It is often a sad reality that when discussing history there is an emphasis on the victories and failures of men, a perspective which does not allow other types of people, such as women, the working class, or minorities time to celebrate their own accomplishments or find their own place within the fabric of history. Many of these stories go untold or unrecognized for hundreds of years and slip into obscurity; they never see the pages of textbooks, and are never included in the school curriculum. An example of such historical events are the bread riots that erupted all throughout South during the Civil War. These riots, often organized and carried out by the women of poor farmers turned soldiers, do not mesh with the often touted and exalted history of the Civil War Era South. It is time for the brave efforts of these hard working and hard living women to simply feed their starving families in a dying idea of a country to be brought to the light.
The view of the South during the Civil War has often been painted as a land of rolling plantations, Scarlett O’Hara swooning couches, and cruel slave masters. It is the view we are taught throughout our school years as fact at face value, but the true nature of Antebellum South was very different than Margret Mitchell would have us believe. In fact, most of the people living in the South were too poor to own even one slave let alone an entire plantation. The plantation society with all of its large dresses, large parties, and large pockets was not the norm, but instead, the minority. While the Southern society of the 1800s loved to claim the idea of chivalry and the defense of womanhood as a core belief, these beliefs were only extended to the wealthy ladies by social class. The rest of the women, the majority in the South, were left to fend for themselves and their families.
The South at the beginning of the Civil War was filled with an intense idea of patriotism for their new country, the Confederacy. Young men enlisted into the army expecting to be home again in a few months, and most of these fresh faced soldiers were from farm families with little to no money or education. The sons of plantation owners were often exempted from the draft because they were seen as necessary to the maintenance of their families’ properties, so instead the ranks were filled with boys who would never see their homes again. By 1863, the illusion that this war was to be a swift decisive victory was shattered, the tide of the war had begun to turn and not in the favor of the Confederacy or its people. The soldiers marched in tattered uniforms and ate starvation rations while those left behind back home suffered even harsher conditions. The war quickly lost its popularity among the majority of those left behind. These common folk began to realize that this war that they had supported so patriotically was shaping up to be a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.
The discontentment and desperation of economic circumstances in the South created a perfect storm for riot and rebellion. The wives, sisters, and mothers who were left behind by men going off to fight were forced to pay ever increasing prices, the devaluation of the useless Confederate money, and the knowledge that no relief was being sent their way. The rich plantation class did not feel the strain on their resources the way their common neighbors did. While families around them were starving they were often complaining at the lack of luxury items available. The plantation owners often also set the food prices for their neighbors; they kept prices at levels that were too high to be afforded and profited off the desperation created by wartime shortages.
As early as November of 1862 women all over the Southern states had began taking matters into their own hands. They began peacefully, many barely literate but still writing letters to government officials asking for relief but their pleas fell on deaf ears and so they decided that they must take action to be heard. Groups of women throughout the South simply marched into stores armed with farming equipment and demanded the lowering of prices, when they were refused they began to take what was being denied to them. From Cartersville, Georgia to Richmond, Virginia and everywhere in between women were taking the simple necessities of life to ensure the survival of their families when no one else was offering to help. These women became folk heroes to many, Robin Hood figures who looked to only equal the playing field in a country that had turned its back on its most vulnerable in a time of war. Soldiers who had been fighting ferociously heard news from back home of their families struggles rejoiced at the hardiness of the women they had left behind. By the end of the war there had been dozens of these bread riots throughout the South, the war having been lost and many men returning to states that had been scarred not only be the war they had been fighting but the class war that had been waged at home.
These women defied all class and social constraints laid upon them in the defense of their lives and families. While their actions to some may seem extreme and condemnable, there is a deep sense of bravery in their stories as well. These common women who came together under uncommon circumstances and took uncommon actions to survive deserve to have their place in history acknowledged and their stories told.