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  • Writer's pictureMeredith Baker

Richmond #RiotGirlz, 1863 Edition

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Greg McQuade at CBS6 has a knack for finding a good Virginia story. Last year, I did a feature with him on the Richmond Theater Fire that won a regional Emmy, and this year was back to help bring attention to the women of the 1863 Richmond Bread Riot. Gregg Kimball of the Library of Virginia and NPS historian Mike Gorman were also featured.

The Virginia Museum of History and Culture hosted me & CBS6 for the filming and pulled some amazing original documents. You can seriously hold handwritten Civil War correspondence in their archives & special collections room and feel that connection with the past. Amazing.

During the Civil War, women working in the markets and ammunition factories saw prices for staples like bread explode over a single year. Unable to afford food for their families, many of these women who were single parenting took a petition to the governor, who ignored them. Rallying at the Capitol peacefully turned violent afterward. The women did not hurt any people but did smash windows of stores and military storehouses to take (as one letter notes) items like soap and clothing.

It's worth noting that these women had experienced severe trauma a month prior at Belle Isle, where some of them worked. A workplace accident at an ammunition plant caused an explosion that killed over 60 women. After experiencing a disaster comparable in blood and horror to any war scene, the women were further traumatized when the Confederate States of America failed to so much as bury or honor the dead, many of whom were children. One exception: the male supervisor.

People often focus, then and now, on property damage, clutching pearls at the lack of decorum and the violence of rioters who wreck things. But it's always worth pausing to examine the violence against humans that so often leads to this kind of action. In this case, CBS6 shone a spotlight on the women--starved, ignored, desperate--and the ways that a complete lack of political power resulted in a riot that it took the mayor, governor, and even President Davis himself to stop.

Interestingly, contemporary accounts like the archived letters at the museum are sympathetic to the women, and their riot did force the CSA to do what they should have all along--subsidize groceries for poor families hit hard by inflation the CSA caused. I'm interested in the ways that women respond to historic tragedies, and the ways they forced men in leadership to pay attention to inequality. The Bread Riot in my backyard, 160 years ago, is a prime example.

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