Salisbury Bread Riot: ‘A Robin Hood story with skirts’

  • Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 12:51 a.m.
Dr. Gary Freeze, history professor at Catawba College, has been looking deeper into the women behind the Salisbury Bread Riot of 1863.  Photo by Mark Wineka, Salisbury Post
Dr. Gary Freeze, history professor at Catawba College, has been looking deeper into the women behind the Salisbury Bread Riot of 1863. Photo by Mark Wineka, Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — There’s a Reader’s Digest version of what Salisbury and Rowan County were like during the Civil War, then there’s Dr. Gary Freeze’s version, yet to be written.

The late Jim Brawley gave us a great history of Rowan County in connection with the bicentennial in 1954. Freeze says Brawley, who he finds fascinating, was trained to be a “consensus historian” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“He could have written twice the book he wrote based on his own research,” says Freeze, who in reading the large volume of notes Brawley left behind is also intrigued by what the author left out at times.

As for himself, Freeze says he was trained as a “conflicted historian” at UNC and, with that as part of his DNA, he’s more likely to delve into what was happening to the middle and poorer classes.

Freeze finds some of history’s accounts of the Salisbury Bread Riot on March 18, 1863, lacking in explanation, especially as to where these women were from and how they organized.

He can’t accept, for example, that women from Salisbury spontaneously armed themselves with blunt instruments and terrorized store owners who they thought were ripping them off.

“I’ve tried to take it another step to determine who these women might have been,” Freeze says.

Much of it revolves around a woman named Mary C. Moore. In “a Robin Hood story with skirts,” Freeze says, “she’s Robin Hood.”

Makeup of Rowan County

But first, Freeze tries to describe the makeup of Rowan County during the war and what sections of the county strongly supported the Confederacy and those whose allegiances were lukewarm at best.

Freeze describes an undeniable pattern to the early enlistment of soldiers. Men living in the western Rowan County areas of Mount Vernon, Millbridge and Mount Ulla, where slave ownership was prevalent and growing, were far more likely to enlist in 1861 because they had more to lose.

But things were different in a southern tier of the county that Freeze describes as extending roughly from Enochville to Rockwell. The number of enlistments in this heavily German/Lutheran area were not as high, “and they are the people, by and large, who get conscripted in 1862.”

They filled the ranks of the 57th Regiment, which was plagued by disruptions and desertions, though not necessarily caused by the Rowan County boys.

“Women of the Bread Riot came from the southern tier,” Freeze says. “The great clue is Mary C. Moore.”

Getting organized

Freeze finds it hard to believe that 40 to 50 women came out of their Salisbury homes on the afternoon of March 18, 1863, to storm the stores of merchants they suspected of being war profiteers. These were days before the telephone, Twitter and Facebook, Freeze says. How did all these women know to congregate at a particular spot in Salisbury on the same day?

Freeze says logic suggests the women came from a particular area of Rowan County where they had been meeting and talking with each other to form an organized, systematic raid on Salisbury businesses once they arrived.

“It’s very much the kind of action or event county people would have staged,” he adds, describing it as a classic populist protest.

The name of Moore surfaces in a letter written by “Soldiers’ Wives” to N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance on March 21, 1863, three days after the Salisbury Bread Riot.

Freeze says it was common for women to write Vance, whom many saw as sexy, charming and the St. George of his day. In the letter, the women, who describe themselves as wives and mothers of Confederate soldiers, confess to their raids in Salisbury and ask how they were not justified.

Making ends meet

They note the soldiers are making only $11 a month and ask how far that assistance can go when meat was 75 cents to $1 a pound; flour, $50 a barrel; wood, $4 to $5 a load; meal, $4 to $5 per bushel; eggs, 50 to 60 cents a dozen; chickens, $7 per dozen; molasses, $7 a gallon; and rye, 20 cents a quart.

The women say they try to earn extra money by making clothes — 50 cents per pair of lined pants and 75 cents for coats, “and there are few of us who can make a dollar a day.”

“... Sir, many of us work day after day without a morsel of meat to strengthen us for our labors and often times we are without bread. Now sir, how, we ask you in the name of God, are we to live?”

The letter says the women took what little money they had with them March 18, 1863, and offered to pay government prices for food, “but the Speculators refused us any thing or even admittance into their premises.”

“We then forced our way in and compelled them to give us something,” the letter continues, “(and) we succeeded in obtaining 23 barrels of flour, two sacks of salt, about a half barrel of molasses and $20 in money...”

Freeze thinks the letter, which is much longer, was written by attorney Luke Blackmer, who was on hand when the goods were divided the next morning in Salisbury.

The unusual thing is the letter’s ending, in which Vance is invited to write back to “Mary C. Moore Salisbury NC.”

“It’s rare you see the name of a common woman sticking her neck out for a social issue,” Freeze says. If she’s not a heroine, she’s showing courage in attaching her name to the letter, he adds.

History of Mary C. Moore

Freeze’s detective work so far has led him to believe Moore lived near the original Setzer School, which was east of China Grove and close to Old Concord Road.

She was white, poor and worked as a house servant of George Rendleman.

Freeze’s research shows the household also employed free blacks as servants as well.

During the war, Andrew Rendlemen was thrown out of the Confederate Army for being disloyal. One of the Rendlemens’ neighbors, Allison Lippard, left the Confederacy and joined the Union army.

Freeze says Moore was living in a Unionist-leaning neighborhood or one, at the least, which had no enthusiasm for the Confederacy.

In 1864, a year after the riot, the neighborhood was accused of disloyalty, Freeze says, when a dozen of its men were linked to an anti-Confederate organization — the Heroes of America.

But most of the accused recanted in 1864 by going before a magistrate and disavowing any connection to the “Heroes.”

Members also were known as the “Red Strings” because they secretly wore red thread in the lapel of their coats. The group was dedicated to helping Confederate deserters.

Freeze believes the Red Strings numbered only in the dozens here, but their membership was much larger in counties to the north and west of Rowan. The name of Union Grove in Iredell County came from its Union loyalties.

Brawley’s notes hold clues, and Freeze took many names Brawley mentioned and linked about half to the Setzer School community.

Another nest of Union sympathizers was in the Enochville area, south of today’s South Rowan High, Freeze says.

Freeeze says if he had not seen Mary Moore’s name in the letter to Vance, he never would have connected the Bread Riot women to southern Rowan.

“The women who came to the Bread Riot were not very pro-Confederacy to begin with,” Freeze says.

He believes they were middle-class women, fed up with having little food and money and angry with the speculators who were hoarding staples before sending them out of state for high prices in return.

They were not women wearing the hoop-skirt fashions of the day.

“They were country women in big bonnets,” Freeze says, and their “riot” was a true act of defiance in the elitist society Salisbury represented.

Freeze has many unanswered questions. Did the women go home and come back the next day to divide up their take? If not, where did they stay?

He’s also trying to track down more information on Mary Moore, such as what her middle initial “C” stood for, so he might be able to do more genealogical research.

An interesting side note: During 1864, when there was a statewide effort to suppress anti-Confederate sentiment, the Setzer School community was the only place in Rowan County to vote against Zeb Vance, the sexy governor who apparently never wrote back to Mary Moore.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or

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