The Strike at Homestead
Digital History ID 1155
Located six miles upstream from Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River, Homestead, Pa., was the site of one of the bitterest labor struggles of the nineteenth century. The home of the Carnegie Steel Company, which employed 3,800 skilled and unskilled workers. Homestead was the center of the nation’s burgeoning steel industry. In a bid to break an emerging union of skilled workers, the Amagamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, Henry Clay Frick, the head of the steel works, proposed to cutting skilled workers wages. When negotiations broke down, he locked out the steelworkers, built a three mile long wooden fence, topped with barbed wire, around the plant, and brought in two barges carrying 300 Pinkerton guards to protect the plant.
As the Pinkerton agents arrived on the morning of July 6, a fierce day-long battle erupted between the Pinkertons and the steelworkers involving rifles and even a Civil War cannot. When the Pinkertons surrendered, three agents and seven workers were dead. Pennsylvania’s governor brought in 4,000 state militia men to quell the violence
When Frick was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt two weeks after the battle with the Pinkertons, public opinion shifted against the union. The Homestead strike lasted five months and was a victory for the company. It blacklisted many union leaders from the steel industry for life, and replaced many skilled workers with unskilled workers. The steel industry remained largely without unions until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Illustrated American, July 16, 1892
NOTHING more dramatic in the History of Labor and Capital is recorded than the Incident of the 6th of July.
The forces of the Nineteenth Century are Capital and Labor, united they transform the desert into a garden, in collision they convert the garden into a waste.
On the 6th of July, 1892, at Homestead, Penn., the Forces met. The sound of the shock echoed through the labor markets of the world.
In this age we regard the French Revolution with surprise, we wonder at the growth of the power of the mob, we are amazed at the brutality of the people, and we are astonished at the spectacle afforded by the savagery of women.
The Incident of the 6th of July affords a parallel in diminutive form, and is pregnant with meaning.
Let us see.
A certain man, who has risen from the ranks of labor by thrift, cleverness, and lucky transactions, has amassed riches. His name is Andrew Carnegie; his fortune is written in the millions. Much of this fortune is invested in steel rolling mills at Homestead. These works cover one hundred and fifty acres of ground; here work four thousand five hundred men. The smoke of the flumes ascend day and night to the god of commerce, and the high price of bread consumes the day wage of the toilers.
Four years ago Carnegie gave $500,000 to the campaign fund which promised him "protection" or monopoly. Fourteen competing rolling mills have passed away and one hundred acres have been added to the Carnegie plant.
A few weeks since Carnegie's partners decided that men seeking the protection of a union or brotherhood should not be employed at the works. He who sought "protection" denied protection,
As the custom is, the time came when the Employer and Employe should fix the price of wages. The Man asked one dollar more than the Master was willing to pay. "Protection" had poured gold into his strong box, and raised the price of beef, bread, and clothing.
The Wage-giver and the Wage-taker could not agree about the one dollar.
And the works shut down!
The Advisory Committee of the locked-out workmen said: Let there be order! And there was order.
The Master of the mill said: Let there be protection! A fence, twelve feet high, of stout boards mounted on three feet of slag, four miles in length, closed in the works. This fence was bored with holes to allow the passage of a rifle barrel from the inside. It was surmounted with barbed wires, connected with powerful dynamos, so that they could be made alive with electricity. Search lights were mounted at certain points, and nozzles connected with hydrants supplied with boiling water at others. At an excellent point of vantage, a detective camera was set up in order to secure photographs of invaders, for the purpose of prosecution in the courts of law controlled by the Master of the Mill.
So much for the stockade. The Hessians were to be imported. The Master of the Mill said: Hire Pinkerton's men.
A foreign armed force was to settle the question of one dollar in wages.
"We have done our best to preserve order and have succeeded in preserving it. We cannot now, of course, be responsible for anything that may occur in consequence of your action." So said the Advisory Committee to the Sheriff.
It is the morning of July 6. The sun has not risen, the morning star shines in the inverted blue bowl over the silent factory and on the river.
Men watch the coming of the armed deputies?the paid assassins of the Master of the Mill.
It is half-past two in the morning. A scout stationed at Lock No. 1, on the Monongahela River, reports the arrival of two barges in charge of a river steamer. They contain armed men.
Now up--filling the great star-bespeckled bowl--goes the long, sad wail of the steam whistle at the electric light plant.
It is the voice of Labor shrieking to the wage-worker to rise and make haste, for armed Capital is to take possession of the workshop. Flash lights start from many points. The night is over; horsemen dash through the streets of Homestead yelling: " To the river; to the river?the Pinkertons are coming!"
They go to the river.
Half-dressed men and women, boys, girls, and children rush to the river. Each has a weapon?some of guns, revolvers, knives, heavy irons, and sound sticks. Labor is in arms.
The river steamer Little Bill crowds on steam and speeds to the landing; the mob on the bank races to intercept the armed men. It is a mad race in the morning light. Down come fences and other impediments. When the barges are within one hundred feet of the landing, the advance guard of the mob is on the ground to contest the holding of it.
The mob warned off the armed men: "Don't land or we'll brain you."
Out from the barge came the plank. Every Pinkerton man levelled his Winchester rifle. A few of the bravest of them endeavored to land.
The sight of this infuriated the mob. They rushed forward and attempted to seize the rifles.
One Hugh O'Donnell, a man of character and heroic soul, a mill hand, with three others, hatless and coatless, with their backs to the Pinkertons, in fearful peril of their lives, besought the mob to fall back: "In God's name," he cried, "my good fellows, keep back; don't press down and force them to do murder!"
A sharp report of a Winchester rifle from the bow of the boat answered him. In an instant there was a sheet of flame--a rain of leaden hail. The crowd fell back a few feet, then advanced, pouring deadly shots into the invading force.
The boat pulled out into the stream.
There were dead men on both sides.
And so ended the first battle of the morning.
When the armed hirelings of Andrew Carnegie poured their deadly volley in the ranks of the men who dared to demand one dollar more on their wages, there were few guns among the people. At the crack of the Pinkertons first rifle men rushed to their homes for firearms and prepared for battle in earnest. At half-past six a second attempt at landing was repulsed.
Out on the stream lay the barges. The hot sun beat down upon them and the heat was suffocating. Pinkerton's men needed air. Rats require that. They started to cut air holes, but the bullets of the mob on shore were too much for them. They decided that hot air was better than bullets.
An attempt was made to fire the barges by pouring burning oil on the river, but fortunately this terrible ordeal was spared the Pinkertons.
Hugh O'Donnell, cool headed and brave, constantly endeavored to hold the men in check. No one more than he wanted the rights of the men to triumph, but he did not wish those rights to be steeped in human blood. He was talking to them when over the barge a fluttering white flag told the story that the Pinkertons sought for terms.
The spokesman of the Pinkertons announced that they would surrender if assured of protection from the mob.
They landed. Their arms were taken from them. With heads uncovered, to distinguish them from the mill hands, they passed along between two rows of guards armed with Winchesters. There were two hundred and fifty Pinkertons in line. And so those who came to hold the Carnegie mills were led trembling away to the lock-up.
Silently, sadly, and filled with fear, the disarmed Pinkertons, some bleeding, with bedraggled clothing, haggard and pale-faced, walked between their captors. Some held small bags with clothing. Alongside crowded the surging mass of hard-fisted men hurling epithets at them. For some time they walked thus, hoping for the shelter of the jail.
Now woman comes to the front!
One snatched a bag, tore from it a white shirt and waved it. This action was almost a signal to the brigade of women. They seized every bag and scattered the contents. With yells and shouts the crowd cheered the women. There was a fine humor here; to scatter the clothing of those who had come to scatter them.
Another woman threw sand into the eyes of a Pinkerton and cut him with a stone. Then, in spite of the guards, the women cast stones and missiles at the unprotected Pinkertons. The guards hurried them over the unlevel ground to the jail.
There they were a sorry lot. Cut, bruised, with eyes knocked out, with noses smashed, the invading, conquered army escaped death in the jail. So ended an expedition of two hundred and eighty men, armed with Winchesters, and supplied with provisions for three months.
And behind the high board fence, with the barbed wires charged with electricity, rest the mill hands waiting the developments of the future.
Illustrated American, July 23, 1892
"THE situation at Homestead has not improved," wrote Sheriff McCleary to Governor Pattison, of Pennsylvania; and then he went on to say that while all was quiet, the strikers were in control and had openly expressed to him their determination not to allow the Carnegie works to be operated by any but themselves.
The poor sheriff had had a hard time of it. The governor blamed him for allowing the Pinkertons to go to Homestead to do his work. When he did try to raise a posse he could only get a dozen citizens or so who had the pluck?or it may have been sympathy with the strikers had something to do with it?to answer the call. Be this as it may, Sheriff McCleary threw himself upon the good nature of the governor, telling him that only a large military force would enable him to control matters, and the governor gave orders to Gen. George R. Snowden to place his entire division under arms and to take 8,500 men to maintain the Peace at Homestead.
This was no sooner said than done. By the morning of the 12th the troops were in the town. So suddenly did they make their appearance, that before the strikers could realize that they were actually there, the town was completely invested by the National Guard. For a week the strikers had defied the law; mob rule had reigned supreme. There had been peace since the battle with the Pinkertons, but it had been an armed and lawless peace. Now all was changed. Gen. Snowden showed that he had gone to Homestead with the full intention of maintaining peace, and that he and his soldiers were not to be trifled with.
Gen. Snowden appears to have carried out his plan of campaign with great military skill. In the first orders, issued immediately after the governor had ordered out the troops, Brinton, on the Monongahela River, and about a mile-and-a-half from Homestead, was announced as the rendezvous. It was his intention that the Second and Third Brigades of the National Guard should gather there on July 11, go into camp for the night, and march into Homestead at daybreak the following morning. But the correspondents got wind of his plan, and the details appeared in all the papers. There was a great chance now of the rioters and their sympathizers collecting in great force at Brinton, and a possibility of their making an attack upon the soldiers before they reached Homestead. To prevent this, Gen. Snowden altered his plans and notified his colonels that he had selected Blairsville, a station on the Pennsylvania Railroad, about fifty-two miles east of Pittsburgh for the rendezvous. The general intended this second order should leak out, which it did, and duly appeared in the papers, but what his true intentions were he kept to himself, not even taking his colonels into his confidence. When the soldiers reached Brinton there were not less than ten thousand persons on the platform to meet them. But at Brinton the conductor found orders to proceed to Wall, and at Wall to go on somewhere, and so until the special reached Radebaugh, where there is a signal station.
The next morning the troops were in Homestead.
The rioters had got up a very pretty scheme, which they hoped would gain them the sympathy of the public, and probably it would have had they succeeded in carrying out their project. They sent a delegation from the Amalgamated Association to Gen. Snowden at his headquarters. They decided to inform him that they had come to offer him their assistance, but the general put on his most freezing manner when he told them he had no need of their services, he meant to preserve order himself. "I am here, " he said, " by order of the governor to cooperate with the sheriff in the maintenance of order and the protection of the Carnegie Steel Company in the possession of its property."
This was a terrible snubbing for the delegation, for it had been intended to treat the entry of the troops as a fete, and to let them march in to the strains of a brass band. As Hugh O'Donnell, the labor leader, who was one of the delegation, said: "I never met with such a chilling reception in my life. Gen. Snowden didn't seem to have the slightest regard for what he said or thought."
Meanwhile Congress had appointed a committee to go to Pittsburgh and investigate the troubles and outbreak at Homestead. During the investigation Mr. H.C. Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Company, produced the letter he had written to Robert Pinkerton on June 25, with regard to the hiring of 300 of his men to guard the Homestead mills.
"The only trouble we anticipate," he wrote, "is that an attempt will be made to prevent such of our men, with whom we will by that time have made satisfactory arrangements, from going to work, and possibly some demonstration of violence upon the part of those whose places have been filled, or most likely by an element which usually is attracted to such scenes for the purpose of stirring up trouble. We are not desirous that the men you send shall be armed unless the occasion properly calls for such a measure later on, for the protection of our employee or property. We will wish those guards to be placed upon our property, and there to remain, unless called into other service by the civil authority to meet an emergency that is likely to arise."
Hugh O'Donnell, the young leader of the strikers, made a brief statement, giving an account of how the fight was brought about. According to him, about two o'clock in the morning an alarm reached the headquarters of the strikers that the Pinkertons were descending upon Homestead. He went down to the bank of the River Monongahela. A big crowd of Hungarians, Slavs, women, and boys were on the banks, and were firing pistols in the air. He advised the men not to fire and followed them as they moved up to the point toward which the boat was heading. While he was addressing the crowd, urging them not to use violence, a volley was fired from the barges and a bullet struck his thumb. The firing lasted about five minutes. As to the way in which the surrender of the Pinkertons was effected, O'Donnell told the following story:
"I tied a handkerchief on the end of a rifle barrel and waved it over the pile of beams behind which we lay. The men had promised me that in case the Pinkertons surrendered they should not be shown any violence. When I waved my handkerchief one of the guards came out on the barges and waved his hands. As soon as he appeared one of our men jumped from behind his barricade and exposed himself to the fire of the Pinkertons. I walked down the bank, and said to the man who had come out on the barge, that I thought the thing had gone far enough, and he said he thought it had gone altogether too far. He then accepted my proposition that his men should make an unconditional surrender, and should give up their rifles. While the rifles were being unloaded, the crowd began to assemble on the barges, and I must confess that during the march from the barges to the rink the Pinkerton men were shamefully abused by the crowd, but we took care of them that night and saw that they got out of town safely."
Frick, the president of the company, is a determined man, and when he stated that he would not give in to the strikers, everyone who knew anything of him believed he would keep his word. But the strikers, too, were equally determined, and there was an inclination among them to rule Homestead by mob law. Anyone who was suspected of having any connection with Carnegie's people was taken to the Rights of headquarters of the strikers, there to be examined as to his mission, and personal rights were very little regarded. Gen. Snowden threatened to arrest any one who dared to interfere with the rights of citizens; but the strikers, who became more and more sullen each day the troops were in their midst, had awed the people, and nobody cared to act as complainant in such a case.
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