What the end of Reconstruction looked like in the North. Far more than a railroad strike or a series of major riots, what happened in 1877 remains unprecedented in U.S. history. A working class uprising that reached from coast to coast and involved many hundreds of thousands in a desperate, and bloody battle.
‘1877 – The Bloody Year’ by J. Sultan from Workers Monthly. Vol. 5 No. 9. July, 1926.
MODERN American capitalism was born in the Civil War. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was a struggle for political power. The young capitalist class that had developed in the northern states sought control of the national government in order to be able to extend its system to strengthen its economic base. The semi-feudal class in the southern states that had dominated the union up to that time refused to let power slip from its hands. In the Civil War these two ruling classes crossed swords and the capitalist class of the north emerged the victor.
The victory in the Civil War lent wings to American capitalism. The class of the big bourgeoisie seized complete control of the political machinery of the state and used it to multiply its wealth. In the years of the Civil War and the first decades succeeding there grew up the powerful capitalist industries. In this period of time too there were born those gigantic fortunes that are now in control of these industries.
From its earliest years the capitalist class knew how to issue slogans to deceive the masses and throw them into action for its own ends. While workers and farmers were falling by the thousands on the battle-fields at Antietam, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, the industrial and commercial capitalists were standing behind the scenes and manipulating the war in order to fill their money-bags. The war demand gave them the opportunity to do this and the Civil War years were years of extraordinary prosperity for the northern states.
When the Civil War was over the American capitalists became complete masters of the state apparatus and prosperity was well on its way. The triumphant capitalists with the help of the government started a mad race to swallow the continent. The net of railways that began to be built towards the end of the Civil War kept on extending until the whole country was covered with a web of iron rails. In order to build these railroads the government presented the railroad companies with a territory larger than many a European country. Besides this the government granted millions to these companies in the forms of subsidies and bond guarantees.
Hand in hand with the development of railroads went the phenomenal growth of American industry as a whole. The following table presents a comparison of the growth of American industry in the decade preceding the Civil War and the decade following it.
“It was the time when the American dollarocracy of beef, pills, soap, oil, or railroads became the world- wide synonym for the parvenu and the upstart. In literature it produced the cheap wood-pulp, sensational daily, the New York Ledger type of magazine, the dime novel, and the works of Mary J. Holmes, Laura Jéan Libby, and ‘The Duchess.’ In industry its dominant figures were J, Gould and Jim Fiske. In politics it evolved the machine,the ward heeler, and the political boss.” (A. M. SIMONS. Social Forces in American History, pp. 307-308.)
The Origins of the Modern Labor Movement.
The working class was the only class that got nothing out of the great capitalist feast after the Civil War. When the masses of workers left the army upon demobilization and returned to industrial life, they found a great change in the conditions under which they were forced to work. The individual boss was beginning to disappear. His place was taken by the corporation or trust. Great masses of workers were forced to sell their labor power to these trusts.
True, there was work enough. The conditions, however, were much worse than in the times of the individual boss, and the wages, in comparison to rising prices, were lower than ever. For the masses of workers who under- stood the nature of organization from their military life the new conditions naturally meant a strong tendency in the direction of labor organization. Many of the “International” unions of today were born in the decade following the Civil War.
The following table shows the growth in the number of unions from December, 1863, to December, 1864, just when the Civil War was about to end.
The number of members in the unions in 1872 reached 300,000. Most of them were already united in a national organization, “The National Labor Union,” organized in 1866.
The Industrial Crisis of 1873.
The inherent economic laws of capitalism put a quick stop to this unprecedented prosperity. The mad race of American capitalism came to a sudden end in 1873. A crisis due to the tremendous over-production in all branches of industry marked the end of the epoch. The crisis of 1873 was one of the worst in the history of American capitalism. The hard times lasted for almost seven years.
In the train of the crisis came, as usual, unemployment, hunger and misery. The bosses utilized the paralysis of industry and the great mass of the unemployed in order to reduce wages. In the textile industry, for example, wages decreased to half in the seven year period from 1873 to 1880. The new labor organizations did not have the strength to resist the attacks of the bosses, particularly the big trusts. In most cases these organizations fell apart entirely or dragged out the most miserable existence. There could be no question at all of maintaining an organized resistance. The number of national unions fell from almost thirty to eight or nine, and these eight or nine lost most of their members. The Machinists’ Union lost two-thirds of its members; the Cigar Makers, four-fifths; the Coppersmiths, six-sevenths. In New York the number of organized workers fell from 44,000 to 5,000. So helpless were the workers that their standard of living fell ever lower and lower until the “free” workers lived under worse conditions than had the Negro slaves before the Civil War.
The Revolt of the Railroad Workers.
Nowhere else was the pressure of the capitalists so pronounced as in the railroad industry; nowhere else did the inhuman exploitation arouse such bitterness and resentment among the workers as here. The workers were treated worse than cattle. There was absolutely no limit to the hours of labor. In many cases the workers were obliged to work two or three days in the week and spend the rest of the week somewhere off in a small village at their own expense. The miserable wages they got were hardly enough to cover these expenses and the families of the railroad workers were in an actual state of famine. The wages were supposed to be paid monthly, but very frequently month after month went by without any payment of wages.
Immediately after the panic that broke out in 1873 the Pennsylvania Railroad Company cut wages 10% and shortly after another reduction of 10% was announced to go into effect the first of June, 1877. The New York Central followed suit and also cut wages 10%. Here the wage cut was to go into effect the first of July. The Baltimore and Ohio declared a wage cut for the 16th of July.
A few months before the railroad magnates had attempted to destroy the railroad unions entirely. The two strikes that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers had carried on in April, 1877—one against the Boston & Albany and the other against the Pennsylvania—were both lost. The railroad capitalists used this defeat of the union in order to destroy it entirely. The president of the Pennsylvania and Reading ordered the engineers on the Pennsylvania line to with- draw from the union entirely or leave their employment. Outwardly the workers submitted, but in secret they were preparing a strike supposed to begin April 14. This plan failed, thanks to the Pinkerton spies that the bosses sent into the union. When the strike broke out the railroad company was already provided with strike- breakers. This last defeat of the union smashed the Locomotive Engineers entirely. The other railroad brotherhoods, the Brotherhood of Railroad Conductors, founded in 1878, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Firemen, founded in 1873, were too weak to play any role whatever in the industry.
As soon as the Pennsylvania announced that wages would be cut in June the workers selected a committee consisting exclusively of locomotive engineers. Towards the end of May this committee had an interview with the president of the company. The president assured the committee that the old wages would be restored as soon as “times got better.” The committee accepted the president’s statement, but the workers on the line declared openly that the committee had considered only the interests of the engineers. The workers on the railroads having their terminals in Pittsburgh began to organize a secret union of railroad workers to resist the coming wage-cut.
The leader of the new organization was a young conductor. On June 2, 1877, he organized the first local of the new union in Alleghany City, and became the general organizer of the union. In a short time he succeeded in organizing sections of the union on the Baltimore and Ohio, on the Pennsylvania, on the Erie, on the Atlantic and on the Great Northwestern. The new union took as its task the consolidation of the workers in the chief railroad unions “into one solid body in order to call a strike simultaneously on all railroads.”
According to this plan the strike was to begin on July 27. Forty organizers were sent out from Pittsburgh to inform the various sections about the day of the strike. However, on the 25th of June there took place a meeting of the union at which there was such great difference of opinion among the leaders that a part declined to participate in the strike that was planned. As a result, naturally, the whole movement collapsed and the new union had very little influence on the coming events.
Battles, Captured Stations, Storm and Strife!
Thus all organized attempts to resist the terrible exploitation of the railroad magnates end- ed in failure. The hate and the fury of the railroad workers against their exploiters, however, grew from day to day and finally found expression in a spontaneous unorganized strike that was soon transformed into an open war between labor and capital. “Never did the United States stand so near to civil war as in the days of the railroad struggles,” wrote President Hayes concerning the strike.
The strike broke out on July 17 at Martinsburg, West Virginia, on the Baltimore and Ohio line, the day following the putting into effect on the 10% wage reduction. The railroad workers refused to allow any trains to go thru unless they got their old wages back. The state militia summoned to Martinsburg refused to protect the scabs that the railroad company wanted.to bring in. To a certain extent even the militiamen had helped the strikers and for two days the workers held power at that point on the railroad line. Governor Matthews of West Virginia appealed to President Hayes to send federal soldiers to crush the strike and a company of two hundred federal soldiers soon arrived in Martinsburg to protect the scabs with whom the railroad company was manning the trains.
Like a wild fire the strike spread, reaching all the other sections of the line and the more important points were soon in the hands of the strikers. In Baltimore on the 20th of July took place the first bloody encounter between the revolting railroad workers and militia.
The governor of Maryland ordered two regiments of militia to leave Baltimore for Cumber- land where the strikers had seized the control of the railroad. The workers of Baltimore were determined not to let the militia reach that city. One of the two regiments succeeding in reaching the depot by stealth and making for Cam- den from where they were able to reach Cumberland. The second regiment, however, was surrounded by thousands of workers who besieged the barracks and would allow no one to leave the building. The militiamen attempted to break thru the crowd, but were met with a shower of stones. They answered with bullets and succeeded in making for the depot. The aroused workers besieged the depot and set it on fire and then would not permit the firemen to put it out. It would have gone pretty badly for the militiamen had not the Baltimore police arrived and helped the firemen. It was not in vain that the New York Evening Post complained in an editorial that “we cannot close our eyes to the fact that the governmental power of the state did not succeed in maintaining order.”
The bloodiest encounters, however, between the workers and the militia took place in the state of Pennsylvania, chiefly around Pittsburgh.
The strike on the Pennsylvania had quite other causes. The reduction of wages had been put over smoothly a month before and a small strike that had broken out in Alleghany City was quickly suppressed. Now the company found a new way of exploiting the workers a little more, a way that meant throwing half of them out of work entirely. On the 19th of July the company issued an order that the number of cars making up a freight train should be increased from 17 to 34. This meant that about the same number of workers that had previously taken care of 17 cars would now be in charge of 34.
Encounters in Pittsburgh—Workers Overcome Militia.
On the 19th of July, early one morning when the management of the railroad company in Pittsburgh made an attempt to carry out this order, the crews of several freight trains re- fused to start trains going; they captured the switches and would not let any trains leave the city. The number of strikers kept on growing every hour and in the evening several thousand men were on strike.
The working population of Pittsburgh came to the aid of the strikers and the governor came to the aid of the company. Three regiments of infantry and a battery of artillery were dispatched for Pittsburgh and the federal government sent in six hundred soldiers from Philadelphia in order to suppress the revolt of the workers.
The struggles between the workers and the militia were many and bloody.
“This was no ordinary crowd that can be frightened with arrest,” we read in the appeal that the city of Pittsburgh later addressed to the legislature with the aim of being released from the damages that the Pennsylvania Railroad claimed. “This was no ordinary riot. It was an insurrection against which the military was powerless. Even the soldiers had to seek safety behind the walls of a round house whence they were dispersed because of the fury of the mob and then were forced to leave the city.”
The battles between the workers and the militia in Pittsburgh began on the 21st. The masses of thousands of workers were not at all frightened at the soldiers and met them with showers of stones. Without any warning whatever the soldiers shot into the workers and 26 fell dead and dozens wounded.
The soldiers emerged victorious from the first battle, but not for long.
A few hours later the workers returned to the battle-field, this time not unarmed. They seized all weapons they could lay their hands on and besieged the depot in which the soldiers were hidden. The. soldiers retreated and entrenched themselves in the round house. The strikers were determined to drive the federal soldiers out of the city and so they returned to attack again early on the 22nd. Somewhere they had obtained a cannon and they made preparations to bombard the round house’ Then the officers announced their surrender and they were escorted by the workers out of the city.
As may be imagined the bourgeoisie of Pittsburgh were scared almost to death and began to organize to resist the workers. In the above quoted appeal to the Pennsylvania state legislature we read: “The leading citizens understood the danger and met it in an organized way. They created a committee of safety and collected $51,000 in cash in order to protect property and to restore order.”
This committee of safety persuaded the government to send two new regiments of soldiers to the city. The workers were now exhausted and were not in the position to take up the new struggle. With the help of the army the Pennsylvania Railroad Company triumphed this time.
The struggle now began to burst out in dozens of other cities, in Reading, Harrisburg, Scranton, Altoona and Wilkes-Barre. As far west as Chicago and Cincinnati great battles took place between the workers and the militia.
“A crowd numbering several thousand people,” reads the report in the New York Evening Post for the 24th of July, “assembled along the Reading Railroad line and began stopping a coal, freight and passenger train, only permitting mail trains to proceed. At 8 o’clock last evening seven companies of the Fourth Regiment National Guard of Pennsylvania, arrived and went along the railroad to Penn St. While in the deep cut extending from Walnut two squares to Penn St. the soldiers were assailed with stones and immediately began fighting. The bullets flew among the people in the neighborhood, among whom were many respectable citizens, as well as ladies and children. Five persons are known to have been killed, and from 18 to 25 wounded, several of them mortally. A number of other persons are supposed to have escaped in the been wounded who crowd. Among those wounded are seven members of the police force, some of them seriously…
“The mob broke into the armory of the Reading rifles and captured all their guns. They also took all the weapons from a gunstore.”
The same day we read in the Evening Post an account of the events in Harrisburg. ‘“Yesterday afternoon word was sent to the mob that detachments of the Philadelphia Regiment on the western side of the river were prepared to surrender their arms, providing they were guaranteed protection. About four o’clock a crowd about one hundred crossed the wagon and foot bridge to be present at the capitulation of the troops. When the militia observed the mob they were panic stricken, supposing that they were to be attacked, and they retreated up the Susquehanna River as rapidly as possible. In an hour or two communication was established with them when arrangements were perfected for their surrender to the mob, which occurred soon after. The mob then hurried on their prisoners and amid cheers marched them through the main street of the city to a hotel where the captured militia were fed. The captors carried the arms of their prisoners.
“At 11:30 last night an armed mob took possession of the Western Union Telegraph office.”
On the 25th of July the Evening Post reports that in Cincinnati “the mob attacked the General Police Station last night and endeavored to free two of their ringleaders who had been arrested, and it required almost a third of the police force to overcome them.”
Gigantic Demonstrations and’ Encounters in Chicago.
In Chicago the strike paralyzed the entire railroad traffic; practically the whole working population of Chicago came to the support of the strikers. Tremendous demonstrations in which tens of thousands of workers participated took place in the Chicago streets.
The dry reports of the Evening Post give only a suggestion of what took place in the city in the days of the strike.
“The railroad strikers took up a line of march in Chicago this afternoon, and men of other trades joined them until nearly 30,000 persons were assembled.
“All railroad traffic is at standstill.”
And on the 27th of July:
“The meeting which was to have been held by the Communists on Market St., was broken up by a force of police after a battle in which stones and sticks and blank cartridges and bullets were used.
“At about 7 o’clock in the evening a bloody riot began at the corner of 16th and Halsted Sts., where the police in attempting to disperse the crowd were overpowered and compelled to take refuge in the Round House of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.”
AND so the strike began by forty railroad workers in a small town in West Virginia spread like wild fire and in a few days embraced the entire land. It became a general strike of the railroad workers—the first general strike in America.
From New York to San Francisco raged the struggle between labor and capital, for the railroad strike was something more than a strike of the workers in one industry—it was an armed uprising of the American workers against the capitalist order. And the American capitalists understood very well that it was a struggle for the very foundations of capitalist rule in America and so they made preparations for a new civil war. A short telegram from San Francisco in the Evening Post throws light on the preparations made by the capitalists.
“Yesterday evening there took place in the Chamber of Commerce a large meeting of the most prominent citizens of San Francisco.
“It was decided to organize a committee of citizens to co-operate with the military and with the police in case of necessity. A committee of 24 was selected to organize the citizens.”
We have already noted that the revolt of the workers in Pittsburgh was crushed when the bourgeoisie of that city organized themselves and created a fund of several thousand dollars to fight the strikers. Such “committees of safety” and “committees to co-operate with the military and police” were created in every town and village where the struggle penetrated.
The first insurrection of labor against capital in America was suppressed. The workers were still too weak to cross swords with the American capitalists. In their hands the capitalists had the state power; the workers, however, had no centralized organization to carry on the struggle and to bring clarity, consistency, and system into it.
After this first revolt of the American workers there followed new bloody struggles between labor and capital in America. How untrue is the statement often heard in certain circles that the American working class has no revolutionary traditions! The official leadership of the labor movement seeks to hide these revolutionary traditions of the American working class. The conscious revolutionary workers of America recall with honor and pride the first courageous fighters against capitalism in the United States.
The Workers Monthly began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Party publication. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and the Communist Party began publishing The Communist as its theoretical magazine. Editors included Earl Browder and Max Bedacht as the magazine continued the Liberator’s use of graphics and art.
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