Pennsylvania’s ‘Perfect Hell’ | HistoryNet MENU

Pennsylvania’s ‘Perfect Hell’

By Jim Zbick
7/10/2017 • America's Civil War Magazine

To immigrant miners, federal draft officials were the enemy—and it was time to pitch battle.

On the night of November 5,1863, between 20 and 30 men shuffled through the crisp Pennsylvania foliage to the home of George K. Smith, a mine owner and operator living in the tiny coal-patch town of Audenreid. Their faces were blackened to conceal their identities, but their angry mutterings betrayed their vengeful intentions.

A rap at the door and the growling of the family dog alerted Smith’s fearful wife that something was amiss. One of the two men standing in her doorway said he had a letter that had to be delivered personally to her husband.

After Mrs. Smith told them her husband was sick and could not be given the letter personally, one of the men, “Long John” Donohue, pulled out a pistol and fired a shot inside the house. In an instant, the rest of the men rushed into the room.

George Ulrich, who worked in Smith’s colliery store, was staying in the home that night at the request of Mrs. Smith, who was concerned—rightly, as events now showed—for her husband’s safety. Armed with a revolver, the store clerk fired several shots, wounding Donohue in the hand and dropping another intruder with a shot to the leg.

Overmatched and outgunned, Ulrich fell with a bullet in his thigh. But the commotion roused Smith from his sickbed. As he entered the room, a single shot cracked, striking Smith in the head and killing him instantly. More shots were pumped into the mine owner’s lifeless body.

Their mission accomplished, the mob of assassins trudged back to their dreary, company-owned homes. The Smith murder, not tried in the courts until a decade later, was one of the opening blows in a chaotic period that left a trail of blood throughout the coal regions of central and eastern Pennsylvania during the war years.

Being a mine owner and operator made Smith a much-despised man among the destitute miners. And the Civil War brought another factor into play that further fueled their hatred—the government’s military draft. One newspaper writer said the draft had converted the coal region into “a perfect hell.”

Ordering the immigrant German and Irish miners to serve in the Federal Army and fight in a war they knew or cared little about proved too much for many of them to endure. They were paid just 50 cents for a backbreaking day of work as it was, and when a mine boss collaborated with military authorities as Smith had, their rage was doubled.

Smith wrote his own death certificate the moment he supplied work rolls to Union draft officials. Captain E.H. Rauch, the deputy provost marshal, injudiciously said that when he was in Beaver Meadow serving draft notices, Smith had given him a detailed map showing where each of the drafted men lived.

When Rauch reached the mining village of Audenreid, he and his assistant began serving draft notices while the rest of his troops were treated to a plug of tobacco and some refreshment at Smith’s company store. After the notices were served, Smith’s wife pleaded for the soldiers to remain, predicting there would be bloodshed as soon as they left.

In 24 hours, the prediction became a tragic reality in her own home.

As early as 1862, rebellious bands of miners were becoming known throughout the coal regions for encouraging desertions, interfering with recruiting, interrupting mining operations and attacking Union loyalists. The coal trade suffered a number of blows; men who left to fight created a shortage of skilled men to work the mines, and a devastating flood in June 1862 further hampered production.

After the National Conscription Act was passed in August, individual states were forced to draft men as a means of filling their quotas when the specified number of volunteers fell short. The plan in Pennsylvania, adopted that autumn, called for a male census upon which the quota for each county was based. There were two classes: One was for married men between the ages of 20 and 35, and bachelors 35 to 45; the second was for married men between 35 and 45. Allowances were made for men who had previously volunteered. Some counties used election rolls to find who was eligible for the draft; others looked to employee work records such as Smith’s. After the list of conscripts for each district was drawn, the men selected went immediately to their respective county seats and boarded trains to the state capital in Harrisburg.

Anti-draft leaders swung into action, traveling from colliery to colliery to encourage miners to stop work and join them in marches on other mines. From this rebellious group emerged a secret band of terrorists known as the Buckshots, later known by a more infamous name—the Molly Maguires. Mine bosses the Buckshots targeted were given short advance warning. On the day of reckoning, the proposed victim would receive an ominous notice posted on his door, complete with a picture of a coffin and two crossed pistols.

One of the first incidents occurred in Audenreid 17 months before George Smith was murdered. On June 14, 1862, plans were discussed at a public meeting for upcoming Fourth of July celebrations. But many in the anti-Union crowd felt anything but patriotic. A breaker boss named F.W. Langdon was upset when Jack Kehoe, a miner from Shenandoah, Pa., insulted the American flag. Kehoe was Schuylkill County’s delegate to the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, a secret fraternal Irish organization, and was widely known as a leader of the miners. When Langdon got separated from his friends, he was stoned by a mob and died of his wounds three days later.

December 20 brought an outbreak of trouble in Cass Township, Schuylkill County, another hotbed of anti-Union sentiment. The Buckshots there boasted that at short notice they could rally 3,000 men to stop operations at the collieries. Armed with shotguns, muskets, revolvers and rifles, they divided themselves into two parties and went to the mines.

“With guns and pistols pressed so close to the heads of the engineers that the muzzles bruised the flesh, they were commanded to draw the fires on pain of death if they refused,” the Miners Journal in the county seat of Pottsville reported. “They attacked and beat in the most outrageous manner some 15 persons connected with the works and in one instance beat a stranger who had no connection whatever with the colliery.

“The Buckshots are dictating what other men who are satisfied with their wages shall work at; and beating unarmed men. If these high-handed outrages are permitted to go unchecked, property in the county will depreciate in value, and life will be more unsafe than it is among the savage guerrillas in the south.”

The year 1863 opened with more violence in Schuylkill County, where James Bergen of Coal Castle was murdered in his home by five strangers January 2. Some said the assailants cheered for Confederate President Jefferson Davis as they escaped the crime scene. Another gang boldly stopped a train with new recruits in the town of Tremont. Protection was promised for any new draftees who wanted to leave the train cars and return to their homes. Many took the Buckshots’ offer and skedaddled.

With the industrialized North in a wartime mode, coal output could not be hindered. Trouble in the coalfields first sounded alarm bells in Harrisburg, and concern soon spread to the War Department and ultimately to President Abraham Lincoln.

Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin kept Washington informed of developments, and dispatches were exchanged between Harrisburg and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Curtin urged caution, realizing that with anti-war sentiment on the rise, open conflict could have a bad effect on the rest of the country. Alexander McClure, a political ally of both Curtin and Lincoln and the state’s assistant adjutant general, said, “Lincoln was desirous of course to see the law executed, or at least to appear to have been executed.” McClure interpreted that to mean the draft quota in the troubled Schuylkill County coal region be declared filled. To avoid more confrontations, McClure announced that the county had furnished sufficient volunteers.

Meanwhile, Catholic Bishop James Frederic Wood of Philadelphia visited the troubled areas, encouraging the rowdies to do their duty under the law as good citizens. Other ministers in the area sounded the same “duty first” theme from their pulpits.

But “the ignorant miners have no fear of God, the state authority or the devil,” warned Maj. Gen. Darius Couch, head of the Department of the Susquehanna. “A strong military power under the general government alone keeps matters quiet.” In making an appeal to Washington for Federal troops, Captain Charlemagne Tower, provost marshal of Schuylkill County, said Smith’s killing “is not a murder, it is rebellion.”

Captain A.A. Yates, who headed a troop of invalid soldiers based in Beaver Meadow, encountered resistance while serving draft notices in this area; he said people were afraid to tell where any of the drafted men lived. In approaching one mine, Yates’ men came under fire from a rebel miner serving as a picket. And they were told 300 to 400 miners were massed two miles away at Jeanesville, prepared to surround and bushwhack any soldiers who tried to serve draft notices.

With reinforcements from nearby Hazelton, Yates managed to assemble a joint force of 130 men. They found the streets quiet when they marched into town, but in half an hour, a mob began to grow on the sidewalk. Yates ordered the streets cleared, which was done in five minutes; one stubborn Buckshot suffered a saber wound in the process. Houses were then searched and a wagonload of arms and ammunition confiscated, among them some U.S. muskets.

The wives of mining officials in Beaver Meadow, concerned for their husbands’ safety, pleaded that the soldiers remain. One woman said a ruffian had earlier fired a musket ball among a group of children playing in the town, but no one was injured.

In early November 1863, Couch visited the strife-torn coal region, which was policed only by invalid troops and a few home guards, to assess the threat. Acting on Couch’s fresh reports, the War Department decided to send in the 10th New Jersey, a regiment of just over 500 men. After arriving on November 12, companies were dispatched to Beaver Meadow, Audenreid, Tresckow, Jeanesville, Yorktown, Hazelton and Mauch Chunk (present-day Jim Thorpe).

The 10th New Jersey quickly began netting suspects; by late November, nearly 100 were arrested and sent to Reading for trial before a military commission.

“The Irish gangs threatened to resist all soldiers brought against them,” Charles A. Coward of Company G said in a letter. “Before we came here, a peaceable citizen could not safely live here….We were all taken out with loaded guns to mine No. 3. Two more companies of our regiment came up from Beaver Meadow to assist; they went to the other mines in the neighborhood. Four men were taken from the company (among them was myself) and ‘double-quicked’ about three-eighths of a mile to a back entrance to the mine and ordered to let no one come out. The rest of the men then waited at the main entrance, and as the miners came out, having finished their day’s work, they were inspected. If their names were on a list of outlaws, they were put in custody—if not they were released. In this manner, about 30 were caught.”

Coward placed full blame for the problems on the Irish. “Hanging is entirely too good for them,” he said.

The military trials began in Reading in January 1864, but were moved to the strategic coal-shipping town of Mauch Chunk the next month. The trials rated front-page coverage in The New York Times.

A man named Charles Dugan was tried for conspiracy to resist the draft and other charges. John Sherman, a foreman in the Jeanesville mines, testified he had overheard Dugan say a party was going out to resist the draft and that they would rather die at home than fight for Abe Lincoln. According to Sherman, Dugan said they intended to tear down the house of provost marshal Major Ario Pardee and demolish half of Hazelton.

In another incredible revelation, Dugan told of a plan to attack Yates’ invalid soldiers patrolling the coalfields at Beaver Meadow, capture their guns and march with the arms to Scranton and overpower troops stationed there. They would then raise a cavalry and infantry troop made up mostly of miners and reinforce Confederate General Robert E. Lee during his invasion of Pennsylvania.

Another witness said he had heard suspect Peter Dillon ridicule the soldiers during a resist-the-draft meeting in Tresckow, calling them the “white slaves of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and Abe Lincoln.” He said the president had broken the U.S. Constitution and therefore the people as a mass had a right to resist the draft.

The verdicts brought by the commission ranged from fines to prison terms, including sentences of hard labor. The more high-profile cases were decided later during the dramatic Molly Maguire trials of the 1870s. It was not until then that Pinkerton detectives cracked the secret society, sending Jack Kehoe to the gallows for the 1862 murder of F.W. Langdon, and James McDonnell and Charles Sharp to meet the hangman for the November 1863 murder of George K. Smith.

 

Author Jim Zbick was associate editor of the Leighton, Pa., Times News when this article was originally published in the March 1992 edition of America’s Civil War. For further reading, see Wayne C. Broehl’s The Molly Maguires, or John Y.

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