On Wednesday, the first day of April, 1863, "The Enrollment Act", the nation's first military draft, went into effect. Signed by Lincoln just the month before, it required all males 20 to 45 years of age to register. They would then be called up to meet monthly quotas established for each Congressional district. However, draftees could buy an exemption for $300 (equal to over $6,000 today), or pay a substitute to serve for them. Critics now labeled it a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight. Within months this would lead to riots. But in the Confederacy, the war was even more unpopular.
On Thursday, 2 April 1863 a thousand or so desperate workers, most from the Tredegar Iron Works (above) gathered at the foot of Washington's statue in Capital Square, demanding a meeting with Virginia Governor John Lecter, to discuss food shortages.
It had been a hard winter for all 100,000 war time citizens of Richmond, Virginia (above). In early March there had been an explosion at the Brown's Island ammunition factory which killed 45 workers, all women and girls. There had been 20 measurable snow falls over the bitter cold winter, and just the week before a foot of snow had isolated the city.
The weather was driving up food prices almost as much as the Union blockade. Speculators had tripled the pre-war price of flour to $40 a barrel. Milk and butter, if they were available, now cost 4 times what they had in 1861. In early March the desperate Jefferson government had seized 5,000 barrels of flour from Richmond speculators, but that did nothing to convince workers the government cared about their sacrifices.
Tredegar was the third largest iron works in the United States, and the largest in the Confederacy. Its 900 skilled employees forged cannon and locomotives and the sheathing for iron clad warships. Half of Tredegar's workers were slaves - who were, of course, provided smaller food allowances than the whites. And with so many white males in uniform, most of the remaining white workers were women. If the Confederacy could not feed workers in this vital industry, it was clearly doomed.
The problem was becoming a crises. According to the "The Carolina Watchman", on Wednesday, 18 March, 1863, 50 hungry, angry wives and mothers of Confederate soldiers were driven to chop down the pantry door of a grocery in the Piedmont village of Salisbury, North Carolina. They accused the owner, Micheal Brown, of profiteering when he had no flour available at the state mandated $20 a barrel. After hacking at the door for several minutes, the women were convinced to accept just 20 barrels to end the assault.
Down the street at "Henderson and Enniss", John Enniss provided 3 more barrels of flour. Another store owner managed to buy off the hungry women with a single jug of molasses. Shop owner Thomas Foster claimed the salt in his store was already paid for and waiting to be shipped. Instead he offered the women $20 cash out of his own pocket. The women took the cash, and some salt. The railroad agent protecting a flour shipment at the Carolina Depot was literately run over by the women. "They took ten barrels, and rolled them out and were setting on them...waiting for a wagon to haul them away."
The "Watchman" said the Commissioners for County Relief should hang their heads in shame for allowing things to get this bad. But the paper also chastised "the ladies" - "In God’s name let us not fall to devouring each other by mobs." Such riots were not uncommon that spring, everywhere the local authorities had failed to appreciate the plight of the working poor, such as in the Virginia capital of the Confederacy.
Back in Richmond, the Governor lectured the Tredegar protesters and promised no concessions. The crowd began march down the street, chanting "Bread, bread, bread." The mayor ordered them to disperse. In response, 40 year old, 6 foot tall butcher's apprentice Minerva Meredith, raised a "skeleton arm" and shouted, "We are starving!" The chant now switched to "Bread or blood!"
The mob began emptying warehouses, grocery stores, mercantile shops, seizing food, clothing, and wagons. Some merchants resisted but most watched helplessly as the looters seized bacon, ham, flour, and shoes.
Two hours after it began, Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered the looters to go home. He had a loaf of bread thrown at his head. He then took out his pocket watch and announced that in five minutes he would order the militia to open fire.
Before the willingness of the local men to shoot down hungry local women was tested, the crowd dispersed. Some 60 men and women were brought to trial, including Minerva Meredith, She was convicted and sentenced to 6 months in jail and fined $100. The rebel authorities tried to keep the riot secret, but a week later the details appeared in the New York Times. Few noticed it, however. Nor did they notice the big things that were beginning to happen along the Mississippi River, near Vicksburg.
Any sane person in 1863, wishing to travel from the village of Richmond, Louisiana to New Carthage, Louisiana would make most of the journey by water. You might begin at Richmond's railroad depot, and take a train to the end of the line, 5 miles west to the the port of Desoto. There you would board a ferry to cross the 900 yard wide Mississippi River to the town of Vicksburg, where you would transfer to a riverboat.
Five miles south on the river you would pass the somber ruins of Warrenton, Mississippi (above). In the summer of 1862, Yankees from Admiral Farragut's blue water fleet had shelled the town, and then landed a regiment, seeking to intimidate nearby Vicksburg into surrender. But the rebels had counter attacked and the battered buildings had been fought over until the the Yankees were convinced Vicksburg was not going to surrender. The net result was, for the 250 people who had called Warrenton home, just another senseless tragedy.
Three miles south the river jogged to the west, around a knuckle called Diamond Point, with 3 or 4 islands - depending on the level of the river - close to the Mississippi shore. These showed the safe depth was on the Louisiana side. Once past the Diamond Islands, the river turned east again, and the current shifted across the channel, carrying you toward the Mississippi plantation docks of Mr. Thomas Freeland. But the river was merely gathering strength for its next big adventure, a 90 degree westward twist called Davis Bend, at the base of a thumb of land called the Hurricane Peninsula.
For the next 5 miles Old Man River swept around three sides of the 5,000 acre Mississippi Plantation of 78 year old Joseph Emory Davis (above). A West Point Graduate, then a successful lawyer, and finally a progressive among slave owners, he was one of the ten richest men in the south, holding - as of 1860 - 365 human beings in bondage. Davis' 3 story brick mansion was considered one of the finest in the state, containing one of the largest private libraries.
"Colonel" Joseph Davis was so wealthy he provided on his property a 200 acre ,116 slave plantation for his younger brother. The single story plantation mansion (above) was called Brierfield . The younger brother was 56 year old politician Jefferson Finis Davis, President of the Confederacy. While Jeff was away in Richmond mis-maneging the war, Joseph had abandoned his home, taking his wife and children, most of his books, his wardrobe and his slaves south to safer properties. He left the two plantations under the care of his trusted overseer, manumitted slave Benjamin Montgomery.
At the apex of Hurricane Bend on the Louisiana shore, some 20 river miles south of Vicksburg, was the village of New Carthage, Louisiana. That spring of 1863 the little village was abandoned, inundated up to its eves by the flooding river. There was not much dry ground left for a human to stand on except the levee. Still, at the start of April, 1863, thousands of men were heading toward New Carthage, and they were coming by road.
Grant's orders for the advance were issued on Tuesday, 31 March to Major General John Alexander McClernand, commander of the XIII Corps.
He ordered his Ninth Division, commanded by 40 year old Prussian-American General Peter Joseph Osterhouse, to lead the advance.
And Osterhouse gave the point to 32 year old Hoosier lawyer and politician, Colonel Thomas Warren Bennet (above), commander of the approximately 600 members of the 1st Brigade, 49th Indiana Volunteer Regiment. As support Bennet as also given 3 companies of the 2nd Illinois Cavalry, and 2 mountain howitzers from the 6 Missouri Cavalry. Most importantly however, for Grant's Vicksburg operation, Bennet's command also included the 40 members of 36 year old Captain William Franklin Patterson's Kentucky Company of Engineers and Mechanics, reinforced with 300 "pioneers" to build a road to New Carthage.
According to Captain John Alexander Ritter (above), a 44 year old surgeon with the Richmond, Indiana Hoosiers, "Our regiment left Milliken's Bend on the 2nd (and) went (12 miles) to Richmond", he wrote. "The next morning, the 3rd, they went out on a scout 20 miles to Smiths Plantation on Bayou Videl, where Roundaway Bayou connects..." There the Hoosiers dug in and held for a week while Patterson's engineers improved the road behind them.
Dr. Ritter told his wife Margaret that although the regiment had only been issued 2 days rations, they had never eaten better in the service. Here at the business end of the war, flour was going for $100 a barrel. "That is what the "sesesh" have to pay, " wrote doctor Ritter. The Yankees just took what they wanted. "The boys...have had chickens, mutton, fresh pork, fresh beef, goats, young pigeons etc. Honey. The Colonel has a milk cow tied to a stake." But he assured Margaret "We have had a peaceable time. Thus far General Ostehaus is quite a favorite. He is a Dutchman, a very plain man, quite sociable. We have a good deal of confidence in General Grant...."
And as they moved closer to New Carthage, that confidence would grow.
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