On March 18, 1863, a large group of very determined women marched through the streets of Salisbury, North Carolina. Between fifty and seventy in number, they were the widows and wives of Confederate soldiers who could no longer feed their families. So off they went to the railroad station where they heard that a merchant – a speculator, as they termed him – had stored some flour. The agent at the station tried to keep them out, insisting that there was nothing there. But he was no match for a passel of angry women, who came armed with hatchets and knew how to use them. As an eyewitness described it, they stormed past him and into the station. “The last I saw of the agent, he was sitting on a log blowing like a March wind.” (Presumably, that meant he had been rendered as pointless as a winter wind come spring, howling loudly, but to no real effect.) The women “took ten barrels, and rolled them out and were setting on them, when I left, waiting for a wagon to haul them away.”
Such actions, often led by women, took place all over the Confederacy in 1863. The most notorious unfolded in Richmond, where a mass meeting devolved into a riot that cleaned out the city’s business district. Observers then and historians now have explained women’s actions primarily in terms of desperation. To be sure, there was more than enough desperation to go around at this point in the war, when the Confederacy was short of pretty much everything. The spring of 1863 proved particularly difficult because produce from the previous growing season had run out and that from the new season had yet to mature. As prices skyrocketed, patience wore thin and tempers flared, ending in actions like the ones in Salisbury and Richmond.