- 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
Shortly before eight, some of the regular detectives made a final effort, astonishingly enough, to get ashore. Four were shot down in a flash. The others wounded several more strikers before retiring. For two hours ragged firing continued, while most of the Pinkertons hid under tables and behind mattresses and piles of life jackets. Regular detectives and Grand Army of the Republic veterans tried to keep them cool, but a few managed to dive into the river and swim toward the other shore. As time went on, about a dozen made their escape in this fashion. Meanwhile an exodus was taking place from the inshore barge. One at a time, the Chicago men rushed onto the offshore Iron Mountain , until by late morning the Monongahela was almost empty. Firing from the shore became more selective. The workers tried to pick off individual men who exposed themselves, and concentrated on the offshore scow. More Pinkertons were wounded, and pools of blood began to collect below.
“Big Bill” Weihe, the union leader, hurried to the scene from Pittsburgh, and found matters so plainly out of control that he decided, for the time being, not to address the strikers. From the county courthouse in Pittsburgh Sheriff McCleary wired Governor Pattison in Harrisburg: “Situation at Homestead is very grave. My deputies were driven from the ground and watchmen sent by mill owners attacked. Shots were exchanged and some men killed and wounded. Unless prompt measures are taken to prevent it, further bloodshed and great destruction of property may be expected. The striking workmen and their friends on the ground number at least 5,000 and the civil authorities are utterly unable to cope with them. Wish you would send representative at once.”
Pattison responded laconically: “Local authorities must exhaust every means at their command for the preservation of peace.”
The battle, a rather one-sided affair now, continued. From Pittsburgh more arms and ammunition reached the strikers, who moved toward the shore line as though to close in for the kill. They were reinforced by armed nonstrikers from Braddock and Duquesne. A swarm of skiffs harassed the Iron Mountain , and fired at her incessantly from point-blank range. Sticks of dynamite weighing about half a pound were tossed at the barge. They exploded on or near the target without creating any appreciable damage at first. Carrying a basket of dynamite sticks, one huge workman ran toward the river, followed by about twenty men. They threw the sticks simultaneously, and most of them landed on the Iron Mountain , which almost leaped out of the water. Boards and metal plating whipped through the air. Two sticks which hit near the bow tore open substantial holes through which Pinkertons could clearly be seen. Riflemen got to work on them. Several wounded Pinkertons were still lying on deck, and when other guards tried to pull them below they also were fired upon. Two more were shot during this flurry.
Every time a Pinkerton was seen to be hit, a shout issued from the dense mass of people packing the slopes on both sides of the river, hundreds or thousands of whom had hastened there from Pittsburgh and various suburbs to watch the fun. They were treated to a rare sight, and their mood was gay, as though they were at a carnival. The dynamiting was best of all, but it dwindled as time passed, for the strikers were running out of the “stuff,” as they called it; it was dangerous to operate so close to the shore line and several of them had been wounded; furthermore, despite its spectacular noise and occasional effect, dynamite was too slow. The barges were still fairly intact—it would take a week to sink them with explosives. Another way would have to be found.
When a guard shoved a white flag of surrender through a porthole, it was shot to ribbons. By noon, hundreds of additional workers were armed, and had erected clusters of steel and coal forts almost at the water’s edge. The Pinkertons huddled together, complaining bitterly and waiting for the Little Bill , or evening, or a miracle. Another guard leaped into the river. No shots were fired at him, but it was believed that he drowned before reaching the north bank.
The heat within the barge was brutal, but whenever a man gasping for air showed himself at a porthole or hatchway he was greeted by bullets. From the G.A.R. Hall in Braddock, across the river, strikers hauled out a brass cannon dating back to Antietam—a twenty-pounder used since then for holiday celebrations—and mounted it on the hill behind a camouflage of bushes. The first shot tore a hole in the roof of the outer barge. Meanwhile, the smaller cannon was firing from Homestead. Except for the first direct hit, these weapons proved ineffective. Every subsequent shot went long; and when a striker named Silas Wain, sitting innocently on a pile of beams, was beheaded by a stray cannon ball, the Braddock gun was abandoned. A formula for getting at the Pinkertons still eluded the men of Homestead.