5 Riots That Shocked America

Troops on guard during Chicago's 1919 riot. Chicago Tribune

Americans riot. During America’s almost 250 year history, mob violence has been used to terrorize populations and to demand political change. Hand-to-hand combat, street fighting, setting buildings on fire, and pulling people from their homes have been modes of violence used in some of America’s most notorious riots.

Rioting in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century was rather commonplace. Yet, while the violence in the riots was the same, they still managed to shock observers. Below are five riots that shook America. Some resulted in no change, others prompted civilian action, and still others exposed a pattern of racial violence that remains virtually unchanged today.

Richmond Times Dispatch

Bread Riots, Richmond, Virginia – 1863

Most of the battles of the American Civil War occurred in southern states. As the two warring armies entered the countryside and faced each other in battle, maintaining a farm was nearly impossible. Even for those that were able to farm a few acres, when the armies were nearby, they often took the crops, livestock, and foodstuff for their own consumption. This left those in the countryside on farms and small towns without food. Women and their families left the countryside for the city in hopes of finding war-related work and food.

As the war dragged on, those on the home front dealt with soaring inflation and high food prices. For long-time residents of the cities, they had to deal with the massive onslaught of the migrating refugees who had the clothes on their backs, a family bible, and little else. The little food available for poor city-dwellers suddenly had to be shared with poor refugees. There simply was not enough to go around; even being wealthy did not exclude a person from hunger.

Women protested in front of the Confederate Capitol in Richmond. They demanded that President Jefferson Davis supply them with the bread they so badly needed. Unwilling or unable to alleviate the food shortages, Davis provided no assistance. On April 2, 1863, roughly 5,000 women and their family members stormed into shops and warehouses, smashing windows and setting small fires, taking whatever they could. They took jewelry, clothes, food, and other items. The smash and grab of the Civil War left shops destroyed and businesses ruined. The Mayor of Richmond proclaimed martial law with the state’s militia sent to squash the violence.

Women took an active and violent role in demanding bread. While no one was killed during the protesting, the act of women rioting was a stark contrast to the ideals of nineteenth-century womanhood. The Richmond Bread Riots of 1863 illustrated that women were willing and able to demand that the government fulfill their responsibilities to their citizenry and ultimately changed the way that women participated in the Republic.


  • FredinBoise

    Jim Crow. Shameful.

  • disqus_C67ZJ9pNj6

    why not talk about the riots in New York City in 1863 that had nothing to do with race but was only stopped by federal troops? The riots in Washington, D.C. over world war 1 pensions that was stopped by the Army?

    • Cynthia Balzomo

      the 1863 riot did have everything to do with race. the Bonus Army? 1924 looks like it is outside the scope of this person’s paper which it sets at the beginning of the article.

      • Ryan Schaffer

        How did the Draft riots in NY have everything to do with race? The riot was over the fact that the Irish were being used as cannon fodder during the war. They were taking able bodied fighting men off the ships as soon as they docked at Ellis island. While the rich were able to buy their sons out of the draft. That’s what this riot was about this can be seen by the fact that the rioters went strait to up town and started attacking there..

  • Keith Schiffner

    Uh, excuse me BUT…Sherman’s troops did not in point of FACT burn Atlanta. Confederate troops and looters did. As did many business to get out of paying debts. But don’t let that southern LIE change your history. 🙂 The confederacy shall be crushed yet again.

    • gator37


    • Do you think you can crush it?

      • STFU

        If you are what the south has to offer…..most assuredly yes.

    • Cynthia Balzomo

      really? Where did you publish this historical thesis?

      • Keith Schiffner

        That’s no thesis..and I’m quoting professors. But, go ahead and believe the lying bastards who support the confederacy.

        • Ryan Schaffer

          So you taking gone with the wind to heart I see? Sherman freely admitted in his telegram to Henry W. Halleck, in Washington that he was firing over the confederate lines to hit the city it’s self, knowing that there were women and children still present in the city. also there is this “As I write our heavy artillery is at work, and large fires are burning in Atlanta.” This was sent by Sherman himself just three days later. The same day a New York artillerist wrote his wife there were a “great many women and children” who had taken refuge in the city from the surrounding area. then there is this wonderful bit of information from Sherman a “Last night we burned Rome and in two or more days will burn Atlanta.” in a telegram that was sent to Gen. George Thomas in Nashville after Sherman had burnt. scores of of his soldiers diaries also stated that they had left Atlanta in complete destruction . But this is the most damning one Henry Hitchcock Sherman: “[The town will] burn down, sir.”“Yes,” Sherman said. “Can’t be stopped.”“Was that your intention?” The general answered indirectly. “Can’t save it … There are men who do this,” pointing to a group of passing soldiers. “Set as many guards as you please, they will slip in and set fire.” So in fact yes Sherman’s troops did burn down Atlanta.

  • Steven Pudlo

    no mention of the New York draft riots of the civil war era (1862-ish). i guess the on riots that matter to the author are ‘race riots’. i wonder why

    • Tom Hoban

      that became a race riot too. They burned down a black orphanage for no good reason during the riots in New York.

  • Odis Lee

    On a more recent note, I feel that the Rodney King riots was a pretty shocking even for the nation as a whole

  • James Mason

    Plenty of bad riots since the ’60s are left out.

  • Cliff Anderson

    No Tulsa? No East Louis?

  • No mention of Indianapolis or Tulsa riots. They were among the worse.

  • Frisco1522

    E. St. Louis, IL and Tulsa, OK are two more race riots.

  • Richard Walker

    A bit odd, wouldn’t you think? Rosa Parks? 1954. No mention! Very peculiar that in 1974…yankees didn’t want desegregated buses in their hometown? As in the case of Rosa Parks? I find this very strange, don’t you? Have a federal court order segregating for the Southern states and yet, in the north, Boston can do as it pleases? Saaay….. I don’t think those yankees were fighting to free anyone! The yankees were the ones committing treason!

  • Bryce Mibeck

    A very slanted and historically incomplete account. If one were to red this narrative, one would believe that all American riots were race based, started by whites, and racist in nature. There is no mention of Shay’s Rebellion, which is one of the things that resulted in our Constitution, no mention of the New York City draft riots of 1864, which resulted in a US Navy ship firing on an American city. There is no mention of the Oklahoma City riot, where my grandfather was shot in the back and wounded, the Watts riot of 1965, or the series of riots in 1967 across the country, all of which were started by blacks. What about 1992 in Los Angeles?