Pass the Jug or Feed the Children

This May 1863 illustration, titled “Southern women feeling the effects of the rebellion, and creating bread riots,” shows the uprising in Richmond. In addition to food, the rioters took candles, shoes, bolts of cloth, hats and jewelry.

This May 1863 illustration, titled “Southern women feeling the effects of the rebellion, and creating bread riots,” shows the uprising in Richmond. In addition to food, the rioters took candles, shoes, bolts of cloth, hats and jewelry.

During the Civil War, middle class and poor Southerners suffered shortages of many food commodities – meat, coffee, salt, corn, and wheat among others. Corn and wheat were particularly dear, but shortages did not deter corn whiskey manufacturers, who found an eager market for their product.

Let me be clear. Citizens north and south drank, but Northerners produced grains in sufficient quantity to satisfy both their hunger and their thirst. The Union blockade, occasional droughts, and soldiers’ absence from their fields contributed mightily to Southerners’ limited capacity to feed their population.

As early as September 1862, Floyd County, Virginia citizens petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to outlaw the production of alcohol to enable soldiers’ families to obtain bread, noting that “the needy and unprotected families of the poorer classes were the primary sufferers of a recent drought.” [Robinson, “Prohibition in the Confederacy,” American Historical Review (October 1931)]

A group of Catawba County, NC women condemned the liquor manufacturers in an 1862 public notice:

It is but the common and spontaneous voice of the land, that if our country is lost, whiskey will be the cause of it. *** A bountiful Providence has given enough for man and beast; but distillers have already converted so much corn into poison, that prices look like famine ahead . . . .  And now distiller, we ask you, in heaven’s name, is it manly, is it brave, is it not dastardly and unalterably mean to force such prices for bread on us and our children?

Several weeks later, the women followed up their words with action. Armed with axes, they marched into a depot and, over the protests of the distillers, broke open barrels of whiskey totaling almost one thousand gallons. [Yearns and Barrett, North Carolina Civil War Documentary, pp. 177-178, UNC Press (1980)]

While most Southerners suffered, the social elite lived well. “In June 1863, only two months after the Richmond bread riot, Phoebe Pember attended a party with the Cary sisters and a bevy of local belles where she ate strawberries and ice cream and promenaded with handsome ‘cavaliers.’” [Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism, Univ. of Ill. Press, p. 198 (1989)]

For those not so fortunate to indulge in luxuries, the choice was to pass the jug or feed the children.

Other Resources: Article on the Richmond food riot from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Link: www.timesdispatch.com/special-section/the-civil-war/civil-war-th-richmond-bread-riots-were-biggest-civil-uprising/article_faa79410-99a9-11e2-a04a-001a4bcf6878.html

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, history, Uncategorized

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