When railroad workers ignited a widespread, violent strike in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes deployed U.S. troops to end the upheaval—and in doing so strengthened the power of the executive branch.
Rutherford B. Hayes was a man without a mandate in 1877. He was the president, to be sure, but he didn’t have the full confidence of the American people. Democrat Samuel Tilden had seemingly won the 1876 election only to see Hayes and the Republicans swipe the presidency after some sketchy political and electoral deal- making that included an agreement by Republicans to remove the last federal soldiers from Southern capitals, ending Reconstruction. The election controversy left many Americans suspicious of Hayes, a reserved and scholarly lawyer who’d fought for the Union in the Civil War before becoming a U.S. congressman and three-time governor of Ohio.
Public skepticism wasn’t the biggest problem facing Hayes, however. The national economy was still struggling to recover from a depression that had started four years earlier with a bank panic—and U.S. workers were simmering. More than a quarter of the working population was unemployed, and only 20 percent of those with jobs worked regularly; the rest were employed sporadically at low pay. “Weekly the layoffs, wage cuts, evictions, breadlines and hunger increased,” wrote Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais in Labor’s Untold Story.
The public largely blamed the railroad industry—symbol of industrial capitalism—for the nation’s woes. Speculative investments in unregulated track construction had caused the bank collapse, and the industry was notorious for political corruption and greed. While Erie Railroad President Hugh J. Jewett was making $40,000 annually, railroad brakemen and firemen were fortunate to earn $30 a month (working 12-hour days). Of course, the railroad industry was suffering, too. Scores of Western and Midwestern railroads were in federal receivership—and those in the East were engaged in a rate war for freight traffic. The major railroads had slashed worker wages by 10 percent at the start of 1877, and in June the Pennsylvania Railroad demanded an additional 10 percent cut—a move emulated the next month by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and others. Hearing rumblings of a strike, B&O President John Garrett said he “realized wage cuts added to the workingmen’s hardships,” but he was otherwise unmoved. Previous strikes “had been easily broken and the men easily replaced,” Garrett rationalized. “Labor lacked unity and was, thanks to the depression, amenable to company discipline.”
Not this time. On July 16, non-unionized B&O workers in Martinsburg, W.Va., and Baltimore, Md., abandoned their trains—and barred anyone else from operating them. Within days the work stoppage spread north and west like wildfire, to 14 rail centers in seven states, including Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and California. All freight traffic east of the Mississippi screeched to a halt. In cities along the major trunk lines, thousands of unemployed men and “thrill-seeking youths” joined with the strikers to drive off substitute workers and local police with rocks, sticks and insults. There were vicious street battles in Chicago and the nation’s first-ever general strike was called in St. Louis. The New York World reported that Pittsburgh was “in the hands of men dominated by the devilish spirit of Communism.”
Thus began the most spectacular collective labor upheaval in American history. Governors called out their state militias to quell the unrest, but the troops were uniformly ineffective: Some units were sympathetic to the strikers; angry crowds besieged others, which in some cities led to riots, gunfire and deaths. Capitalist tycoons blamed the mob violence on outside agitators and invoked comparisons to the Paris Commune of 1871. In a panic, several governors telegraphed President Hayes and requested federal troops. Hayes, who had taken office four months earlier, did not want to act rashly but doing nothing was not an option. People were getting killed, and stalled freight shipments were hurting numerous industries and further weakening the economy. Congress was in adjournment, so Hayes, with counsel from his Cabinet, would have to manage the crisis himself. He would prove up to the challenge. Biographer Ari Hoogenboom described Hayes as “principled but practical…open to advice but decisive. Diligent, conscientious…and steady, he did not panic under stress.”
That was good, because this was a risky situation. The U.S. Army had just faced down Southern whites set on subverting Reconstruction. Now Hayes was being asked to use troops to quash a much different threat—labor activists intent on upsetting the established order. Hayes may have sympathized with the grievances of the railroad workers more so than he let on at the time of the crisis, but restoring order was paramount. Though there seemed few viable precedents for federal intervention, he quickly decided to send U.S. soldiers to various railroad hotspots— and the troops, by their presence alone, quickly put an end to the scattered rebellions. Roughly a month after the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 had erupted, the workers were back at their jobs, steam engines were pulling freight cars again and American industry was regaining its pulse. The undemonstrative Hayes had handled an explosive emergency with expediency and restraint, and in doing so strengthened the presidency. Kenneth E. Davison noted in The Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes that Hayes’ federal intervention marked “a shift away from laissez-faire government, and would create important policy precedents”—chiefly the use of executive orders to restore public order and protect federal property without the approval of Congress.
Solving the Great Railroad Strike wasn’t as simple as it may have seemed. For one thing, Hayes had other issues to deal with. A violent dispute over salt deposits near El Paso required the attention of the 9th U.S. Cavalry, one of the units that remained in service after Congress reduced the Army’s troop level after the Civil War. By July 1877, there were only 25,000 soldiers—and most of them were stationed in the West. Early on, Hayes ruled out the possibility of imposing martial law to stop the rioting, perceiving that option as too harsh. He also thought about federalizing state militias but decided that better-trained and more disciplined Army troops were a wiser choice for the situation. Still, there was the thorny issue of who would control the federal regulars if and when they marched into a state—a military commander or the governor, in accordance with the concept of civil supremacy over the military? And what should the Army’s orders be?
Hayes acted first in West Virginia, where two companies of state militia had failed to restore order—and train traffic—in the city of Martinsburg, a major rail center. On July 18 a military adjutant warned Governor Henry M. Mathews that “the entire population of Martinsburg stood ready to join with strikers in forcibly resisting attempts by the militia to escort freight trains through the junction.” That day B&O Railroad agents telegraphed Mathews, suggesting that he request federal help. Mathews agreed, and in a telegram to the president he stated that “unlawful combinations and domestic violence now existing in Martinsburg” made it impossible to execute the laws of the state. He requested 200 to 300 federal troops.
Administration officials found the legal justification to comply with the governor’s request—Article IV, section 4 of the Constitution, which, along with Section 5297 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, authorized the federal government to suppress “domestic insurrection.” But “Hayes was dissatisfied with the brevity of [the governor’s] request,” according to Clayton David Laurie and Ronald H. Cole in The Role of Federal Military Forces in Domestic Disorders, “and asked for a more complete explanation of the state’s inability to end the reported rioting.” Hayes would do the same thing with subsequent state pleas: He was ready to help, but only when proper protocols were followed. When Mathews provided more data on the futility of local and state efforts to face down the mobs, Hayes “accepted the explanation without any independent verification and ordered Secretary of War George W. McCrary to dispatch troops.”
Within hours more than 300 soldiers stationed at the Washington Arsenal and Fort McHenry were transported by rail to Martinsburg. Armed with Springfield rifles and Gatling guns, they arrived at dawn on July 19. City police distributed copies of a presidential proclamation calling on “all persons engaged in said unlawful and insurrectionist proceedings to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes.” Strikers ignored the order, and Colonel William H. French dispatched his soldiers to the depot with orders to arrest anyone interfering with the operation of the trains. No one dared. Within 24 hours all trains were moving again through West Virginia, each accompanied by Army soldiers. An ebullient French wired Washington, boasting that “without any additional troops he could open the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad all the way to the Ohio River.”
As calm was being restored to West Virginia, rioting broke out on different rail lines in New York and Pennsylvania. The strike “was barely begun,” reported Harper’s Weekly, when jittery governors urged the president to send in the Army. Hayes usually complied as he had for the Martinsburg violence, though he was skeptical of some of the pleas. State officials requested federal troops “without fully exhausting state and local peacekeeping forces,” write Laurie and Cole. “Calling out local forces to disperse mobs of potential voters was not only politically and strategically risky for mayors and governors, but also expensive.” Better to let Washington shoulder the burden. That calculation “led many officials to exaggerate the intensity of civil disturbances.”
There was no overstating the dangers in Baltimore or Pittsburgh. In the former, a crowd of some 15,000 people stoned militia troops and trapped one regiment in an armory near Camden Yard. When the regiment attempted to leave, shots were fired—and in the ensuing melee at least 10 people were killed. On July 21, 135 Marines arrived and marched through Baltimore’s most volatile neighborhoods. They apprehended mob leaders and escorted the trapped militia troops to Camden Station. Another 360 soldiers entered the city the next day. When troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Henry Abbott encountered a rock-throwing mob, “Abbott ordered his troops to halt, turn about and fix bayonets. Before the command was even finished, the mob had scattered.”
Pittsburgh blew up on July 21, when state troops from Philadelphia fired into an angry crowd at the 28th Street crossing, killing about 20 protesters. The area was “dotted with the dead and dying,” reported the New York Herald. The deaths sparked a wild night of arson and vandalism during which all Pennsylvania Railroad property in the city, including 125 locomotives, two roundhouses and 2,000 loaded freight trains, was destroyed. At the time, Governor John F. Hartranft wasn’t even in the state. He’d left on a long holiday excursion to the West just before the strike started—a trip paid for by Pennsylvania Railroad President Thomas Scott, a robber baron who’d played a role in the U.S. congressional negotiations that had awarded Hayes the presidency. Scott famously said, after the uprising began, that the strikers “should be given a rife diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.”
Hartranft wired the president from Nebraska, on his way back to Pennsylvania, asking for military aid “to assist in quelling mobs.” Hayes refused the request because the governor had not used the words “domestic insurrection.” Hartranft reworded his message, and Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the U.S. Army’s Atlantic Division, instructed Major John Hamilton to place his nearly 600 troops, stationed in Philadelphia, under the governor’s control. Hancock was not keen to put his officers under public officials—an instinct Hayes shared—but it had been done in West Virginia and Maryland, and as Hancock came to trust Hartranft, it was done in Pennsylvania, too. On July 26, the U.S. troops left Philadelphia by train for Pittsburgh, followed by 2,000 state militiamen. Stone-throwing mobs attacked and delayed the trains at Altoona and Johns town, but when the federals got to Pittsburgh on the 28th, the city was quiet. The news that U.S. Army troops were en route had sapped the fury of the protesters—and by then the strikers were in talks with the Pennsylvania Railroad about returning to work.
With all his militiamen in Pittsburgh, the mayor of Philadelphia asked the White House for federal troops to replace them. Local officials did not have the authority to request federal intervention—but Hayes agreed to send soldiers anyway under the pretext of supporting federal marshals and protecting federal buildings, “hoping that the mere presence of regulars would not only protect public property but also intimidate any groups threatening civil authority,” according to Laurie and Cole. “This action set a precedent that was used frequently in the next few weeks by Hayes”—using soldiers in the role of posse comitatus to protect federal property in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri. And in subsequent decades other presidents followed the Hayes precedent to break strikes, “perceiving the protection of federal property as an inherent responsibility of the federal executive.”
The Great Strike’s final stages played out in Chicago and St. Louis, where workers from other industries—most of them immigrants from Germany, Poland, Ireland and Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) joined the railroaders in more general work stoppages. In Chicago, the nation’s railway hub, the socialist Workingmen’s Party of the United States encouraged and promoted the strike. According to historian Richard Schneirov, the WPUS distributed inflammatory leaflets in working-class neighborhoods: “Have You No Rights? No Ambition? No Manhood?” Stockyard workers and lumber shovers walked off their jobs in solidarity with the railway hands. Unlike in other cities, the Chicago police and a probusiness Citizens’ Association actively tried to thwart the protesters, using toughs of their own to fight the strikers. On July 25, police confronted an angry crowd of some 5,000 people on South Halsted Street, and then started shooting. When the fighting stopped, about 30 people were dead—mostly young Irish, Polish and Bohemian men—and 200 wounded. Chicago’s casualties exceeded that of any other city.
It could have gotten worse, but Secretary of War McCrary had anticipated trouble in Chicago. When Illinois Governor Shelby M. Cullom wired Hayes for help, Brig. Gen. John Pope, anticipating presidential approval, immediately sent 650 soldiers into Chicago, most coming from Illinois’ Rock Island Arsenal, 150 miles west. McCrary had moved several companies of regulars to Rock Island days earlier as a precaution. This time there was no presidential proclamation, and on July 27 Hayes withdrew Cullom’s authority to deploy and direct the troops—the military would make its own decisions. The same day Colonel Richard Drum, troop commander in Chicago, informed McCrary that no emergency had arisen requiring operations against the mob, and the next day he noted optimistically that “the excitement here has calmed down…the presence of U.S. troops has given great confidence.” By mid-August most of the troops had been withdrawn from Chicago.
In the aftermath, Chicago Tribune editor Joseph Medill wrote an incendiary editorial that took a hard line on labor activism. Medill argued that mass immigration and the rise of aggressive labor unions had created something previously unknown in America: the “dangerous classes.” The editor called for enforcing laws that protected the railroads “at whatever cost,” adding: “A few lives taken at the first saves human life in the end….A little powder, used to teach the dangerous classes a needful lesson, is well-burned, provided there are bullets in front of it.”
In St. Louis, the WPUS helped initiate a peaceful general strike of laborers that “nearly succeeded in supplanting civil authority.” But Hayes and McCrary cited Revised Statute 5298, authorizing the government to protect businesses in federal receivership, and dispatched some 450 troops to the city without a formal request from state officials. Their commander, Colonel Jefferson C. Davis (no relation to the former president of the Confederacy), was under orders to protect federal property and nothing more, but, write Laurie and Cole, “he saw other opportunities to help local and state officials. He encouraged civilians to take up arms against the strikers.” Indeed, from July 24 to 28, “3,000 federally armed vigilantes, aided by the frequent appearance of Army units, began to bring the strikers under control, primarily through armed intimidation.” Three weeks later, when Davis’ companies left Missouri, the nationwide strike was over.
Was there a winner? Not really. The York Times between labor and capital as “a drawn battle.” Historian Robert V. Bruce, in 1877: Year of Violence summed up the standoff , asserted that the New strike produced some benefits for laborers. It stopped the railroad wage-cutting, which in turn dissuaded other industries, including coal, from “pitiless” pay reductions. “In doing so,” Bruce wrote, “it put a floor under prices, thus helping to break the spiral of deflation and depression.” In October the New York Central restored half of the July wage cut, and in February 1880, according to Bruce, it restored the rest. Other railroads followed suit.
Columbia University historian Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1863- 1877), described the uprising as a watershed event with “immense long-term consequences.” The Great Railroad Strike helped push the attention of white Northerners away from the “Negro problem” and toward the issue of a large and turbulent working class created by industrialization, urbanization and immigration. It also “ushered in two decades of labor conflict the most violent the country had ever known.” The upheaval reinforced elitist biases among the respectable middle class. The New York Tribune declared that only the “substantial, property-owning” classes could save “civilized society.”
That’s not the way workers saw things, notes historian Richard Schneirov. “Far from seeking to destroy modern civilization”—as Chicago Tribune editor Medill had suggested— “labor leaders were busy in the aftermath of 1877 building new, more inclusive institutions of civil society. The aggressive crowd actions—and even more, the myriad instances of unity across lines of skill, trade, ethnicity, religion and sex— made it clear to many labor leaders that new forms of organization and action…were both necessary and possible.”
Ulysses S. Grant, Hayes’ predecessor, was troubled by what he called the “queer” federal intervention. As he wrote to a friend in a letter dated August 26, 1877: “During my two terms of office the whole Democratic press, and the morbidly honest and ‘reformatory’ portion of the Republican press, thought it horrible to keep U.S. troops stationed in the Southern States, and when they were called upon to protect the lives of negroes…the country was scarcely large enough to hold the sound of indignation belched forth by them for some years. Now, however, there is no hesitation about exhausting the whole power of the government to suppress a strike on the slightest intimation that danger threatens.”
Hayes also felt some disquiet. Though the strike was over, he knew that nothing had been done to address the causes of the upheaval. Congress was not ready to enact labor reforms, and there was no long-term policy. Nearly a decade later, Hayes, by then retired in Ohio, expressed a viewpoint sympathetic to labor. In a diary entry from May 2, 1886, Hayes wrote: “It may be truly said that for twenty-five years, at least, railroad workingmen have had too little, and railroad capitalists and managers, those who have controlled and manipulated railroads, have had too much of their earnings—or too much of the money made out of them. The public has been neglected; its rights and interests disregarded. Not enough men employed—not paid enough—etc., etc.”
Sounding like a populist, he went on: “Shall the railroads govern the country, or shall the people govern the railroads?” Hayes left no doubt that he felt big companies had the upper hand, and were running roughshod: “This is a government of the people, by the people and for the people no longer. It is a government of corporations, by corporations, for corporations. How is this? The railroads should be under a wise, watchful, and powerful supervision of the government.”
Hayes’ presidency after the strike was less dramatic but successful. Hayes was a strong administrator and known as a “patient re- former” who made incremental changes to the country’s civil service programs. Thanks mostly to the business cycle and partly to the president’s monetary policy—he had an “almost mystical faith in the gold standard,” according to biographer Hoogenboom— the economy strongly rebounded. “With abundant capital and low interest rates,” writes Hoogenboom, “industries were thriving, railroads expanding and foreign trade increasing.” After his presidency, which was one term by choice, Hayes spent the rest of his life engaged in social causes, especially ones pertaining to education and penal reform. In 1883 he was named president of the National Prison Association, a position he held until his death in 1891. As president, Hayes could not prevent white supremacists from reestablishing “home rule” in the South, but in public and private life, noted Hoogenboom, he made universal education his “hobby,” and was “most interested in providing a decent education for Blacks.” Labor conflicts would fare up for decades to come, often violently, but Hayes got deserved praise for his astute crisis management: His precedent-setting federal intervention had, at the least, ended a volatile national emergency without the loss of any more lives.
Richard Ernsberger Jr. is a senior editor for American History.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.