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Rebel In A Wing Collar
Marching on Washington is an old custom. When “General” Jacob Coxey and his Commonweal Army approached in 1894, the city trembled. But “the most dangerous man since the Civil War” meekly surrendered when nabbed for walking on the grass
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Most Americans would have rejected such moderate views of the army, and many feared that this thin stream of the discontented could swell into a massive river of protest. There was much speculation about whether the movement was legal, and what might come of it if left uncontrolled. Representative Joseph Outhwaite of Ohio pleaded that “if Coxey’s followers will only think, they will see that if from 10,000 to 50,000 men can intimidate Congress to do one thing, then another 10,000 to 50,000 men can intimidate them to do another tiling—which leads to anarchy.” Senator William Stewart of Nevada wrote a letter to Coxey urging him to “use the ballot box to protect liberty,” while others professed concern that the army would starve along the way.
Coxey himself was vague when asked how he intended to feed his army. In an interview at Pittsburgh, he claimed that the army would emulate Christ by “plucking the ears of corn along the way,” but he also stated that his troops were “patriots, not bummers.” Actually, he hoped for donations along the route, and was not often disappointed. Police and town officials may have been hostile to his cause, but they had no desire to prod the army into riots. Most communities provided shelter by opening their jails or by setting up sanitary facilities in fields or public buildings. No doubt some townspeople donated food simply as a means of moving the army on its way, but there were more than a few places that welcomed the Army of the Commonweal with genuine enthusiasm. Allegheny City presented them with a new banner reading, “Laws for Americans. More money, less misery, good roads. No interest-bearing bonds.” And on Mardi 27, two days out of Massillon, the army was treated to a rousing reception at Economy, Pennsylvania, where it was given a wagonload of potatoes, bread, ginger cakes, and other food. Here and there the hat was passed, and at Cumberland, Maryland, with his men camped in the baseball park, Coxey charged the curious ten cents admission. The take was $145.
The job of disciplining the troops of the army fell to Browne, who attacked the task with such obvious enthusiasm that he was quickly clubbed “that greasy old humbug” by his men. Although he spent a good deal of time writing bulletins and haranguing capitalists, Browne did try out morale-building ideas, one of them the formal presentation of merit certificates whenever the situation was appropriate. When the army crossed the Blue Mountains in a snowstorm, one of these cards of merit was issued, a sample of which reads, “This is to certify that John Souther» of Group 3, Commune i, Chicago Community of the Commonweal of Christ, is entitled to this souvenir of heroic conduct in crossing the Cumberland Mountains in the face of ice and snow, and despite police persecution and dissension breeders.” At another lime, Browne thought that some music might cheer the troops, and as they crossed the Pennsylvania border heading south, he ordered the playing of “Maryland, My Maryland.”
During the first week of April, the army began to enlarge, though not as dramatically as Coxey had hoped and predicted. Passing through Homestead, Pennsylvania, the Commonweal ranks swelled from three hundred to six hundred, enough to cause a stir of apprehension in Washington. On April 18, Congress first took official recognition of the approach of Coxey’s Army by staying in special session until six thirty in the evening. A show of armed force was voted down, even after a newspaper article pointed out that “L’Enfant, who had experienced the horrors of the revolution in Paris … laid out the city [of Washington] with the especial design of preventing a repetition of such horrors. … The avenues radiated from centers which could be commanded by a few Galling guns.”
By this time the “march oil Washington” was something of a national movement, with contingents of unemployed ready to move out from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. They had been independently organized, but in the public mind they were inseparably associated with Coxey, whose group got most of the national attention. Typical was the “army” of 350, under Charlie Kelly, which gathered in San Francisco on April 3. When the mayor of San Francisco could find no way of dispersing them, he saw to it that they were given free transportation across the Bay—an act that did not endear him to the mayor of Oakland. The citizens of Oakland promptly raised enough money to hurry the army to Sacramento, but when the troops marched down to the railroad yards and saw common boxcars awaiting them instead of passenger cars, they turned around and marched back to Oakland. A general alarm was sounded, Galling guns were wheeled in front of City Hall, the police and fire departments were armed, and 1,200 citi/ens were deputized, before the Commonwealers and their commander finally accepted the boxcar offer. Few of them, however, were ever to reach Washington, for their troubles on the West Coast anticipated what they would encounter all the way.