Bread Riot: Women replay the 1863 uprising over inflationary war prices

  • Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 1:09 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, March 17, 2013 1:10 a.m.
Peg Puza  leads  the  ladies reenacting the 1863 Bread Riot  marching to  the Rowan Museum carrying pitchforks, hay forks, brooms, hatchets, hammers and rolling pins. She is confronting the Confederate soldiers who attempted to stop them.  She is in the face of Lt. Rock Edmiston.   photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post
Peg Puza leads the ladies reenacting the 1863 Bread Riot marching to the Rowan Museum carrying pitchforks, hay forks, brooms, hatchets, hammers and rolling pins. She is confronting the Confederate soldiers who attempted to stop them. She is in the face of Lt. Rock Edmiston. photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — They were mad. They were fed up. They were tired.

The participants in re-enactment

Historic Salisbury Foundation and Rowan Museum Inc. worked together in holding Saturday’s re-enactment of the 1863 Bread Riot.

The women participants included Leslie Black, Carol Rathbun, Marion LeBleu, Kathleen Dunn, Anne Lyles, Candy Webb, Dianne Hall, Nancy Bilson, Peg Puza, Linda Thompson, Shakeisha Holton Gray, Judy Pittman, Patti Safrit and Sandra Owen.

Confederate soldier re-enactors were Lt. Rock Edmiston, Cpl. Kevin Britton and Pvt. Sean Dunham. They were of the 63rd N.C.

The women gathering in downtown Salisbury late Saturday morning also were brandishing broomsticks, pitchforks, roller pins, hatchets and rakes.

This had all the makings of a riot — and that’s what it was, an enthusiastic re-enactment of the 1863 Salisbury Bread Riot.

The 2013 group — about 15 women and more men, women and children trailing them — received plenty of bemused looks going past the Hap’s Grill lunch crowd on the way to the Rowan Museum.

At the square, an outmanned platoon of three Confederate soldier re-enactors tried to block the mob’s progress and ordered it to disperse. But the women marched right on through, chanting all the way.

The bonnets, shawls and period dresses on many of the women made them an even greater curiosity to cars and trucks going by.

“Enough, enough of the speculators,” came one shout from the protesters.

“We want fair pricing,” came another.

Once the group arrived at their destination — the old courthouse, which is today’s Rowan Museum — the women shouted things such as “We want food” and “Let us in.”

A couple of students from Southeast Middle School, Katie Gerou and Katlyn Painter, felt they had struck it rich. They were downtown as part of a history assignment for social studies teacher Eric Shock, and they saw the Bread Riot’s history being played out before them.

Gerou said Shock had just talked about the Bread Riot in Friday’s class.

“We were here, looking around, and we ran into Terry Holt,” Katie’s mother, Crystal Overcash, said. “It worked out well.”

Holt, dressed in a period coat, played the part of N.C. Gov. Zebulon Vance. It was a Vance proclamation a few weeks after the Salisbury Bread Riot that was aimed at curtailing these kind of uprisings over prices at home.

Monday will be the 150th anniversary of the Salisbury Bread Riot.

They could take no more

On March 18, 1863, a group of 40 to 50 women — mothers and wives of Confederate soldiers — raided the stores of Salisbury merchants who they claimed were speculating and hoarding food staples.

“They had had about enough of it,” said Peg Puza, who was one of the main organizers of Saturday’s replay, along with friend Carol Rathbun.

Back in 1863, the women stopped at roughly six stores that afternoon, demanding the shopkeepers sell them the staples at the same price the government was paying, not the inflated one.

If the merchants refused — and most of them did — the women helped themselves to some items. At Michael Brown’s establishment, they tried to break down the door to a storeroom before he agreed to give the women 10 barrels of flour for free.

At the end of Bread Riot — Salisbury had one of the first of many price uprisings in cities throughout the Confederate South — the women had 23 barrels of flour, a half barrel of molasses, two sacks of salt and $20 in Confederate currency.

They apparently split up their haul the next day and were never arrested. Numerous eyewitnesses to their raids included the Salisbury mayor and other government officials.

The Carolina Watchman newspaper reported on the incident in its March 23, 1863, edition, and gave a lengthy account under the headline, “A Female Raid.”

The “riot” led a disgusted Brown to dash off a letter to the governor the same day complaining about what happened.

On March 21, a letter from “Soldiers’ Wives” in Rowan County also went to Vance, explaining the women’s actions on March 18 and describing how they were justified, given the exorbitant, inflationary prices.

It all led to the governor issuing a proclamation April 13, 1863, making it illegal to export food and cloth out of the state for the next 30 days, and that prohibition — with exemptions for quartermasters of the military — was extended many times in efforts to squelch war profiteering for items needed at home.

At the time of the raid, the women’s letter to Vance said, meat prices were 75 cents to $1 a pound; flour, $50 a barrel; wood, $4 to $5 a load; molasses, $7 a gallon; meal, $4 to $5 a bushel; eggs, 50 to 60 cents a dozen; and chickens, $7 a dozen.

Meanwhile, the women of the day complained, their soldier husbands and sons were receiving only $11 a month pay, and women were only getting 50 cents for the sewing of lined pants for soldiers and 75 cents per coat.

“We’re desperate,” Puza, staying in character, said on the steps of the Rowan County Administrative Building before Saturday morning’s march took off.

“We need to feed our kids. We are hungry. Our kids are hungry.”

Courage of the day

When Saturday’s march was over, the women participants expressed admiration for the courage their counterparts 150 years ago had shown.

“They didn’t have a choice,” Rathbun said.

The women Saturday said they also could see how easy it would be for people today to take to the streets in protest of inflationary prices and profiteering.

Next weekend, several of them said, they might be protesting gas prices.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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