Valdosta Daily Times

September 4, 2012

Valdosta riots! The untold history of the Civil War

Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Valdosta, home of the Wildcats, the Vikings, the Blazers and oh yeah, women’s riots! No, we're not talking shopping centers on the day after Thanksgiving, we're talking about Civil War-era women getting things done Southern style ... and by that I mean with guns and bacon.

Thanks to the research of Valdosta State University professor of history Dr. David Williams, his wife, Teresa Crisp Williams, and David Carlson, a piece of lost Valdosta history was brought to light with the 2002 publication of their book, “Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia."

Three years after the start of the American Civil War in the spring of 1864, there were two incidents in Valdosta when women rioted.

“They happened within one day of each other," said David Williams.

The first incident happened at a store located in what is now modern-day Downtown Valdosta. A group of women went into the store asking for yarn. Wishing to pay with Confederate money, which had become virtually worthless at that point, the store clerk refused to sell them the yarn and instead asked for payment in bacon.

“The women didn’t have any bacon, so they took the yarn with a pistol," said Williams.

The second incident occurred in an old railroad depot located just outside of modern-day Downtown Valdosta allegedly around where the Department of Labor is now located.

“A group of women broke into the railroad depot," Williams said. “They broke the door down with an ax and stole a wagon full of bacon.”

One can only speculate that the incidents were either completely related or ironic. However, either way the riots suggested that the Civil War may not have been the “glory days of the South as believed by many Southerners."

When the Civil War began in April of 1861, the South was viewed as a vast agricultural region that could easily sustain an army fighting to secede from the United States. However, because of greed, the troops and their women back home were going hungry.

“They were constantly hungry," Williams said. “The planters were growing way too much cotton and not enough food.”

Early in the war, the price of cotton skyrocketed. This led greedy farmers to grow more cotton which eventually resulted in a shortage of food. It became such a problem that newspapers began printing stories and ads begging planters to stop growing cotton and start growing food.

The planters did not heed the cry of a starving South. By late 1861, the food shortage affected the quantity of men volunteering for the war effort. In the beginning, there was this rush to glory. However, after the first Battle of Manassas (also known as the Battle of Bull Run), the soldiers began to realize that the war was real. That reality combined with starvation led many Confederate soldiers to desert.

In April 1862, the first draft in American history was held and forced many men to fight for the Confederacy. The war quickly turned to a poor man’s fight for a rich man’s war when the draft exempted Southerners who owned 20 or more slaves, according to Williams' book.

“Their excuse was that they needed to stay back and be the food producers," Williams said. “That wasn’t what they did.”

Aside from starving the soldiers that were fighting a war that the rich planters and politicians started, it also birthed the origin of economic inflation.

“When they didn’t plant enough food the price of food skyrocketed," Williams said.

By the spring of 1863, women’s riots broke out all over the Confederacy because the women back home were starving and poor because all of the working men were gone and all of the planters were only growing cotton. Aside from the riots in Valdosta, other known Georgia locations included Thomasville, Naylor, Stockton, Blackshear, Savannah, Colquitt, Blakely, Columbus, Macon, Milledgeville, Augusta, Forsyth, Atlanta, Campbellton, Marietta, Cartersville, Cass Depot, Talking Rock and Hartwell.

“Lots of smaller towns rioting," said Teresa Williams.

While poor men were fighting for the South, rich planters exported cotton to the North and England.

“They literally starved the Confederacy out of the war," David Williams said.

By 1863, half of the Confederacy had deserted. By 1864, two-thirds had deserted. The mounting desertion rate was in large part to women writing letters begging the men to come home.

“These women are writing letters, begging them to come home because they were starving," said Teresa Williams.

Soldiers received alarming letters from home that described another war back on the home front. An excerpt from a letter from “Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War," written by the wife of Second Lt. G. Foster of Vann’s Valley in Floyd County exemplifies the women’s plight: “My Deare Husband I cant rite you the worst of it ... I want you to come home by the middle of next week.”

Many soldiers and their wives back home began viewing the struggle for secession as a rich man’s war.

“A lot of them had viewed it as a rich man’s war to begin with," said David Williams. “It’s mainly the cotton planters who brought on secession in the first place.”

The Williamses found a copy of the Early County News, circa war's end, which stated that “this has been a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

Many planters and merchants on the homefront began to fear rioting women even more so than the Yankees. Local organizations called Homeguard were responsible for fighting the war on the homefront if the Yankees were to invade.

David and Teresa Williams recovered a telegraph from late 1863 that alerted for Homeguard in Thomasville. Initially, the men thought that the Yankees were coming up through Florida.

“They were actually called because the merchants were scared the women would riot again," said David Williams.

Teresa Williams said they began to be proactive and were not waiting for the aid of their men.

“They helped themselves to bushels of corn," she said.

The rioting and thievery by women got so bad that some, such as one man who signed himself as “A Stock Raiser," began placing notices in local newspapers to stop.

“What would your husbands and fathers think if they should see your names in a public print as stock stealers?" read a notice placed in the Blakely’s Early County News.

Women's riots were news to David and Teresa Williams. They were initially digging through history because they were puzzled by high Confederate desertion rates.

“It sheds light on another aspect of the war of why the Confederacy failed," said David Williams.

Many Confederate sympathizers will argue that the North outnumbered the South two to one.

“Well, yes and no," said David Williams.

While the North did outnumber the South two to one, the Northern Army did not constantly outnumber the Confederate ranks.

“Half a million Southern men were serving in the Confederate Army," said David Williams.

These findings prompted Teresa Williams to dig deeper and she kept finding references to riots and robberies across Georgia.

“I was terribly shocked," she said. “There was a lot of corruption on the local and state level.”

This idea of Confederate glory was really something that occurred in the distant aftermath of the Civil War.

“In Georgia, Southern communities were very divided on whether secession was a good idea," said David Williams.

Half of Georgia voters voted to stay in the Union. However, those votes were to delegates to represent the issue, not the issue itself.

“When the delegates got to the convention, most of them changed their tune and voted for secession," said David Williams.

Delegates from more than 30 Georgia counties had initially opposed secession then changed their minds against the wishes of their constituents.

“A lot of people hadn’t wanted to secede in the first place," said David Williams.

Many Southerners deserted because they had never agreed with the war in the first place. There were even several deserters in Lowndes County who began developing gangs and hiding in the swamps.

“The penalty for desertion was execution," said David Williams. “A lot of deserters who came home were forming armed bands to protect themselves.”

After the end of the Civil War, a lot hardship got buried with the override of Southern pride and glory.

“A lot of it had to do with race," said David Williams. “They were still very racist whether they wanted secession or not.”

Oppression of African-Americans was a uniting factor in the post-war period that led to the glorification of the Confederacy.

“The glorification of the Confederacy is a post-war phenomena," said David Williams.

While both David and Teresa Williams honor the people and the families who fought in the Civil War, they are just telling a different and often untold side of America’s single most pivotal historical event. Inspired by Howard Zinn, author of “The People’s History of the United States,” David and Teresa Williams began pioneering a study that has led them to a plethora of research papers, books and even a few historical markers denoting women’s riots across the state.

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