent the Mississippi west of Vicksburg; called the Duckport Canal, it was also to be another Federal failure in the drive to take Vicksburg.

Monday, March 30, was a day of extensive skirmishing between opposing troops north and south: at Zoar Church, Va.; Point Pleasant, W.Va.; Cross Hollow, Ark.; at Tahlequah in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma); at Jacksonville, Fla.; at Williamsburg, Va.; and in Vernon County, Mo. In Kentucky, Brig. Gen. Basil Duke’s Confederate cavalry fought at Dutton’s Mill.

On March 30, President Lincoln set aside April 30 as a national day of prayer and fasting in the north. On the last day of March, Maj. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Federal troops made another attempt on Vicksburg by way of Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, south of Vicksburg.

In Washington, President Lincoln attended a Union meeting and signed an act, in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Treasury Secretary, authorizing restricted commercial trade with states in insurrection.

As April began, Union and Confederate troops began posturing, looking for ways to penetrate and overcome opposing forces. Vital events were to unfold along the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg and on the Mississippi River near Vicksburg. The new commander of the Army of the Potomac, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, was expected to do something. There was discontent in the South but confidence was high in Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s detached First Corps of the Army of the Northern Virginia, operating in southside Virginia, was reorganized to create the Dept. of North Carolina under Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill; the Dept. of Richmond, under Maj. Gen. Arnold Elzey; and the Dept. of Southern Virginia, under Maj. Gen. Samuel French.

On Thursday, April 2, a mob crowded around a wagon in Richmond, demanding bread – what followed was later dubbed the “Richmond bread riot.” Exact causes are obscure, but there was general want in the capital and elsewhere throughout the Confederacy. The unruly mob of allegedly disreputable citizens plundered more than bread, as they broke into shops, looting and taking whatever they could find.

Standing on a wagon in the middle of this mayhem near the Capitol, President Davis addressed the crowd and threw them what money he had in his pocket. Careful action by local militia and the police dispersed the crowd and made several arrests without bloodshed. The incident concerned the Confederate government and news of the melee was unsettling throughout the South.

As the week closed, President Lincoln wired Gen. Hooker of his intent to visit his army commander at Fredericksburg that weekend to discuss strategy. In Reading, Pa., there was an uproar over the arrest of four men who were allegedly members of the pro-Confederate Knights of the Golden Circle.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.