- Historic Sites
Battle At Homestead
The furnaces were cooled, and Carnegie’s great steel plant stood empty—but dawn would bring one of the bloodiest labor-management struggles in U.S. history
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
It was three o’clock, and within the barge sentiment for surrender was mounting. A captain of detectives named Cooper asked the men to hold out until six, when he expected (for reasons unknown) another company attempt to haul the Iron Mountain free. Sullenly the Pinkertons assented, while another miserable hour passed. Those suffering from gunshot wounds could not hold out indefinitely. The Little Bill had already failed twice, and surely no one expected Captain Rodgers to make another try. As for salvation by the sheriff of Allegheny County, that was even more hopeless. Yet no more white flags were put out. Even Nordrum, watching the shore for any sign of truce or trouble, had relapsed into apathy and appears to have turned over his command to Cooper. It was up to the strikers to break the stalemate.
An impromptu meeting within the mill grounds, attended by about a thousand workers, came to nothing. The commotion was such that Weihe could not be heard. He stepped down and was followed by Garland, a heater who was scheduled to take command of the union in November. Mounting a boiler, Garland begged the strikers to disperse. “We have positive assurance,” he yelled, “that these deputies will be sent away and all we want is the statement that you will not do any more firing.” The reply was a babble of boos and imprecations—“Burn the boats!” “Kill the Pinkertonsl” “No quarter for the murderers!” Garland tried again. “For God’s sake, be reasonable. These men have killed your comrades, but it can do no good to kill more of them.” Thunderous disapproval silenced him.
McEvoy was next, and he began, “This day you have won a victory such as was never before known in the history of struggles between capital and labor. But if you do not let these men go, the militia will be sent here and you will lose all you have gained.” The word “militia” had a sobering effect, but he was interrupted by a crash of dynamite from the river. No further attention was paid to him, and in disgust he allowed the meeting to break up.
The union officials and Hugh O’Donnell were in a quandary now being aggravated by other factors which had not been anticipated. A few anarchists had arrived from Pittsburgh and were mingling with the men, and the ranks had also been infiltrated by an assortment of hard-boiled outsiders looking for a fight. Many women, especially those whose men had been killed or wounded, were wild with hate. Hundreds of Slavs—who did not understand English and could not be reasoned with—were the most bloodthirsty of all. Half a day had slipped by, with time working against the advisory committee: the forces of law and order were certain to coagulate before long. It was essential to end the affair quickly; further destruction of the enemy would do more harm than good. The strike leaders walked among the workers and tried to reason with them individually. By five o’clock the peace faction was in fair control.
Waving an incongruously small American flag, O’Donnell once more harangued the throng, demanding a cease-fire and safe-conduct for the Pinkertons. His suggestion that he be allowed to fly a truce flag was scornfully refused—the enemy would have to make the overtures. “What will we do then?” he asked, and a striker replied, “We will hold them in the boats till the Sheriff comes, and we will then swear out warrants for every man on a charge of murder.” The idea—a most unrealistic one—nevertheless received overwhelming support; more important, it indicated that both antagonists were now willing to stop the war.
The men trapped and stifling within the Iron Mountain had just voted, almost unanimously, to give themselves up. When a white handkerchief was dangled from a porthole, it was not fired upon. O’Donnell ran down the embankment, came aboard the outer barge, and was met on deck by Captain Cooper. “This is enough of the killing,” said O’Donnell; “On what terms do you wish to capitulate?” Cooper asked for assurance that there would be no violence toward the Pinkertons, and also requested permission to box the Winchesters in order to carry them to the railway depot. O’Donnell agreed and departed. The Pinkertons donned their blouses and slouch hats (ridiculous; but it seemed important to make a decent appearance), and nailed up the rifle crates.
One hundred armed strikers swarmed aboard the Iron Mountain . The situation was delicate, for the guards were still carrying pistols and a murderous battle at close range might easily have been precipitated. However, the disembarking was nonviolent. As each man emerged from below, his pistol was taken away and his blouse removed and tossed into the river. The Pinkertons submitted passively to this treatment and raised no objection even when their crates of rifles were seized. One by one they were shoved across the gangplank to congregate on the shore line. A few of the younger guards were weeping. The three hundred waited there, surrounded, while the strikers looted both barges. Cases of food were pried open and their contents passed out to women and children; mattresses, tools, cooking equipment—everything portable and of the least value—were confiscated and distributed.