Freshmen students at Yuba competed to make the blog this past Fall 2015 semester. The winner, posted below, did some terrific research on what it meant to be a woman, poor, and living in the confederacy with very little food. Entitled, “Blood or Bread,” Kim Stamper and Jabir Shergill did a terrific job researching, and writing for a podcast audience.

 

These two brought history to life and a story that few Civil War historians bring to bear: the rough go of it for poor Southern women. Below is the transcript. Their research began with exploring primary materials associated with the Dedrick family of Augusta County, Virginia. The Dedrick letters, diary entries, census reports, and other materials are located on the Valley of the Shadow website hosted by the University of Virginia. Listen, read along, and enjoy.

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Narrator:

Richmond, Virginia was the capital of the Confederate States.  However, by early 1863 it was a miserable place to live.  The Union Army controlled much of Virginia’s Tidewater and coastal North Carolina.  As a result, inland cities like Richmond, and their surrounding communities were starving.  Fields went unattended as soldiers were kept at their posts leaving the women of the Confederacy to their own devices as to how they were able to feed their families.  The rail system and the James River Canal were overburdened trying to provision and equip soldiers on the front lines.  What food did make it through was sold at sky-high prices by speculators and unscrupulous merchants.   Order broke down.  “Wartime Richmond had become a city of strangers and camp followers, some with criminal intent”, wrote the historian Michael Chesson.[1]  In this desperate environment armed women organized and took to the streets to protest against Confederate injustice.[2]

As a result of the disruption in the food supplies, southern women faced soaring prices and shortages of the staple items needed to feed their family.  Many felt that the local merchants, forced by the Confederate government to sell to the Army at discounted prices, were gauging the local civilian population to make up profits.  These are the people that suffered the greatest hardships as the price of food and supplies rose so high that many families could not afford the basic necessities of living.

The Dedrick family of August County, Virginia, experienced the suffering of food shortages, price gauging and difficulties, making ends meet along with the rest of the families of the south.  Like most families, the Dedrick’s were poor people.  Prior to the Civil War the men of the family were primarily unskilled laborers, with the exception of one carpenter.  According to the Pre-Civil War Census, all of the adults in this family were uneducated and illiterate.  All of the working age men of the family were serving in the Confederate Army, leaving behind only 5 adult women to keep the family together, fed and healthy.[3]  The difficulty and distress is apparent in the letters of Mary Dedrick to her husband, Henry H. Dedrick:

 

 

Voice of Mary Dedrick

February 1, 1862

Dear Henry,

I received your dear letter Wednesday and was very glad to hear you was well. I would have received it sooner I suppose but the mail was delayed. We are all well. Your Father was here last Sabbath and they were all well. Times is hard here and if this war continues I don’t know what poor people is to do.

You wanted me to give you some satisfaction about your rye. I had to give rye for threshing and I paid James Lewis and pap and I lent Dr. Drummond a bushel and a half and Pap got his share out of it and sold Hester a half of bushel for coffee, and I have a little left and I have got a little to thresh. You wanted me to take care of it and I do assure you that I will take care of everything that I have got.

You wanted to know if I had any corn. I have got some.  Dear Henry you wanted to know if I got anything from Mr. Ellis. He gives me 25 and 30 lbs. of flour a month, 1 lb. of coffee, 2 lbs. of sugar and no meat. He give me a little last fall but none since, and it don’t do me, and I had to use what little buckwheat I had and have to use my corn and I can’t get to go after it always, and if I want a horse I have to pay 25 cents for it and if I want a little wagon I have to pay 50 cents for it and everything is so high. You don’t know what hard times I have here about wood. Your Father did haul me a little and Aunt Becky got some hauled and when that is done I don’t know what I will do. Pap sold his horse, when he had his I could get it any time.

Dear Henry I am glad that you are not giving up trying to get to heaven. In this world we have tribulation. But in Christ we have consolation. I hope we will meet around the throne one day or other. Dear Henry, strive for heaven. From your sincere wife, M. A.E. Dedrick[4]

 

Narrator

The need of the Confederate Army to provision the troops had the unintended result of disrupting the food supply.  With most of their sons and husbands away fighting in the Civil War poor, rural women like Mary Dedrick could not produce enough food to feed their families on their small farms.  Beginning in Atlanta on March, 1863, hundreds of these women took to the streets in a series of protests that would shocked the nation.  Unable to express their dissatisfaction in the ballot box, and in many cases lacking basic literacy, these women successfully organized to get what they needed to feed their families.  Their battle cry was, “Bread for Blood!”

The uprising in Atlanta sparked a fire that spread across the south.  The next day in Salisbury, North Carolina, a mob of 40 to 50 women armed with hatchets and supported by a crowd of men, attacked seven stores.  The women, self-described as “respectable poor women – all soldiers’ wives or mother’s, targeted merchants they suspects of price gouging”.[5]  The riots were spectacular and numerous.  Mobs of women numbering from a dozen to 300 or more, armed with Navy revolvers, pistols, bowie knives, hatchets and farm tools, carried out at least 12 violent attacks on stores, government warehouses, army convoys, railroad depots, salt works and granaries.  It was truly a Confederate spring of soldiers’ wives’ discontent.[6]

The food riots appeared to be highly organized, premeditated and disciplined.  They had a designated leader, were prepared to take violent action and managed public opinion by appealing to the public conscience concerning the needs of solders’ wives and daughters.  Their suspected leader, Mary Moore, made a personal appeal to the governor of North Carolina.  Speaking on behalf of the suffering families she urged him to assist the families of soldiers in need and to take action against the corruption.

 

Mary Moore

“We Governor are all solders’ wives and mothers.  Our husbands and sons are now separated from us by the cruel war not only to defend their humble homes but the homes and property of the rich man.  Now Sir, this is all we have done.”

 

Narrator

She freely admitted that they had stolen flour, goods and money at gunpoint, however she felt justified in the actions of her group.  The women felt that these seizures were of those supplies that were rightly owed to the people.  As all of the men were away at war, it had fallen to the women to enforce those claims.

Mary Moore’s defense of the mobs reflected the sentiment shared by the legions of soldiers wives’ that had already submitted petitions to the officials of the Confederate government of what was owed to the wives and families in exchange for the sacrifice of their men.[7]  This new confidence and sense of entitlement expressed by these poor white women was extraordinary, new and historic.  Few in the Confederacy could argue with the demands of these women.[8]

The biggest riot of all occurred on April 2, 1863 in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate Capital of the south.  Their trademark cry, “Bread or Blood” had already appeared in threatening letters to government officials and on banners that the women carried as they marched in the streets.  After the Richmond riots, local officials decided to attempt to prosecute the women responsible.  It was during this trial that the public learned of the leadership, recruitment, preparations and discipline that culminated in the uprisings.  There was no question that the women had organized well in advance.  They materialized in a body at a pre-designated place and time with banners, slogans and speeches ready for use.  An estimated 300 women, followed by a crowd of more than 1000 men, put to rest any idea of a spontaneous eruption.[9]  Evidence presented at trial confirmed the levels of organization these poor, illiterate women were able to accomplish.

The court testimony was shocking to many at the time.  The Richmond riot had been planned at least 10 days in advance by the wife and mother of a Confederate soldier.  On the night of April 1, 1863, inside the Belvidere Hill Baptist Church, the leader of the rebellion – Mary Jackson, a 34 year old mother of 4, organized a meeting of women regarding the sky high prices.  Jackson drew from all of her rural relations and contacts, as well as her city contacts.  Witnesses reported a stream of women coming in from the surrounding counties before the riots.  Some as far as 11 miles away.[10]  It is conceivable that the women of Augusta County, including Mary Dedrick and her family, were aware of the upcoming protest – and approved.

 

Male Court Official:

“And what was the purpose of this meeting?”

 

Trial Witness, Mrs. Jamison

“The object of the meeting was to organize to demand goods of merchants at government prices and if they were not given the stores were to be broken open and goods taken by force”

 

Narrator

By all accounts, the organizing meeting was rowdy, but Jackson was clearly in charge.  In a stunning assumption of male authority, Jackson addressed the meeting from the pulpit to issue instructions about how the demonstration was to proceed.

 

Jackson Voice

“I do not want women to go along the streets like a parcel of heathens, but to go quietly to the stores and demand goods at government prices.  If they refuse we will break open the stores and take the goods.  We will meet tomorrow morning at 9 am, leave your children at home and come armed.”

 

Narrator

Unusual and violent as the riots were, the women who participated were no different in their political thought than most poor women of the Confederate South.  Many had been writing letters to government officials begging for some form of relief.  The Governor of North Carolina received the following letter weeks before one of the riots:

 

Confederate Wife

“The time has come that we common people has to have bread or blood and we are bound both men and women to have it or die in the attempt”.

 

Narrator

There would be at least six other riots in 1863, and as in Atlanta, Salisbury and Richmond, they played out in violent form the politics of subsistence that the soldiers’ wives had forged in their brutal experience on the Confederate home front.[11] The women focused their anger on Confederate officials and merchants. They protested the inadequacy of any form of support from the southern government, as well as speculation by the merchant class, which hiked prices sky-high when supplies were short.

In the end, these woman that cried “Bread or Blood” were successful in forcing the public to recognize the inadequacy of support provided for the families of the men fighting and dying in the conflict.  In Richmond, the mayor formed a committee to investigate the claims of price gauging, and focused on the needs of the rioters.  By April 9th there would be $20,000 for a fund to support the families of the soldiers.

Over 50 years would pass before the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.  It is remarkable that in the “Deep South”, during a civil war that tore the nation apart, these poor, illiterate, seemingly powerless women of the Confederate South took matters into their own hands and forced the change they felt they had been denied.

[1] John Grady, Richmond Bread Riot, The New York Times

[2] Page Content – Ibid

[3] 1860 US Census, Augusta County, VA, Valley of the Shadows

[4] Letter from Mary E.A. Dedrick to Henry H. Dedrick, February 1, 1862, VOTS

[5] Stephanie McCurry, Bread or Blood, Civil War Times, Vol. 50 Issue 3, pp. 36-41.

[6] Page Content Source – Stephanie McCurry, Bread or Blood

[7] Lisa Tendrich Frank, Women in the Civil War, Google Books

[8] Page Content –   John Grady, The Richmond Bread Riot, The New York Times, April 5, 2013.

[9] Stephanie McCurry, Bread or Blood, Civil War Times, Vol. 50 Issue 3, pp. 36-41.,

[10] John Grady, The Richmond Bread Riot, The New York Times, April 5, 2013.

[11] S. McCurry, Bread for Blood, Civil War Times, Vol. 50 Issue 3, pp. 36-41.

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