Richmond Dispatch, 1/20/1889

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From the Richmond Dispatch, 1/20/1889

A Memorable Event in the City’s War History - Recollections of a Number of Well-Known Citizens.

Recent publications in this paper of reminiscences of the “bread riot” of April 1, 1863, have awakened much interest and excited no little controversy, inasmuch as there is a great conflict of statement. Some of those who fondly believed that they knew all of the facts find themselves confronted by testimony which cannot be contradicted, and yet differs materially from what they imagined to be the true history of that memorable day.

The chief matter of difference is as to whether or not President Davis had anything to do with dispersing the mob.

It is certain that on Franklin street at a point somewhere between the Old market and the Exchange Hotel Governor Letcher confronted the riotous and robbing crowd, and, taking out his watch, said in substance: “I give you five minutes to disperse, and if at the expiration of that time the street is not cleared I will order Lieutenant Gay to fire”; but there is an impression, evidence indeed, that at another locality in the city, where also the women were sacking the stores, President Davis also did what it is certain Governor Letcher did at the point just mentioned.

The difficulty in reconciling the statements of ye-witnesses seems to be that the mob gathered and was dispersed on several streets.

When in 1875 Governor Letcher wrote a letter on the subject to Judge S. Bassett French the Governor seems to have been under the impression that the dispersion of the mob was due to him alone, though he did not say so in terms; but it now appears, though the Governor probably did not know it, that President Davis was at one of the scenes of disturbance.

The Public Guard was a company of State troops. It was, in fact, “Virginia’s standing army”; but its ordinary duties were to guard the armory (where its quarters were), the penitentiary, and the Capitol and Capitol Square. Its commandant was Captain Dimmock, but at this date he was acting as ordnance officer of the State, and the first lieutenant, (afterward captain) Gay, was in command. The Guard was ordered from the armory by Governor Letcher, who sent his aid, Colonel S. Bassett French, to summon them to this special duty.

The contemporaneous records on this subject are very scant; it was not desirable to give the enemy any information concerning our internal troubles, and hence the affair was dismissed with bare and contemptuous notice; but that it was of much consequence may be judged from the fact that the military, the president of the Confederate States, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of the city, and numerous other functionaries were brought out, either to quell the rioting or to quiet the excited populace.

A fact not hitherto mentioned is that Bishop McGill was sent to assist the authorities in allaying the excitement.

The riot act seems to have been read to the mob by divers persons at divers places, and, among others, by Mr. William Taylor, then a magistrate of Jefferson Ward. His store was on Main street in the neighborhood of the Old market, and Mr. James A. Scott, the president of the Council, came from the Mayor to Mr. Taylor asking the latter to read the act. Mr. Taylor caught up with the crowd at the corner of Franklin and Eighteenth streets, where, mounting a dry-goods box, he performed his duty, and soon afterwards the Public Guard filed into Franklin street from Main, and in a little while Governor Letcher made his decisive proclamation, enforced by the presence of bayonets.

An intelligent citizen says that while he does not claim to know what occurred down town, this he remembers, that after the unlawful demonstrations had ceased a crowd of people assembled on Main street in front of the post-office (the granite building on Main street between Tenth and Eleventh) and were addressed by President Davis. While speaking a woman threw a loaf of bread at Mr. Davis, and Mr. Davis in the quietest manner possible and with signal eloquence used the incident to argue that bread could not possibly be very scarce here, else it would not be parted with upon such small provocation.

The women who participated in the sacking of the stores in the mobs represented a rough element, but they did not belong to the most depraved class of their sex.

Those were grievous time. Bread was scarce and high. Meat was a luxury. Coffee and sugar had long since disappeared from the tables of the poor. Most of the able-bodied men were in the army, but the population was largely increased as the city was filled with refugee country people, many of whom left their homes in the night-time and empty-handed and fled to Richmond to escape the enemy’s raiders and marauders. There was great suffering. With many, to this day, those times come across the memory like a black shadow. There was such privation as can only come to a beleagured city. Withal, there were known to be here, in the midst of people unexcelled in patriotism and in ready self-sacrifice, some who availed themselves of the distresses of the community to grow rich by hoarding provisions and clothing and selling at high prices. In this conjuncture the bread riot came about. The mass of the community greatly regretted it. Many of the offenders were caught and punished, and nearly all of those who participated in it grew ashamed of the parts they had taken.

In the letters following there is much readable information on the subject, and especially as to the parts taken by Governor Letcher ad President Davis:


Who gave the mob five minutes to disperse or e fired into? and whereabouts in the city did this occur?

I had heard in the early morning of the expected riot and was standing at the corner of the Old market on Main street when I saw the mob coming down Main and also turning into Main from Fifteenth street, at which point they commenced to break into and plunder every store on the south side of Main. I, in company with others, remained until the mob reached the Old market, at which point a stout, chunky man, without coat or hat, with axe over his shoulder, called out to the mob: “Now fer Franklin street.” The mob immediately turned into Seventeenth street to Franklin and started to pillage the stores near that point. Just as they turned into Franklin street a boy standing by me called out: “Here comes the Public Guard.” On looking up Main street I saw the Public Guard coming down at a double quick. When they reached the Old market Captain Gay halted for a moment and called out to those who were present: “Which way have they gone?” The answer was, “Around to Franklin street.” He immediately put his men in motion, and as he turned into Franklin street those present followed behind. When we reached Franklin street we saw men and women with arms full of goods scampering in all directions - up Seventeenth street, up Union street, up every alley, and anywhere to hide with their plunder. Those who were so unfortunate as not to get something were seen flying up Franklin street and mixing with the crowd who filled the streets between the Exchange Hotel and Governor street. Captain Gay halted his men about five minutes at Union and Franklin, by which time every rioter had left and everything was quiet. He then continued with his command (about twenty men) up Franklin street, I with others following. When we reached Governor street President Davis was addressing the crowd from Binford & Porter’s corner. No order was given to fire on the mob; he only counseled them to go home.

That afternoon in conversation with my friend George A. Freeman (who I think was High Constable of Richmond at the time), who was present at the commencement at Twelfth ad Cary streets, he informed me that Mayor Mayo addressed the crowd at that point; also that Governor Letcher addressed them at Spence’s corner afterwards. I remember remarking to him that as the rioters were not there but lower down town, it reminded me of what we read in our histories in school-boy days of some officials “fiddling while Rome was burning.”

From my own knowledge I am satisfied that all the credit of stopping the rioting and dispersing the rioters is due Captain Gay and the Public Guard; that President Davis addressed the citizens and lookers-on with a large part of the mob, who fled before the Public Guard at Governor and Franklin streets; on authority of my friend George A. Freeman that Mayor Mayo addressed the citizens and lookers-on at Twelfth and Cary streets and read the riot act, and that Governor Letcher addressed about the same body at Spence’s corner, Governor and Main.

From the time the mob started down Main street from the St. Charles Hotel there was not an officer, civil or military, who interfered or attempted to stay the progress of the mob, although they passed the First police-station. The only attempt was by the owners of the stores, which in most cases proved unavailing.                                                  JAMES SINTON.


Having read with much interest your papers on the bread riot, I wish to add my testimony, unless you think you have had enough. My recollection of the occurrence is very vivid, having been at the time almost in it. I resided in Richmond, being a member of the firm of Tardy & Williams, whose store, a large warehouse, with open windows on its frontage and side, was at the corner of Cary and Thirteenth streets. We conducted an auction business, and had weekly sales of such commodities as could then be had, and they [the sales] were frequently to large amounts and were largely attended. On the day of the riot we were to have had a large sale of tobacco and salt; also of other goods brought into the Confederacy by vessels from foreign ports what had successfully run the blockade. We were just about commencing to sell when the attention of our force was called to something going on up Cary street. I went to the door and found a crowd of women and boys coming down Twelfth from Main. It turned down Cary, and commenced breaking into the stores of Tyler and others, taking out everything they could lay their hands on. I just had time, with the help of Mr. Tardy, to close and bar the doors and windows before the mob was right in front of us. Our auctioneer (Gabriel Johnson, of Fredericksburg), a venerable and fine-looking old gentleman with long white hair and beard, mounted a dray right in front of the store and earnestly addressed the mob, urging them to desist. After closing the store I was an interested spectator, and observed from my stand inside one of the front windows the progress of the mob. Just then John Letcher came on the scene, accompanied by several gentlemen (Dr. John Mayo, I think, was one). He halted and addressed the crowd. I remember distinctly how grandly e looked. He was elevated above all other heads; his nerves as steady and his deportment as cool and determined as if such trials were of daily occurrence. In his remarks he stated that any one suffering for bread or anything else not only had his sympathy, but should be relieved as far as was practicable, but that he had no sympathy with mobs, and as long as he was Governor of Virginia they should not be allowed in Richmond, and he would use all the power under his control to suppress them. He then commanded the crowd to disperse, stating that he had sent for Captain Gay, and that he with his command was almost there. Drawing out his watch he gave them exactly five minutes in which to leave. If in this time they had not dispersed he would direct the officers to fire into the crowd. Still holding the watch he stood like a statue solemn and earnest. For a moment or so the crowd was still, ad then it commenced breaking up on the edges. Three minutes passed. It had thinned out considerably, and in five minutes the last one had disappeared in different directions, the greater part going down Cary to Fourteenth. These people knew the man, and they fully believed that he would do what he promised, and so do I. There may have been other meetings of the mob (I think that quite likely) which were addressed and controlled by President Davis, but he was not on this scene. This mob was managed and well managed by honest John Letcher.
                                                                                                            JAMES T. WILLIAMS.


I had the pleasure recently of reading in the columns of your widely-circulated paper an interesting account of the bread riot of 1863 and it was the first mention that I have ever seen of it in the public press. I saw the whole of it, from the sacking of the stores on Cary street until the mob dispersed on Franklin street, and if you will allow me space in your paper to briefly mention what I saw I may be able to throw a little light on that memorable event. I desire first to say that Mr. D. S. Doggett’s statement, published with the numerous other conflicting statements, agrees with what came under my observation more nearly than any other. I was at the corner of Cary and Seventeenth street when I first heard of the riot, and in company with a young friend soon ran to the scene, and found myself in the midst of at least 500 women who were wild with excitement. The sacking of the stores was in full play. I saw but few men engaged in plundering. I well remember one old soldier who took an active part in sacking Hicks’s shoe store. I noticed six or seven pair of boots on his arm, and in answer to my inquiry as to what he was going to do with all those boots he gravely replied that he was getting them for his mess. At the sacking of these stores I do not recollect hearing the riot act read, nor seeing any soldiers. When the mob had finished its work at this point it started in a wild rush for Main street , but on reaching the corner of Main and Fourteenth streets it divided, one portion going to Franklin and the other part proceeding to plunder stores on Main street . The leader of the mob, a Mrs. J____ remained with the section on the latter street. She was a determined woman, to say the least of her. It was she who led the attack on Page’s shoe store. I saw her approach one of the large show windows, and with one or two blows of her hatchet shiver the immense panes of glass, and followed by other women rush pell-mell through the opening into the store.

Whilst this scene was taking place on Main street the Public Guard came “double quicking” down the street, with arms at a right-shoulder shift, with Lieutenant Gay at their head. I ran along with them until they reached the corner of Seventeenth, when they wheeled to the left in the direction of Franklin . Here I was placed hors du combat by some one in the crowd. Why I was struck I have never been able to learn. However, soon recovering I followed on in the wake of the Guard, which was up Franklin to within a short distance east of the Exchange Hotel. Here the Guard formed in front of President Davis, who delivered an eloquent appeal to the mob to disperse, which had that effect. I was within three feet of Lieutenant Gay and heard him say to the mob, “You have seven minutes to disperse,” and to his command, “Remember, men, your guns are loaded with ball cartridges,” but his words seemed to have no effect on that wild, defiant mob. There were a number of soldiers from camp here and they told the Guard if they fired on those women they would return to camp ad get men enough to “clean them out.” Who gave the order to fire* I do not know, but it could not have been President Davis, for his words were of a most conciliatory character.


Washington, D. C.


We have had numerous statements in regard to the bread riot (so called) in this city during the late civil war. I doubt not all the persons testifying are sincere in their impressions, but the question “Who struck Billy Patterson?” still remains undecided in the minds of some. To my mind it isn’t difficult of solution. I take the simple statement of George I. Herring, Esq., an old resident, one who for years was in business here, and who consequently was well acquainted with the citizens and whose place of business was in the neighborhood of the difficulty and whose opportunity of knowing that about which he testifies was equal, if not superior, to most of those whose statements have appeared. He says: I saw the whole transaction; saw the Governor, heard him order the mob to disperse. Read, also, Major Baskerville’s statement. He saw Governor Letcher, but failed to see the President. It is certain he wasn’t present when the riot act was read, nor afterwards, as there was no occasion for his presence. But leaving out all other evidence, it seems to me Governor Letcher’s letter to Colonel French should be conclusive to every unprejudiced mind. Those who knew the Governor need not be told that he wasn’t the man to make an erroneous statement or to appropriate to himself the credit due to another; that when he says, as he does in his letter to Colonel French, I gave them [i. e., the rioters] five minutes in which to disperse, he means that and nothing else. I have always understood that it was Governor Letcher who suppressed the riot and dispersed the mob. In corroboration allow me to say that my wife, not knowing anything unusual was occurring, called at the Executive Mansion and was there upon the return of the Governor after the riot had been suppressed. Upon Mrs. Letcher asking him about the affair he stated in their presence that he took out his watch and gave the crowd five minutes in which to leave, otherwise he would order the troops to fire, whereupon Mrs. Letcher exclaimed: “Oh, Mr. Letcher, you wouldn’t have fired upon them, would you?” And he replied, “Indeed I would.” And the noble old Roman would have been true to his word.



*There never was any order to fire given. - Dispatch.


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