Battle At Homestead

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Dawn was breaking when the barges hit the beach and Rodgers’ crew, working fast, secured the inshore Monongahela (containing the Chicago men) against her sister ship. They were safe for the time being, but the matter of disembarking the Pinkertons was a race against time. They were within the mill grounds, adjacent to the company pumping station. Frick had assumed, or hoped, that his fence, which curved down to the low-water mark so as to block access to the entrance by land, would keep the mob away. They now numbered ten thousand, some of whom had taken positions on the opposite bank of the river; and they were heavily and strangely armed. The exact number of armed strikers will never be known, but several hundred of them carried weapons dating back to the Civil War: carbines and rifles, some shotguns, but mostly pistols and revolvers. Thousands more, including women and young boys, moved toward the excitement with sticks and stones and alarming-looking nailed clubs torn from fences.

 
 

The board-and-barbed-wire fence at the water’s edge stopped them only for moments. It was knocked over like matchsticks. Wild with excitement, they swarmed into the mill grounds and came to a stop at the landing. They were met by a lone figure, Captain Nordrum, standing on the Monongahela ’s deck. There was a pause, a fragile moment of silence, broken by his commanding words, “We are coming up that hill anyway, and we don’t want any more trouble from you men.” He walked to the stern of the barge and helped his men throw out a gangplank to the shore. Again bedlam broke loose. Nordrum retired below and cautioned his men not to shoot. Nobody had been hit yet, he observed. “It’s no use returning the fire until some of us are hurt.” His advice was hardly inspiring. Meanwhile Captain Heinde, within the offshore barge, was recruiting some forty reluctant volunteers to walk the plank.

The crowd did not know who was coming ashore. Some thought correctly that the entire enemy force was composed of Pinkertons, some figured that they were almost all scabs, but the most widely held opinion was that one barge contained strikebreakers and the other their Pinkerton guards. In the event, these viewpoints were irrelevant. Amid the uproar, cries of “Don’t let the black sheep land!” and threatening gestures, Heinde and Nordrum emerged, followed by Pinkertons carrying .45-70 Winchester magazine-fed repeaters. Tenseness, or desperation, was written on their faces as they walked toward the plank. Once more there was a dead silence. Heinde addressed the crowd, announcing that his men were taking over the works and advising the strikers to disperse. The reply was a chorus of jeers and a shower of stones which fell around the Pinkertons like hail. They hesitated. “Don’t step off the boat,” someone from the shore said distinctly.

Three strikers ran forward; two grabbed the end of the gangplank while the third deliberately lay down upon it, as if to dare the enemy to cross his body. Led by Heinde and followed by the other volunteers, seven Pinkertons stepped on the plank. As Heinde was trying to shove the prone striker aside, the man pulled a revolver and shot him through the thigh. The heavy slug knocked him over backward. A torrent of gunfire swept the men on the plank. Heinde was hit again, this time in the shoulder. A guard named Klein was killed instantly by a bullet through the head, four of the others were wounded, and only Nordrum found himself untouched. A swarm of Pinkertons rushed topside, joining those already there. Firing point-blank into the crowd, they could hardly miss; and with stunning celerity over thirty Homestead men went down. The first casualty was Martin Murray, a rougher, who fell wounded into a pile of ashes. Joseph Sotak came to his aid and was killed by a bullet in the mouth. Somewhat farther up the hill a worker named Streigle, firing at the barges, was shot through the throat and died instantly. His body, lying in a clearing, was riddled with bullets from the barges.

There was no letup in the massed firing from the shore, and it was augmented by scattered gun play from the opposite bank. Little Bill got more than her share. One bullet struck a crewman named John McCurry and wounded him seriously in the groin. Everybody hit the deck, including William Rodgers, who tried to steer the tug from an almost prone position. She began going around in small circles. On the barges all the Pinkertons dived below, dragging most of their wounded comrades and the body of Klein with them. Now the firing stopped. The engagement had lasted no more than three minutes, and already several men were dead and many more wounded.