- 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
The strikers retreated in confusion up the bank, and scattered. They began throwing up barricades of steel and pig-iron scrap, while Hugh O’Donnell, a dynamo of activity, beside himself with anxiety and realizing that he had no influence over his men at this stage—especially the impetuous and semihysterical Slavs—herded all the noncombatants away from the firing line. The women, in the words of one historian, “screaming in twenty-two languages and dialects, then grabbed their kids and took to the near hills, the better to see their men shot down.” The dead and wounded Homestead men (a few of whom were not strikers but had come to the scene as interested observers) were carried to their houses or to doctors’ offices. At the same time, Rodgers managed to get the Little Bill alongside the Iron Mountain . He took Klein’s body and fourteen wounded men aboard. One of them was Captain Heinde, who said to him, “I don’t feel like lying here and bleeding to death.” Superintendent Potter, carrying both a rifle and his pistol and somewhat overwrought, begged Nordrum to attempt another landing. Nordrum refused. He was not keen on the idea personally and he doubted if he could coax any sizable number of men to accompany him; anyway (he told Potter) Captain Heinde was in charge.
They dashed across to the Little Bill , where the wounded were huddled in and around the cabin. Heinde was in pain and bleeding profusely, and other men were in an equally bad way. Nordrum crouched next to the Pinkerton commander and told him he had vetoed Potter’s demand for another rally. “Suit yourself, use your own judgment,” murmured Heinde.
Rodgers, impatient over the delay, wanted to leave for Pittsburgh at once with Potter, Gray, and the rest of his wretched cargo. He promised to come back as soon as possible. Nordrum returned to the offshore scow, and the lines to the tug were cast off. As soon as the Little Bill got under way she was raked by another flurry of bullets and buckshot; and again Rodgers, at the wheel, tried to steer while lying on his stomach. The effort was hopeless, and at length he simply let the little tug drift. The current slowly brought her away from the shore and moved her downstream, and when she was a mile and a half away from the landing Rodgers came to his feet, applied power, and headed for the city. En route another Pinkerton man died.
It was almost full daylight now, and gradually the fog was being burnt off by the slanting rays of a newborn sun. From shattered windows atop the barges the Pinkertons watched in despair as the Little Bill , with maddening lassitude, crept away. When would she return? Below decks the temperature was rising; it was going to be a scorcher. Like sitting ducks, the two hulks lay stranded. On shore the Homestead men were accumulating sticks of dynamite and hauling a small cannon into position about halfway up the hill south of the river. The opening skirmish was over, leaving both antagonists in a dilemma. The Pinkertons were trapped. Another landing in force was out of the question, and even if the tug should come back, it was difficult to imagine her fastening lines to both scows under heavy fire—the attempt would be suicidal.
The strikers, on the other hand, were baffled by the problem of forcing the enemy out of the barges so that they could be killed or beaten, or at least captured. For half an hour, while the Homestead men pondered, continued their lethal preparations, and consolidated their defense, not a shot was fired. O’Donnell called out for the Pinkerton commander. When Nordrum emerged, O’Donnell asked if he were “man enough” to come ashore for a conference. Nordrum walked the plank and was asked by O’Donnell how the affair might be settled. “I am not in command here,” replied the Pinkerton. “You will have to come and see other people.” He suggested a talk with Potter and Gray. O’Donnell, who was angling for a total surrender of the men in the barges, was apologetic; he admitted that there were many hotheads among his people who would not consider allowing the engagement to end in a draw. Nordrum made one more try at influencing the throng. “Men, we are Pinkerton detectives,” he shouted. “We were sent here to take possession of this property and to guard it for the company. … If you men don’t withdraw, we will mow every one of you down.” Receiving no response, he turned abruptly and walked back to the Monongahela . Courage, not tact, was Nordrum’s forte.