Most histories of the Civil War have concentrated on the military struggle between the North and South, in a war that took six hundred thousand lives (the equivalent of more than three million dead in today's population), however something important has been overlooked: the conflict between rich and poor on both sides of the conflict.
In the North, as the industrial system grew, men and women trapped in the factories began to rebel against their employers, against the conditions of their lives. The coming of the war muted this conflict, but did not eliminate it. There were strikes all over the country during the war. The war itself was seen in class terms. Because the rich could escape the draft by paying $300, it was the poor, as in any war, who died in battle. The draft riots in New York and other places were directed both against the rich and against black people, whom they saw as responsible for the onset of the war.
In the South, only a minority of white people were slave owners, but many poor whites were persuaded that their future also depended on the maintenance of slavery. Some Southern whites volunteered, and others were drafted. But as the war went on, desertion grew in the Confederate army. At home, Southern women rioted when they saw their husbands and sons suffering and dying in the war while plantation owners grew cotton instead of food because cotton was more profitable.
Thus, while forces in the North and South both demanded "unity" to fight the war, class conflict continued. The unity was artificial, created by the rhetoric of politicians—and enforced by arms. Working people in the North would be attacked by soldiers if they dared to strike. Indians would be massacred in Colorado by the U.S. Army. And those daring to criticize Lincoln's policies would be put in jail without trial—perhaps thirty thousand political prisoners suffered this fate.
It was a classic situation, the onset of war spurring demands for national unity, though in reality the nation was divided between rich and poor. When the war ended, that division would assert itself forcefully, dramatically.
In April 1863, there was a bread riot in Richmond, Virginia. That summer, draft riots occurred in various southern cities. In September, another bread riot broke out in Mobile, Alabama. Georgia Lee Tatum, in her study Disloyalty in the Confederacy, writes, "Before the end of the war, there was much disaffection in every state, and many of the disloyal had formed into bands—in some states into well-organized, active societies." Acts of resistance took place not only among soldiers, but also among women forced to deal with the growing costs of the war. These articles from Southern newspapers show the ferment of the time.From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove
A small "bread riot" occurred in Savannah [Georgia] on Tuesday last [April 17, 1864]. The News says that a combination of women numbering from fifty to one hundred, appeared at a grocery store on Whitaker street, when their demand for provisions being made, the proprietor was in the act of distributing bacon among them, when others of the party made a rush into the store and helped themselves to whatever they wanted. The same crowd also went to two other places on the same mission, where they obtained bacon, etc. Three of the women were arrested and taken to the guard house, and would be brought before the Mayor Thursday morning.
In relation to this affair, the News says:
That the present high prices of provisions have provided distress no one can doubt, and it is probable that some who participated in the riotous proceedings of yesterday were goaded to their course by pressure of want, but if we are rightly informed many if not the majority of them, had not even that excuse for the commission of acts of lawlessness. Be this as it may, there can be no necessity or justification for such acts of outrage and robbery. It is not generally the truly worthy deserving poor who resort to such measures, and those who thus set the laws and public propriety at defiance forfeit the sympathy of the community. If there is indeed want and suffering let the sufferers make their condition known in the right quarter, and a community that has never turned a deaf ear to the appeals of the helpless and needy will give them relief.
We trust that our city authorities will investigate this matter, ascertain who they are that truly need assistance, and take the proper steps for their relief. Such action is not only due to the wives and children of soldiers in the service, to the helpless poor, and to the peaceful and good name of our community, but also to the best interests of our city. While the mob spirit should be met with firmness, we should, in these times, act in accordance with the maxim of "help one another." Let the turbulent be rebuked, but let not the worthy and law abiding poor suffer.
Whether it pays best to suffer pestering
By idle girls and garrulous old women,
Or to take up arms against a host of Yankees,
And by opposing get killed—To die, to sleep,
(Git eout) and in this sleep to say we "sink
To rest by all our Country's wishes blest"
And live forever—(that's a consummation
Just what I'm after). To march, to fight—
To fight! perchance to die, aye ther's the rub!
For while I'm asleep, who'll cake care of Mary
And the babes—when Billy's in the low ground,
Who'll feed 'em, hey! There's the respect
I have for them that makes life sweet;
For who would bear the bag to mill,
Plough Dobbin, cut the wheat, dig taters,
Kill hogs, and do all sorts of drudgery
If I am fool enough to get a Yankee
Bullet on my brain! Who'll cry for me!
Would patriotism pay my debts, when dead?
But oh! The dread of something after death—
That undiscovered fellow who'll court Mary,
And do my huggin—that's agony,
And makes me want to stay home,
Specially as I aint mad with nobody.
Shells and bullets make cowards of us all,
And blam'd my skin if snortin steeds,
And pomp and circumstance of War
Are to be compared with feather beds
And Mary by my side.
On Thursday last, about fifty women in Miller county, claiming to be soldiers' wives, made a raid upon the tithe depot at Colquit, in said county, and with axes, forced open the door, and abstracted therefrom about fifty sacks of government corn—about one hundred bushels. At last accounts from them, another raid of the same character was apprehended. Wonder why it is that soldiers' wives are reduced to the necessity of providing from themselves? Would not the proper authorities do well to look into the matter? If these women were forced by necessity to commit the depredation above alluded to—and even the wives of soldiers, absent in the defense of their country, their wants should be relieved at once.
Upon poor women and children, upon soldiers who are toiling and bleeding for liberty, upon salaried men who have not the time, or who desire to speculate, the whole weight of this fearful struggle falls. Men of wealth, who are hoarding thousands, put up the piteous cry of exorbitant rates—more bitterly than ever just after increasing the prices one thousand fold, while upon ragged blood drenched soldiers, upon weary despairing, heart sick women, and those whose only dependence is a pitiful yearly sum must be made to bitterly suffer.
Non producers alone feel the war. Others can meet high rates with the same— those who speculate not, must shift as best they can. What matters life or death so avarice can be gratified? What is honor unattended by wealth? What is liberty, unless money can be hoarded by millions? What, if the country be ruined, its women ravished, its homes desolated, its altars violated and freedom forever perish—what matters all so the almighty dollar may be amassed in piles? What care men of the present day whether their country sinks so property may be secured, and the price at which liberty is bought rests as light as possible upon their patriotic shoulders?
That is right. Pile up wealth—no matter whether bread be drawn from the mouth of the soldiers orphan or the one-armed, one limbed hero who hungry walks your streets—take every dollar you can, pay out as little as possible, deprive your noble warriors of every comfort and luxury, increase in every way the necessaries of life, make everybody but yourself and non producers bear the taxes of the war; but be very careful to parade everything you give before the public—talk boldly on the street corners of your love of country, be a grand home general—and, when the war is over, point to your princely palace and its magnificent surroundings and exclaim with pompous swell "These are the results of my patriotism."
◆ Report on a Bread Riot in Savannah, Georgia (April 1864). In the Augusta Chronicle and Sentinel (August, Georgia), April 22,1864, n.p.
◆ "Exempt" (Unknown), "To Go, Or Not to Go" (June 28, 1864). In the Milledgeville Confederate Union (Midgeville, Georgia), June 28,1864, n.p.
◆ O.G.G. (Unknown), Letter to the Editor (February 17, 1865). In the Macon Daily Telegraph and Confederate (Macon, Georgia), February 24,1865, n.p.
◆ Columbus Sun, "The Class That Suffer" (February 1865). In the Augusta Chronicle and Sentinel (Augusta, Georgia), February 17,1865, n.p.