Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Dreadful Affair, A Delightful Walk

Don't try to keep a woman from her carbs and shoes.

That could have been the theme for today's Civil War and Emancipation Day walking tour, which began on the front steps of the State Capital at 11 a.m.

Knowing that the walk was only going to cover two miles in two hours, I walked to the Capital, adding another mile each way to the trek.

I've been on enough walking tours to know that the first rule of them is that most of the people who attend really don't like walking.

The theme was the 1863 Richmond Bread Riot, which, if you don't know, was an uprising by local women who were hungry and tired of their husbands and sons being away at war.

When the large group got divided into thirds, I opted for the only female tour guide, Ashley who was with the National Park Service, because why hear about women from a man?

Since each guide had devised their own notes, I wanted to hear the version told by someone with girl parts.

One of the crowd "herders" was a male volunteer with the Park service and he cracked wise almost at once.

Leaning into a clutch of women, he joked, "Any of you ladies decide to start a riot, here's my Martin's card, you can go get all the bread you want. Or white house rolls."

It was an auspicious day to commemorate the bread riot since it had happened almost exactly 150 years ago, on April 2, 1863.

Ashley talked about how Richmond's population had swollen from 38,000 pre-war to over 100,000 during the war and how food prices had climbed with all the new residents.

Tea went from $1 a pound in 1860 to $8 in 1863, but the most painful jump was in bacon, which went from $1.25 for ten pounds to $10.

Those hucksters and speculators should have known better than to mess with the price of a woman's bacon.

Next thing you know, they got uppity and became political activists, meeting at a church in Oregon Hill and allowing a woman (!) to climb the pulpit and entreat the women to riot.

A woman named Mary Tucker exhorted them, "Don't act like heathens, act like ladies. Unless we don't get what we want."

It was gender anarchy!

Chanting "bread or blood," the women took to the streets on April 2 to appropriate the things they didn't have and needed.

After meeting at the State Capitol, the women headed east (as did we) where Richmond Segway is now and the former site of the first store the women looted, Pollard and Walker Wholesale Market.

To their credit, they focused on looting the stores where hucksters and speculators had been selling necessities at jacked-up prices.

Grabbing everything they could and throwing some on wagons and carrying the rest, they moved on to 14th and Cary, as did we.

"By this time, you could say all hell was breaking loose on the tour, I mean, riot, " Ashley said.

One rioter walked out with a big slab of bacon on her head and a ham in each arm, where a man tried telling her, "Madam, you are forgetting yourself."

She put the hams down and spit in his face.

They also broke into the many shoe stores along Main Street, where now the state parking garage sits, absconding with white satin slippers and cavalry boots.

As we made our way down to the farmer's market, the culmination of the looting, with the group straggling down the block, it occurred to me that even emaciated and starving, the Richmonders of 1863 were in far better shape than this group.

And they hadn't been wearing walking shoes, either, I'm quite sure.

Tour guide Ashley noted something similar, saying, "It's hard enough to get this tour done in two hours, much less a riot."

The winded group was amazed to hear that the women had managed to loot along Cary, Main and the city market in a brief two-hour period, making off with a huge amount of bacon, flour and soap, among other things.

By the second hour of the riot, the Public Guard had been called to suppress the women's riot and it was there that a woman observed, "I couldn't have done this riot with all these hills."

I'm quite sure they considered the geography of their uprising, honey.

Ashley said the only injury of the riot was when a woman put her arm through the glass in a shop window and the shop owner proceeded to cut off four of her fingers.

There's a visual I wish I didn't have.

Near the end of the riot, shop owners wised up and began opening their doors to the women rather than have them destroy the windows and doors of their shops.

Of course, the papers that night were full of stories about the badly-behaving women, labeling them, "Prostitutes, thieves, Irish and Yankee hags."

As both part Irish and a Yankee woman, I resemble that remark.

It didn't take long for the governor to ban the newspapers from writing about the incident, hoping to keep a good face on the southern cause, just in case they could get some European aid.

Besides, no true Richmond lady would have participated in such a thing, right?

Interestingly enough, by the 1880s they'd changed their tune and were far more understanding of the women's actions.

After seeing all the sites where the rioters had taken what was justifiably theirs, we remounted the hill to the Capital for some discussion of the impact of the women's bread riot.

I told Ashley, that in my opinion, the bread riot was a gender issue as much as an historic issue and she agreed.

The idea of genteel Southern women taking control by taking to the streets, looting and defying authority, showed that the war extended far beyond the battlefields.

And while the women got chided for taking things they couldn't eat (dress silks, shoes, jewelry, hats), by the third year of the war, it's easy to imagine how the women just wanted something to make them feel normal again.

By the time I left the group and headed back up Grace Street toward Jackson Ward, all I wanted was a little bread, maybe with some bacon on it.

You know, in honor of those Richmond women who took matters into their own, delicate hands back when that just wasn't done.

Redefining gender norms would have been right up my alley.

I wouldn't have cared about the shoes, but I'd have joined them in a heartbeat for the bacon.

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