Local News

April 7, 2013

Civil War anniversary:‘Every last chicken in the Confederacy’

The Civil War was fought in two critical arenas, the battlefield and the home front. Military battles generated the most drama, and usually receive the most attention. But ultimately the civilian struggle proved just as significant.

The South was hit early, and hit hard. As the war dragged on, “keeping the home fires burning” became an increasingly arduous task. Though the level of deprivation varied by class, race, status, wealth and geographic area, eventually nearly every Southerner was touched.

For women and children, black and white, young and old, sick and elderly, daily life became an unrelenting struggle for basic necessities — clothing, shelter and, most important, food. By today’s standards, the suffering was almost unimaginable.

By spring 1863, the situation was extreme. As civilians became desperate, food raids began to occur, and would continue until war’s end. “Bread riots” erupted across the South, from Petersburg to Galveston, from Raleigh to Mobile. Crowds of women armed with knives, pistols and clubs broke into stores, seizing food and clothing. In Georgia alone riots broke out in Savannah, Milledgeville, Macon, Valdosta, Augusta, Atlanta, Marietta, Cartersville and Columbus.

The largest and most widely publicized of these riots occurred April 2, 1863, in Richmond, the Confederate capital, which had become a haven for war refugees. Desperate women wielding axes and hatchets raided shops and took salt, flour and molasses. It took Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the local Public Guard armed with bayonets to disperse the crowd. Nearly 75 were arrested.

The Richmond Examiner (and other Southern newspapers) denied any truth to a “hunger riot,” attributing the disturbance to “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows-birds from all lands but our own.” But most of the so-called “rioters” were actually mothers, wives or widows with children to feed. They did not want charity, but resented unreasonably high prices charged by speculators. Many felt justified in their actions, one woman declaring, “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 our men.”  

Many necessities of life were desperately needed, including shoes, paper, yarn and candles. But food was the most urgent. Bacon, meal, vegetables, bread, flour, sugar, wheat, rice, meat, corn and salt (for meat preservation) were either in short supply or nonexistent. Southerners found novel substitutes: scraping salt off of smokehouse floors, using ground acorns for wheat flour, making vinegar from persimmons and creating a leavening alternative from corncobs. Such innovations bridged the gap, but did not fill the need.

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