Bread Riot revisited: Saturday reenactment marks 150th anniversary of women’s raids on Salisbury merchants

  • Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 12:51 a.m.
Carol Rathbun, left, and Peg Puza pose for a photograph to illustrate women behind the Salisbury Bread Riot of 1863. (Submitted photo)
Carol Rathbun, left, and Peg Puza pose for a photograph to illustrate women behind the Salisbury Bread Riot of 1863. (Submitted photo)

SALISBURY — If you’re driving or shopping in downtown Salisbury late Saturday morning, prepare to do a double-take.

You might come across a band of women shouting, carrying signs and wielding things such as shovels, hatchets, broomsticks and roller pins.

“We told the girls, ‘Bring whatever you can,’ so be careful,” Carol Rathbun says.

The protesters will be part of a re-enactment at 11 a.m. Saturday of the 1863 Bread Riot, in which a group of local women — historians still debate their exact origins — stormed the stores of merchants whom they believed were hoarding food supplies and raising prices on speculation.

These mothers and wives of Confederate soldiers, struggling to pay the escalating prices related to basic food supplies, broke down doors and raided at least six merchants the afternoon of March 18, 1863.

About 40 to 50 women participated, “followed by a numerous train of curious female observers,” according to a news account of the day.

When they were done, the women had collected 23 barrels of flour, a half barrel of molasses, two sacks of salt and $20 in Confederate currency. They met the next morning at the North Carolina Central Railroad depot with Salisbury attorney Luke Blackmer and divided up their take.

The amazing thing was, they got away with it. No one stepped in to stop them, or arrest them for theft — likely because everyone understood their frustration.

“It was not just in Salisbury,” Rathbun notes of these kinds of raids and protests. “The times were really, really hard for them. I don’t know how they did it, and I can understand how they could get upset.”

Organizing the event

Rathbun and Peg Puza, working through Historic Salisbury Foundation, have been the lead organizers in marking the 150th anniversary of the event, which came to be known as the Salisbury Bread Riot.

The Rowan Museum also has been an important partner.

Saturday morning’s re-enactment will take a couple of liberties. It will not follow the exact route of the original raiding, nor will it be breaking down any storeroom doors. The participants also will be carrying a few protest signs, which they probably would not have done in 1863.

Not everyone will be in period costume. Rathbun and Puza have the advantage of working as volunteer docents at the Hall House, but they note it’s likely the Bread Riot women were dressed more for a raid than a tea.

Rathbun and Puza are encouraging any women who want to show up and join in with the Bread Riot Saturday to do so, even if they don’t feel as though their attire is appropriate.

The re-enactors plan to gather near the Confederate Monument at Church and Innes streets, march up Innes Street to the Square, take a left onto North Main Street and walk a block to the Rowan Museum.

No streets will have to be closed. “I expect a pretty small group,” Puza says.

On the steps of the old courthouse, which is home to the museum, Terry Holt will take on the role of N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance and read a proclamation the governor issued a few weeks after the Bread Riot.

“What we really wanted to do was educate people so they knew what this was,” Rathbun says.

Civil War era

Similar “bread riots” — the term seems to have been attached to the events later in history — occurred during the Civil War in cities such as Atlanta, Macon, Columbus and Augusta, Ga.; Mobile, Ala.; and several other cities in the South.

The best known, Puza notes, occurred in Richmond, Va., on April 2, 1863, a couple of weeks after the one in Salisbury. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was an eyewitness.

“He addressed the crowd,” Puza writes in her synopsis of events, “and even threw money from his own pockets to the rioters, declaring ‘You say you are hungry and have no money; here, this is all I have.’”

Until Davis threatened to call in the militia, the crowd would not disperse.

For background purposes, Puza and Rathbun looked at archives kept by Historic Salisbury Foundation and records related to the Bread Riot housed in the History Room at Rowan Public Library.

“I thought it was a really important event to remember,” Puza says.

Economic hardships

Three things came together to produce some real economic hardships for families left behind in Southern cities during the war. Those were the Union blockade of Southern ports, the diversion of food supplies from the home front to the war front and the rising inflation of Confederate currency, Puza says.

With the increased conscription of husbands and sons away from their farms, the hardships increased for the women left behind.

Puza says the Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted in May 1861 to set aside $50,000 for the “relief of soldiers’ wives” and had started a program of distributing salt — an item needed for curing and food preservation. But some of those funds were redirected toward the arming and equipping of soldiers, according to historians.

“Many women and children left behind here in Salisbury suffered from malnourishment, or at least from the threat of it,” Puza says.

“... As the months and years of the war wore on, women everywhere made new financial sacrifices and lifestyle changes to accommodate their desperate times. The pay for Confederate soldiers was $11 per month. Speculation in goods became increasingly common, as some merchants hoarded supplies and charged exorbitant prices.”

In 1915, William K. Boyd included a chart in “Fiscal and Economic Conditions in North Carolina During the War” showing how prices of bacon, beef, pork, sugar, corn, meal, potatoes, yams, wheat and flour had escalated in Raleigh with each year of the war.

Bacon was, for example, 33 cents a pound in 1862 and $7.50 a pound by 1865. Sugar was 75 cents a pound in 1862 and $30 a pound in 1865.

By 1863, the price of flour had doubled to $35 a barrel. Bacon was $1 a pound; corn, $5.50 a bushel — way up from $1.10 a bushel in 1862.

Salisbury’s newspaper of the day, the Carolina Watchman, reported about the women’s riot in a story published five days later.

“And though the newspaper did not fully condone the women’s behavior,” Puza writes in a summary, “the article condemned speculation, criticized the county commissioners for their inability to provide relief to Rowan families in need, admonished those merchants who were making money through speculation — including those not visited by the women on March 18 — and ultimately acknowledged that the women of Salisbury had been left with no alternatives.”

Michael Brown, whose storeroom door the women broke through, wrote a letter of complaint to Gov. Vance within hours of the riot. A woman participant in the raid, Mary C. Moore, also attached her name to a letter going to Vance three days after the raids and outlining the women’s grievances.

Moore asked the governor to fix the prices of bread and meat.

Banning exports

Vance issued a proclamation April 13, 1863, making it illegal to export food and cloth out of the state for the next 30 days.

“The ban was extended numerous times,” Puza says, “resulting effectively in a long-term restriction on exports of those items so desperately needed at home.”

Both Rathbun and Puza recently moved to Salisbury and immediately became involved with its history through the foundation. The story of the Bread Riot particularly intrigued them.

“I probably will have a hatchet, or shovel,” Puza says. “Between us, we will each have one of those.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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