Southern Farm Wives become "Soldiers Wives" and sometime food rioters

18thVirginia

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In another thread recently we examined the changing roles of young, elite Southern women as they moved from being Southern Belles to Confederate Women. Author Stephanie McCurry in her study for her book CONFEDERATE RECKONING: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, offers a discussion of how the Yeoman farm wife moved from no role in the political world whatsoever, to one where she became a potent political force that governors and presidents had to contend with.

White women, although citizens, were not a population that figured in anybody's body's political calculations. Women had never been of much interest to state officials. As a matter of law and custom they were regarded, like Antigone, tigone, as outside politics and war, members of the household, under the governance of husbands and fathers. But war had barely begun when officials cials on both sides were thrown into a series of confrontations with women engaged in what could only be called political acts, forcing fundamental mental recalculations about loyalty, treason, and political clout.

Stephanie McCurry. Confederate Reckoning (Kindle Locations 41-44). Kindle Edition.
McCurry explains that the wives both of poor farmers and somewhat more prosperous Yeoman farmers came to see themselves as Soldiers Wives and to demand that the state live up to the promises made by governors, local officials and planters to protect them and provide for them when their support, their husbands, were taken away to fight in the War. As McCurry puts it, "Any state that took their men would ultimately have to answer to them."

Stephanie McCurry. Confederate Reckoning (Kindle Locations 52-53). Kindle Edition.

In this thread, we'll take a look at these women, how they changed through the course of the Civil War, and what lengths they would go to, like bread riots, to assert themselves and their newfound political power.

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18thVirginia

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McCurry looks at the background to Secession, the arguments of both Unionists and Secessionists and the vision of leaders like Jefferson Davis and Thomas R. R. Cobb in articulation of a vision for their new pro-slavery state. In contrast to the idea we're often offered that slavery was in decline and would soon end, McCurry finds that Secessionists saw a new beginning for slavery as a "social system uniquely adapted for the conditions of the modern world." She quotes South Carolina historian William Henry Prescott, writing in 1859:

Slavery-our institution of it at least, is scarcely a half century old. It is just beginning its career,
Stephanie McCurry. Confederate Reckoning (Kindle Locations 149-150). Kindle Edition.
She points out that Jefferson Davis viewed political rights as something possessed only by white men and not by either slaves or women, a view confirmed by Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott decision. That view would perhaps explain Davis's later befuddlement in the Food Riots of Richmond, where he was unable to address the crowd of women rioters who had come to define themselves as a political force of Soldiers Wives. McCurry details the differences in the view of women in both North and South prior to the ACW:

In the North by i86o, agitation for the woman citizen's natural right of suffrage had, in conjunction with antislavery, already made serious political inroads. Increasingly women's continued exclusion had to be dignified by an argument. But nowhere in the nineteenth-century United States did any women's rights, not to mention demands for the vote, emerge outside of the context of antislavery politics. So in the South, where a proslavery agenda set the tone in politics and where politicians regularly dragooned marriage into the work of legitimizing slavery (as just another desirable form of domestic dependence suitable to the weak), women's status as citizens hardly mattered. There, politicians were habituated to thinking of women as existing at a remove from the body politic, as part of the family or the household, and not of the people and the citizens.

Stephanie McCurry. Confederate Reckoning (Kindle Locations 301-303). Kindle Edition.

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JPK Huson 1863

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The Bread Riots became used as a political tool, too- which backfired badly. Women were made to look unpatriotic for being unwilling to starve for their country and lose the bread winner- when their point was the government both protecting speculators and allowing what goods got by the blockade to make zillionaires of millionaires. Then the government stopped support programs from soldiers' families- and became annoyed when men deserted. No cowardice- homeless, hungry wives and children was not their idea of why they were gone.

It was crazy. Women really were expected to bear the brunt of privations all-around, and shush. Being Southern women, they shushed poorly. Here's the big-wigs 'fighting back '.
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Image of what the terrible, unpatriotic women ' looked like '. Snorkle. North Carolina did not buy it and ridiculed any government so lost to shame it refused to feed soldiers' families.
 

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One West Virginia Unionist delegate to the Virginia State Convention considering secession warned that When the battle comes in earnest, it will be women's battle too (McCurry, Kindle 314), but Stephanie McCurry noted that in 1860 and 1861, a traditional view of politics prevailed in which women did not own property and thus could not be taxed, they weren't subject to military service, had no rights to defend, were not really a part of the body politic that required consideration in political debates. That was a view that would be changed by the Yeoman farm wives and poor wives themselves as they found voices that the politicians had not heeded and didn't really desire to hear as the War progressed.

The Food Riots/Bread Riots are symbolic of this political transformation of the Yeoman women into Soldiers Wives, since they justified their actions in demanding rations from merchants and suppliers based on their status as women whose husbands were off serving the Confederacy. What I've found since starting the initial thread about Bread Riots a year or so ago, that there were more of these incidents than are usually reported. The original thread discussed far less about the overall politicization of the "Soldiers Wives," so I thought that I'd bring in more information about that history and add in some of the other food riots that I've found.
 
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18thVirginia

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The Bread Riots became used as a political tool, too- which backfired badly. Women were made to look unpatriotic for being unwilling to starve for their country and lose the bread winner- when their point was the government both protecting speculators and allowing what goods got by the blockade to make zillionaires of millionaires. Then the government stopped support programs from soldiers' families- and became annoyed when men deserted. No cowardice- homeless, hungry wives and children was not their idea of why they were gone.
Stephanie makes an important point about Southern women and patriotism, one sentence that I'll quote:

The idea that women were the most ardent of Confederates dates thus from secession, not from wartime. It was a view that never loosened its grip on the American imagination.

Stephanie McCurry. Confederate Reckoning (Kindle Locations 1168-1169). Kindle Edition.
Many of the earlier volumes written about Southern women dwelt only on the attitudes of aristocrats or elite women because they were the ones who had the time to write diaries and the stability of family to be able to preserve them. As I've noted elsewhere, those were often the thoughts of quite young women, as even their elite mothers were involved in trying to provide for their families during the War and didn't have the time to write lengthy diaries. More recently, McCurry and others have begun to look at the letters, a virtual deluge of letters and petitions that the Soldiers Wives wrote to their governors, protesting the governments' lack of provision for them and the promises of the planter elites to assist the soldiers' families, promises which had been broken.

In reading a volume on the creation of husband's great grandfather's original unit, the 30th Alabama Infantry, the way in which men were recruited at a barbecue thrown by a local planter is mentioned. Seems that between eating and a lot of imbibing of alcohol, a lot of men discovered in the morning that they'd enlisted in the Confederate Army. Many of the local articles or obituaries of Southern officers indicate that they'd organized or recruited a company for the Army and the counties from which the soldiers were drawn are mentioned. The women who became Soldiers Wives complained that the planters and local community leaders had promised them provisions and assistance for them and their children when their husbands were off fighting. I'd guess that they were telling the truth.
 

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Thanks, ashleymel.

Two things changed from the period before the War in which secession was the topic of discussion in the South and the protection of women was a critical part of that discussion. The first is that the men who became soldiers came to recognize that defending their country might mean leaving their families, their wives and children, at great risk. The other was the realization that the War involved a massive organization of a military that might not respect the desires of individual soldiers to remain close to their families in North Texas or Georgia and that it might last longer than expected. That they wouldn't be home to harvest the crops now planted or to see those for next year put in the ground.

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18thVirginia

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Initially, Southern state governments embraced women and children as groups to be protected, with Mississippi declaring "herself to her soldiers that those dear ones they have left behind shall not want." McCurry. Confederate Reckoning (Kindle Locations 1757-1758). The State of Mississippi itself had begun to create the group that would define itself as "Soldiers Wives." But within a year or two, many of the rural women would find themselves at odds with their governments, which at many points forced a formerly unknown intrusion into their lives.

Much of Southern Civil War history of women focuses on the wives of the planter elite or the spouses and families of highly placed Confederate officers. But Stephenie McCurry argues that it was the Soldiers Wives, the women from poor white families, whose political awakening dates from their entreaties, petitions and finally, demands for their states to assist them during the War. At first, assistance for women was invoked by planters and farmers seeking exemption from the Confederate military and citing a need to help provide corn or other food supplies to the women in their neighborhoods. Or to protect elite women from their slaves. Within a year, women themselves would be addressing their governors, Army officers, and the War Department with the need to release men who would help provide for them.

Kate Stone often detailed her mother's arguments, once they were in Texas, with the local CSA officials to have her overseer exempted from military service.

[Lamar County, Tex.] Aug. 3: We have been to Paris and returned and well did our errand speed. Mamma’s eloquent representation to Gen. Smith (a militia general) of her forlorn condition if Mr. Smith was taken away brought the general, a rough old fellow, over to her view of the case at once, and he readily promised to give him a discharge. Mamma’s eloquence carried the day, for he impressed it on us all, but especially Mr. Smith, that it was entirely on Mamma’s account that he was granted leave.

Stone, Kate (1995-05-01). Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861–1868 (Library of Southern Civilization) (p. 231). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.

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Kate Stone relates several instances in which her mother has gone to visit General Kirby Smith in an attempt to get her overseer, Mr. Smith, out of the militia. At one point, Kate mentions that her mother may be able to secure his release by paying $500 and swearing that she is in need of his services. Kate makes a point early in her diary that the Smiths are not of her class but she describes the reaction of Mrs. Smith to her husband being taken into the militia:

Mrs. Smith insulted the men who came for Mr. Smith, and so they waylaid him and took him off to camp, not allowing him even to come by home and get a change of clothes. Mrs. Smith was deadly angry, and an ironical message from one of Mr. Smith’s captors has made her rabid.
Stone (p. 241). LSU Press. Kindle Edition.

Similarly, 46 women from Green County, Mississippi asked the Secretary of War to release a Private John Smith "for the purpose of assisting the distitute Famelies of Beat No. 3, greene County, Miss, of which we live, for there is not any person left to labour or provide in know shape." McCurry. (Kindle Locations 1863-1864).
 

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When these farm women who often found themselves now destitute wrote to their governors or the Secretary of War, they often signed "soldier's wife," "husband in service," "2 sons in the army" by their names. As women, they may not have been legally "citizens," but the War had forged a new identity for them as they often fought with various bureaucracies to get the assistance they needed. As one women in Jones County, Mississippi put it, she had not been told that her husband leaving for the service of his country would mean that she should "Beg from Door to Door."

An event that happened in New Orleans early in the war foreshadowed the distrust and anger that the non-elite classes of Southern women would come to feel for their governments. As the largest city in the South in 1861, New Orleans was obviously not a rural area, but it was a place where women might find it difficult to secure employment with their husbands and sons gone, the difficulty of coastal cities as they lost commercial trade due to the blockade, and an ineffective system for providing assistance to them. Poor women had to depend on either private or public charity to feed themselves and their children.

On July 30, 1861, the City Council in New Orleans met to discuss the offers of local planters and the problems of the Volunteer Relief Association, which was poorly run and had already run out of food. On the next day, 300 women with babies in arms and older children trailing along would march to the Mayor's office and demand food and rent money. They stated their rights as Soldiers Wives and according to the newspaper, "used abusive language" toward Mayor Monroe.

Mayor Monroe assured the women that the City Council would deal with their problems and on August 6th, the Council allotted $10,000 for food and made plans to open a distribution center. They called this effort "The New Orleans Free Market."

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Gallier Hall on the right, which in 1861 was City Hall for New Orleans.
 

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Within 2 weeks, New Orleans had set up a city government backed organization that served 2,000 people in the first week, but only the relatives of Confederate soldiers. There were 732 families on rolls of the Free Market on the first day in August, 1861 and 2,137 families by November, 1861, when supplies food had become scarcer. Thomas Murray, a local businessman, served as the director of the Free Market, where commodities were distributed between 9 am and 1 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to the "families and dependents of volunteers now engaged or who have been killed or died in service to the Confederacy." The Free Market of New Orleans, Mary Elizabeth Massey, JSTOR.

The market distribution was run by wealthy merchants, with each woman issued a ticket, which was checked before she could take her basket and enter the door where commodities were available. She had to be referred by a local alderman or or other official who vouched for her need in addition to her status as a Soldiers Wife. The first day offered such food stuffs as cornmeal, flour, sugar, rice, salmon, mackerel, eggplants, onions, beets, radishes, potatoes, corn, cabbage, tomatoes and dried apples. Massey, p. 209.

In New Orleans, as elsewhere in the Confederacy where cities adopted the Free Market model, the newspapers were enthusiastic.

Never in all the days of civilization....was there a Free Market sustained on such an extensive scale...We have heard of...soup houses for the poor, but not a Free Market, where everything, even luxuries, can be obtained. Daily Picayune, Sept. 14, 1861.
 

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Mary Elizabeth Massey noted that Mobile, Memphis, Natchez, Montgomery, Charleston and Richmond all set up Free Markets based on the New Orleans model. Mobile was the first to visit New Orleans to look at how food was supplied to the Soldier Wives in August, 1861. By the end of October, the Mobile Evening News reported that the authorities in Mobile had set up an organization like that in New Orleans. Perhaps the transportation difficulties in getting provisions into Mobile were similar to that of New Orleans and the powers that be wanted to avoid a near riot like that in the Crescent City.

In addition to donations of food from planters, the citizens of New Orleans held various fundraisers to raise the cash for food supplies. Benefit concerts, plays, comedy productions, balls and even lotteries were held to support the Free Market project. Some "charity tickets" were offered to those not affiliated with soldiers, but by March of 1862 supplies had dwindled and the tickets were again restricted to only soldiers wives and mothers. The Market operated from August 1861 to August 1862, supplying about 1700 families on each Tuesday and Thursday. Although other cities would found and operate Free Markets, none were quite like that of New Orleans, where there were songs written about the Market, a Negro dress ball to help raise funds and a raffle that featured a billiard table. Nonetheless, all these efforts depended on the threat of poor women to demand provisions, sometimes in a group and occasionally while armed.

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Poydras Market in New Orleans, where those who could afford to could purchase food.

One problem Soldier Wives and mothers complained about was the infrequency with which Confederate soldiers were paid, which made it difficult for those at home depending on their wages to survive.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Had no idea about the Free Markets, how crazy! I mean not to have heard of them! To have responded was indeed something. It's terrible but I have no idea if there was anything like it up here- with the lack of government response to medical care post battle, etc., I'm guessing ' no ' but perhaps another organization took it on.
 

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A lot of discussion of Civil War women in the South has extolled the sense of sacrifice of women of the planter class. It became part of Confederate propagandizing on women's unwavering support for the War, in which women were assigned a responsibility for the morale of the war effort. When women of the aristocratic elite communicated with their governors or other officials, they usually did so through in language provided by the lawyers who'd served the family. Their requests to officials were usually couched in legal terms, often asking for a son to be released from military service or another male who would help control their slaves.

The poorer women who became part of a political movement of Soldiers Wives were not so inclined to the ideology promoted by Confederate leaders and newspapers, their need was more immediate, to save themselves and their children from starvation. Their demands were based on their understanding that as one woman stated in her letter
"Every Body say I must be taken care of by the Confederate States they did not tell my Deare Husband that I should Beg from Door to Door when he went to fight for his country."

By 1863, when many of the food riots began, situations in parts of the Confederacy had become desperate for these women. Officials in Mobile had the same problem as those in New Orleans, as a port city suffering from the blockade of southern ports. Mobile had become one of the largest ports in the South and the fourth largest city in the Confederacy, with 29,258 people within the city. With supplies of food from water transport cut off, Mobile had come to rely on suppliers from the interior of Alabama and Mississippi.
 

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Bread Riot in Mobile, 1863

Various local groups had been established in Mobile to assist the poor during the War. The municipal authorities ran a Free Market like the one in New Orleans to serve hundreds of poor residents. A Volunteer Relief Committee raised funds to aid destitute residents. The Mobile Military Aid Society hired women who were soldiers wives to sew uniforms for Alabama soldiers. A group called the Mobile Supply Association attempted to alleviate the situation by sending its agents north in Alabama to find food supplies and ship them to the City.

By 1863, the local authorities in Mobile were no longer able to deal with the scarcity of food supplies or the huge escalations in price that left many destitute. Prices had risen some 750%, with these kinds of costs.

Pre-War 1863
Molasses $.30 per gallon $7.00 per gallon
Flour 44.00 per barrel 400.00 per barrel

Mobile had in the pre-war period received shipments of food from New Orleans, which had ended when that city fell in 1862. General John Pemberton further restricted food supplies to Mobile in the winter of 1862-63 by not allowing corn to be shipped outside of Mississippi. Although the citizenry in Mobile complained and the Mayor requested Pemberton to retract the order, the only relief was from food commissaries created by the Confederate government.
 

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On Friday, September 4, 1863, the scarcity in Mobile erupted into a food riot.

On October 1, 1863, The New York Times published an eyewitness account of the disturbance.

On Friday, the 4th inst., the women of Mobile, rendered desperate by their sufferings, met in large numbers on the Spring Hill road, with banners on which were printed such devices as "Bread or Blood," on one side, and "Bread and Peace" on the other, and armed with knives and hatchets, and marched down Dauphine-street, breaking open the stores in their progress, and taking for their use such articles of food or clothing as they were in urgent need of. It was, in fact, a most formidable riot by a long-sufferings and desperate population. http://www.nytimes.com/1863/10/01/n...utbreaks-in-one-day-arrivals-in-the-city.html
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Cotton Docks at Mobile (LoC)
 

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The Encyclopedia of Alabama states that the women gathered at a community called Spring Hill, outside of the town. They numbered in the dozens but were joined by a growing crowd as they marched into the central Business District and down Dauphine Street in the center of town. Armed with "axes, brickbats, hammers and brooms," they took food and clothing as well as other household items.

The Seventeenth Alabama Regiment was sent in to stop the bread riot, but according to the New York Times, from an article in the New Orleans Era, the soldiers refused to get involved.

Gen. MAURY, commanding at Mobile, ordered the Seventeenth Alabama regiment to put down the disturbance by force of arms. The soldiers refused to obey the order, saying that they would, if they took any action, rather assist those starving wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of men who had been forced to fight the battles of the rebellion. http://www.nytimes.com/1863/10/01/n...utbreaks-in-one-day-arrivals-in-the-city.html
Stephanie McCurry has spoken about the growing consciousness of poor women whose husbands had gone to war, but it's fascinating to read this original account, supposedly from an eyewitness, published in 1863.
 

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A local military company, the Mobile Cadets was then dispatched to try and quiet the riotous females. According to the NYTimes,

Now, the Cadets are known far and wide as a fancy military company, organized for the purpose of holiday show and parade, which has never yet seen service in any field, and probably never will. But being made of sterner stuff than the Seventeenth, which is probably largely made up of mudsills, the Cadets undertook to force these poor, desperate wowen to retire peaceably to their homes. Quite a little scrimmage ensued, resulting in the repulse of "the gallant fellows," who have figured in the Mobile papers for so many years as capable of material deeds. The Cadets were defeated and taught to fly in their first action, and the mob ruled the hour.

Finally, Mobile Mayor Slough was able to convince the crowd to disperse by promising to meet with them. He also wrote a letter that was published in the evening paper to request that wealthy citizens contribute funds to purchase food and clothing for the soldiers wives.

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Mayor Robert H. Slough, Mobile
 

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From Harper's Weekly, October 10, 1863

ANOTHER BREAD RIOT.
Another female bread riot is reported to have taken place in Mobile on September 4, on which occasion the Seventeenth Alabama troops were ordered out to put down the disturbance, but refused to do their duty. The Mobile Cadets were driven from the field, or rather streets, by the infuriated women. The rioters openly declared that "if some means were not rapidly devised to relieve their suffering or to stop the war they would burn the city." The suffering in Mobile is said to be very great.
http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/october/mobile-bread-riots.htm
 

JPK Huson 1863

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#20
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/bread-riots.111178/#post-1080717

Not at all taking away from the thread- adding to it, 18th, since it was such a huge matter. Not being Southern, I do not think I've been able to do the topic justice. I did end up being extremely entertained and a little distracted by North Carolina's take. Ha! Articles launched like yeast pellets indicate NC was sneering pretty hard at wealthy men who speculated with food and abandoned hungry women and children. I had no idea on any of this- 150 years later ' The Bread Riots ' can still be made to look ' unpatriotic '. Pretty funny.
 



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