Battle At Homestead

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Nothing unusual had yet taken place. Rodgers left the wheelhouse and walked around the deck, talking softly to his crew and to a Pinkerton officer named Anderson. At about 3 A.M. , July 6, the fleet negotiated Lock No. 1 near the Baltimore & Ohio bridge. They were now nearing the mouth of the Monongahela. Lights from Pittsburgh spectrally illuminated the surface of the water, but the fog was quite dense. Haze and darkness veiled the river. As they approached the Smithfield Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh, a union lookout was struck by the sight of dim red and green running lights coming his way. He strained his eyes and hurried to a telegraph shack near the northern end of the bridge, where he wired: “Watch the river. Steamer with barges left here.”

Off Glenwood, the last bend in the Monongahela before Homestead, the Tide ’s engine broke down. A few minutes were spent trying futilely to get her under way, but there was no time to waste. She dropped anchor while Potter and her crew climbed aboard the Little Bill , which took both barges in tow on short lines, the Iron Mountain to port. It was an awkward arrangement. The scows scraped and jostled against each other, awakening the men inside and jarring their nerves. What the hell was going on? they asked apprehensively.

In the pilothouse of the Little Bill , Rodgers applied full power. The three vessels struggled against the current, and several union lookouts in a skiff were almost run down by the tug. Startled, they reached for revolvers, fired blindly at the cabin, and missed. The enemy armada chugged ghostlike beyond their range and vision.

The time was nearly 4 A.M. when, at the Homestead Light Works, Hugh O’Donnell yanked the steam whistle. The long, steady, moaning sound, indicating that a river landing was in progress, awakened and galvanized the town. In homes, shacks, tenements, and rooming houses a myriad of lights were turned on. Thousands of men, women, and children began to get dressed. A mounted sentry clattered across the bridge and burst into Homestead á la Paul Revere, shouting, “The Pinkertons are coming!” Within minutes the streets were a surging mass of yelling, cursing, laughing people. Some women carried babies in their arms. Stolidly, inexorably, the Little Bill pushed on. Captain Rodgers changed course slightly to starboard, to bring the scows into the landing area parallel with the shore line. As yet none of the vessels could be seen from land, and it would appear that the operation was proceeding almost according to Prick’s plan.

But confusion was growing aboard the tug and within the barges. The shots fired from the skiff had indicated that a dangerous reception was likely, and Captain Heinde, disgusted at the turn of events, had already authorized (with Potter’s consent) a dozen rifles to be distributed to Pinkerton regulars. Crates of weapons and cartridges were pried open. Suddenly the strikers’ Edna spotted the enemy and emitted a series of piercing blasts. They were answered by the yowling of every steam whistle in Homestead and the crackle of firecrackers. A roar went up from the crowd when the Little Bill and her barges, running close to the shore, were detected less than a mile west of town. The strikers opened up with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, but the fusillade did little damage, except for one bullet which shattered windows in the tugboat’s pilothouse. As the three vessels continued on their way, swarms of men followed them by running along the shore, firing from close range. The crack of small arms, the scream of sirens, the shouts of strikers and their families, could clearly be heard inside the barges, where morale was sinking fast.

 
 

All the Winchesters and pistols were distributed, and each man was given fifty rounds of ammunition. A few refused the weapons. They had not been hired to fight, they complained; they had signed up simply for guard duty. Pinkerton officers walked through the barges and tried to calm the inexperienced men, many of whom were bordering on panic. Nordrum cornered Colonel Gray and demanded that everyone be deputized. The Colonel was evasive, and Nordrum fumed. They were under heavy fire, he pointed out; wasn’t it time for Gray to act? “If you are sheriff of this county, why don’t you deputize us, give us authority?” Heinde also entered the argument, but the Colonel would not be budged. He had not been instructed specifically to swear anyone in, he said; furthermore, there would be plenty of time to do so when the Pinkertons were inside the company grounds. Nordrum remonstrated with Gray a few minutes later, and again Gray refused him: the Pinkertons would not be deputized now, and that was that.

The point was fast becoming academic. Rodgers reduced power, brought the Little Bill in front of the mill entrance, and then deliberately ran both scows aground with a soft, crunching sound of gravel under their keels. It was journey’s end for the Pinkertons.