Bread Riot
Mrs Roger A. Pryor

My friend Agnes could soon record graver things than idleness or gossip. On April 4, 1863, she wrote from Richmond:

My Dear: Something very sad has just happened in Richmond - something that makes me ashamed of all my jeremiads over the loss of the petty comforts and conveniences of life - hats, bonnets, gowns, stationery, books, magazines, dainty food. Since the weather has been so pleasant, I have been in the habit of walking in the Capitol Square before breakfast every morning. Somehow nothing so sets me up after a restless night as a glimpse of the dandelions waking up from their dewy bed and the songs of the birds in the Park. Yesterday, upon arriving, I sat on a bench near, and one of the number left the rest and took the seat beside me. She was a pale, emaciated girl, not more than eighteen, with a sunbonnet on her head, and dressed in a clean calico gown. 'I could stand no longer', she explained. As I made room for her, I observed that she had delicate features and large eyes. Her hair and dress were neat. As she raised her hand to remove her sunbonnet and use it for a fan, her loose calico sleeve slipped up, and revealed the mere skeleton of an arm. She perceived my expression as I looked at it, and hastily pulled down her sleeve with a short laugh. 'This is all that's left of me!' she said. 'It seems real funny, don't it?' Evidently she had been a pretty girl - a dressmaker's apprentice, I judged from her chafed forefinger and a certain skill in the lines of her gown. I was encouraged to ask: 'What is it? Is there some celebration?'

'There is,' said the girl, solemnly; 'we celebrate our right to live. We are starving. As soon as enough of us get together we are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men.'

Just then a fat old black Mammy waddled up the walk to overtake a beautiful child who was running before her. 'Come dis a way, honey,' she called, 'don't go nigh dem people,' adding, in a lower tone, 'I's feared you'll ketch somethin' fum dem po'-white folks. I wonder dey lets 'em into de Park.'

The girl turned to me with a wan smile, and as she rose to join the long line that had now formed and was moving, she said simply, 'Good-by! I'm going to get something to eat!'

'And I devoutly hope you'll get it - and plenty of it,' I told her. The crowd now rapidly increased, and numbered, I am sure, more than a thousand women and children. It grew and grew until it reached the dignity of a mob - a bread riot. They impressed all the light carts they met, and marched along silently and in order. They marched through Cary Street and Main, visiting the stores of the speculators and emptying them of their contents. Governor Letcher sent the mayor to read the Riot Act, and as this had no effect he threatened to fire on the crowd. The city battalion then came up. The women fell back with frightened eyes, but did not obey the order to disperse. The President then appeared, ascended a dray, and addressed them. It is said he was received at first with hisses from the boys, but after he had spoken some little time with great kindness and sympathy, the women quietly moved on, taking their food with them. General Elezy and General Winder wished to call troops from the camps to 'suppress the women,' but Mr. Seddon, wise man, declined to issue the order. While I write women and children are still standing in the streets, demanding food, and the government is issuing to them rations of rice.

This is a frightful state of things. I am telling you of it because not one word has been said in the newspapers about it. All will be changed, Judge Campbell tells me, if we can win a battle or two (but, oh, at what a price!), and regain the control of our railroads. Your General (Mr. Roger Pryor) has been magnificent. He has fed Lee's army all winter - I wish he could feed our starving women and children.

Dearly, AGNES.


Reminiscences of Peace and War by Mrs Roger A. Pryor
The MacMillan Company, New York, 1905, pages 237-239