What if told you a story about riots, looting and violence on the streets of Mobile in protest? Your first thought probably takes you to the summer of 2020 with riots occurring all over the world over the issue of police injustice and race. This story however, is over 150 years old. The event known as the Mobile Bread Riots of 1863 sound eerily similar to the events found in our streets throughout the country today.
Antebellum Mobile had seen incredible growth in the city. In 1820, just after the state of Alabama had officially joined the United States, the population of Mobile was a modest 1,500 people. By 1860 it had exploded to almost 30,000. Mobile was the fourth largest city in the south, the second largest exporter of cotton and the crop had brought a great fortune to the city and its economy.
In 1860, with political unrest over slavery and states’ rights looming, the election of Abraham Lincoln that November divided the country more than ever and talks of a succession from the United States ensued. One by one, southern states began voting to succeed. When the Confederate States of America was formed in 1861, the new country was the 4th largest economy in the world. There was never a concern for food supply with farms and adequate food supplies. Mobile at this time was abound with oyster bars, coffee shops and saloons. The toll of the war would soon see an economy built on greed and fortune turn upside down.
The Union navy quickly devised a plan to block all the major southern ports. The Union quickly captured New Orleans in 1861. Railroads were destroyed all along the south. This left Mobile as the only major port along the Gulf Coast that could supply food and other supplies to the southern states. The Union blockade of Mobile Bay made it very difficult for ships to pass through the narrow channel and make it to Mobile.
Middle and lower class Mobilians suffered greatly from material and food shortages. Household essentials like ribbons, needles and buttons were hard to come by. Nails were needed all throughout the south to rebuild torn down or burnt houses. Food essentials like coffee, paper, salt and sugar were hard to find causing an inflation never seen before. Molasses which before the war had sold for $.70 a gallon now was $7.00 per gallon. Flour rose from $4.00 to $400.00 per gallon. Butter saw a rise of .50 to $5.00 per pound.
To make things worse for Mobilians, Confederate general John C. Pemberton, commander of a department from the Mississippi River Valley issued a proclamation that corn no longer be transported throughout the south from the state of Mississippi. Corn was a staple food and this angered many Mobilians.
Middle and lower class women began to be upset when their husbands and sons were dying and suffering on the battlefield while plantation owners, mostly exempt from fighting, were growing cotton instead of food because cotton was still profitable.
MobIlians had finally reached their breaking point. On the morning of September 4, 1863, hundreds of men and women gathered in the Spring Hill community and marched until they reached the primary business district of Dauphin Street. The number of marchers grew as the men and women made the 7 mile stretch to Downtown Mobile. They were carrying signs that proclaimed, “Bread and Peace” and “Bread or Blood”. Armed with knives and hatchets, hammers and brooms they broke windows of local stores and looted food and clothing. Confederate General Dabney Maury called local troops out to quiet the women but the soldiers refused and instead assisted their starving wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. The Mobile Cadets were then dispatched to quiet the angry women. Even they could not contain the angry rioters. The New York Times reported, “The Cadets were defeated and taught to fly in their first action, and the mob ruled the hour.” The rioters declared that if some means we’re not quickly devised to relive their suffering or stop the war they would burn the city.
This caught the attention of Mobile’s mayor, Robert Slough and the Provost-Marshal who in a speech, promised relief to the angry rioters by asking wealthy Mobilians to donate funds for food and clothes. He later formed relief committees which helped the locals with their needs and prevented any future bread riots from occurring.
A group of people suffering, trying to have their voices heard by means of marches, protests, riots and looting in the midst of a time of uncertainty in our country sounds exactly like a story from 2020, not what you would expect from 1863 in Mobile. Some would ask, “Does history repeat itself?” A wise man once answered, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”