- 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 heat and stench below decks on the Iron Mountain were intolerable by early afternoon, and water was running low. Even some hardened Pinkerton regulars were willing to throw in their cards, if they could do so and survive. Few shots were fired from the barge after midday, although it continued to be peppered by strikers hidden behind barricades. Several guards received light flesh wounds from ricochets, but the major damage was already done. Having reached Homestead (where he was ignored), Sheriff McCleary rushed back to Pittsburgh and fired off a new telegram to Harrisburg along familiar lines: “The guards have not been able to land, and the works are in possession of the mob, who are armed with rifles and pistols and are reported to have one cannon. The guards remain on the barges near landing. … The civil authorities here are powerless to meet the situation. An armed and disciplined force is needed at once to prevent further loss of life. I therefore urge immediate action on your part.”
To this plain request for militia support, Governor Pattison, a patient gentleman, responded as he had before: “How many deputies have you sworn in and what measures have you taken to enforce order and protect property? The county authorities must exhaust every means to preserve peace.”
There was no reply from McCleary. The Governor wired again in phrases more irate: “Your telegram indicates that you have not made any attempt to execute the law to enforce order, and I must insist upon you calling upon all citizens for an adequate number of deputies.” But the recruitment of deputies was out of the question, and the only current problem that really mattered was how to extricate the Pinkertons.
Rodgers craved only a few moments to bring the Little Bill alongside the port bow of the barge, attach a single line, cut her loose from the deserted Monongahela , and get under way. If he had hoped that the mob, possessed by “fiendish delight” (to employ his later description), would nevertheless abstain from desecrating a vessel showing two American flags, he was wrong. Some five hundred small arms, plus the little cannon on the Homestead side of the river- which, as usual, missed repeatedly—opened up on the tug the moment she came within range.
Two crew members were wounded at once. It was clear that nobody in the pilothouse could expose himself to such a swarm of bullets from both flanks and remain alive. The earlier episode repeated itself. Rodgers, Potter, Gray, the two wounded employees, and four others on board dropped to the deck and let the Little Bill , a splendid target, turn in slow circles. Rodgers, remarked one writer, “lay down and steered by dead—or at least dazed—reckoning” until the tug floated past Homestead and returned to Fort Perry, near Pittsburgh. Despairingly the Pinkertons within the shattered scow stared after her: their last and best hope, gone forevermore. Cheered by this latest success, the strikers again concentrated on the outer barge. A Pinkerton picked this unfortunate moment to wave a white flag and was shot down. Another guard was caught in an open doorway and shot through the right arm; the main artery was severed and he died later that afternoon. He was, it seems, the last casualty of the formal engagement. A. L. Wells, a medical student from Chicago and a volunteer guard on the expedition, was caring for the wounded Pinkertons as best he could.
The strikers’ advisory committee continued its conference in a turmoil. Superficially the situation seemed favorable: it was known that the Governor had refused, thus far, to turn out the Pennsylvania guard. Sheriff McCleary had thrown in the sponge. The Little Bill was hors de combat . Already, only about ten hours after the battle had begun, news of it had crossed the nation. Messages of sympathy from other Amalgamated members were pouring in from as far away as Texas. Yet somehow the Pinkertons had to be dealt with. Some conservatives uneasily suggested allowing the Iron Mountain to be floated down the river and out of harm’s way. They were hooted down as defeatists and even traitors. But what was to be done with the enemy? O’Donnell insisted that they should be allowed to surrender. His suggestion was unconditionally rejected; but, as the afternoon wore on, the idea of accepting the Pinkertons’ capitulation gradually took hold—at least at union headquarters.
O’Donnell walked to the shore line, where the shooting had all but stopped and the workmen were amusing themselves by throwing Roman candles, skyrockets, and other fireworks at the barges. In plain view of the Pinkertons, he addressed part of the throng with a plea for peace. Reactions were generally unfavorable. Majority sentiment was still for destroying the enemy by some brilliant method not yet concocted. O’Donnell was answered by cries of “No quarter!” “Not one must escape alive!” Nobody paid much attention to him—discipline had collapsed. He gave up and awaited the arrival of other union officials, mainly Bill Weihe, Vice President G. N. McEvoy, and President-elect William Garland.