American History II
Chapter 8: We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God
Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase had doubled the territory of the United States, extending it to the Rocky Mountains. To the southwest was Mexico, independent from Spain in 1821, a large country that included present-day Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and part of Colorado. After agitation and aid from the United States, Anglo Texas broke off from Mexico in 1836 and declared itself the “Lone Star Republic.” In 1845, Congress brought it into the Union as a slave state.
James Polk, in the White House now, was an expansionist Democrat, who, on the night of his inauguration, confided to his Secretary of the Navy that one of his main objectives was the acquisition of California. On June 29, 1845, he ordered General Taylor to move troops to the Rio Grande as a challenge to the Mexicans. In 1846 Taylor set up camp just across from Matamoros and began construction of a fort. The previous summer, John O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, had written that it was “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
The incident Polk needed to begin his war came in April, when General Taylor’s quartermaster, Colonel Cross, disappeared while riding up the Rio Grande. His body was found eleven days later, and it was assumed he had been killed by Mexican guerillas. The next day an American patrol was surrounded by Mexicans soldiers and killed or taken prisoner. Taylor sent a message to the governors of Texas and Louisiana asking them to recruit 5,000 volunteers. A few days later, Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico, and they did so, with little debate. Thousands rushed to volunteer for the army.
As the war went on, opposition to it grew, especially among abolitionists, who feared the addition of more slave territory. Antiwar meetings took place, in spite of attacks by patriotic mobs. After the first rush, enlistments dwindled, despite the continued attempts of newspapers to inflame the public. Many organized workingmen opposed the war, and there were demonstrations of Irish workers in New York, Boston, and Lowell against what was seen as a plot of slaveholders (of which the president was one).
The volunteers in the American army had been lured by money and the opportunity for social advancement via promotion in the armed forces. Half were recent immigrants – Irish and German mostly. Not that patriotic, many of them deserted to the Mexican side for money.
Meanwhile, by land and by sea, Anglo-American forces were moving into California, raiding Spanish settlements, stealing horses, and declaring the “Bear Flag Republic.” In August, General Kearney moved easily into New Mexico, and Santa Fe was taken without a battle.
General Taylor had moved across the Rio Grande, occupied Matamoros, and begun moving south into Mexico, his volunteers pillaging Mexican villages along the way. As the soldiers moved along the Rio Grande, a thousand of them died of dysentery and other illnesses. Eventually, Monterey was taken and Vera Cruz besieged and bombarded until it surrendered.
In September 1847, General Winfield Scott moved toward Mexico City with 10,000 soldiers. Three days march from the city, seven of his eleven regiments evaporated, their enlistment times up. On the outskirts of Mexico City, Mexican and American forces clashed for three hours, leading to the deaths of 4,000 Mexican and 1,000 Americans. In the final battle for the Mexican capital, Anglo-American troops took the height of Chapultepec and entered the city of 200,000 people.
Mexico ceded half its territory to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848. The U.S. paid Mexico $15 million, which led the Whig Intelligencer to conclude that “we take nothing by conquest…Thank God.”
Chapter 9: Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom
By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the United States. Slave importation had become illegal in 1808, but the law went unenforced, and 250,000 slaves were smuggled into the country before the Civil War.
It was a system harried by slave rebellions and conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser, 1800; Denmark Vesey, 1822; and Nat Turner, 1831). Slave revolts in the United States weren’t as frequent or as large-scale as those in the Caribbean islands or South America. Probably the largest took place near New Orleans in 1811. Four to five hundred slaves gathered after a rising on Major Andry’s plantation. Armed with cane knives, axes, and clubs, they wounded Andry, killed his son, and began marching from plantation to plantation, their numbers growing. Finally, federal troops and militia forces killed 66 of the rebels and had 16 executed by a firing squad.
The conspiracy of Denmark Vesey, himself a free Negro, was thwarted before it could be carried out. The plan was to burn Charleston, South Carolina, then the sixth-largest city in the nation, and to initiate a general revolt of slaves in the area. Thousands of blacks were implicated, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. The trial record was ordered destroyed – too dangerous for slaves to see.
Nat Turner’s rebellion in Southhampton County, Virginia threw the slaveholding South into a panic. Turner, claiming religious visions, gathered 70 slaves, who went on a rampage from plantation to plantation, murdering 55 men, women, and children. They gathered supporters, but were captured when their ammunition ran out. Turner and 18 others were hanged.
The Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850 was a concession to the southern states in return for the admission of the Mexican war territories as non-slave states. The Act made it easy for slaveowners to recapture ex-slaves or to pick up blacks they claimed had run away. Northern blacks organized resistance to the law, denouncing President Fillmore, who signed it, and Daniel Webster, who supported it. White abolitionists did courageous and pioneering work on lecture platforms, in newspapers, and operating the Underground Railroad, but the less publicized black abolitionists were the backbone of the antislavery movement. Blacks had to struggle constantly with the unconscious racism of white abolitionists, and to insist on their own independent voice.
Zinn emphasizes that “it was the national government which, while weakly enforcing the law ending the slave trade, sternly enforced the laws providing for the return of escaped slaves. It was the national government that, during Andrew Jackson’s administration, collaborated with the South to keep abolitionist literature out of the mails in southern states. It was the Supreme Court of the United States that declared in 1857 that the slave Dred Scott couldn’t sue for his freedom in free territory because he wasn’t a person.
Such a national government would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the Republican Party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism.” Like most whites of his day, Lincoln didn’t see blacks as equals, and often said that, if freed, they should be sent back to Africa.
Fearing that Lincoln and the Republicans would make the continuation of their pleasant and prosperous way of life impossible in the near future, the southern elite pushed for seven states to secede from the Union. When a Southern force took over the federal naval base at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and Lincoln tried to take it back by force, four more states seceded, and the Civil War had begun.
In his first inaugural address (March 1861), Lincoln said he had no “right” or “inclination” to “interfere with the institution of slavery.” When General John C. Fremont declared martial law in Missouri and said the slaves of owners resisting the United States would be freed, Lincoln countermanded the order to keep the slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri in the Union. It was only as the war grew more bitter, the casualties mounted, and the criticism of the abolitionists threatened to unravel the tattered coalition behind him that Lincoln began to act against slavery.
In July 1862, Congress passed a Confiscation Act, which enabled the freeing of slaves owned by those fighting the Union, but it wasn’t enforced by Union generals, and Lincoln ignored the non-enforcement. In August, he responded to a letter from Horace Greeley, saying: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, it declared slaves free in those areas still fighting against the Union, and said nothing about slaves behind Union lines. Limited as it was, the proclamation spurred antislavery forces. By the summer of 1864, 400,000 signatures asking for legislation to end slavery had been gathered and sent to Congress. That April, the Senate adopted the Thirteenth Amendment, declaring an end to slavery, and in January 1865, the House of Representatives followed. The 2012 film “Lincoln” documents the House battle and Lincoln’s efforts to win it well.
With the Emancipation Proclamation, the army was open to blacks, though were already serving. The more blacks entered the war, the more it appeared to be a war for their liberation. Also, the more whites had to sacrifice, the more resentment there was about this, particularly among poor whites in the North, who faced the draft while the rich could buy their way out for $300. During the draft riots of 1853 in northern cities, whites attacked black men, women, and children.
The slaves now had enormous power in their hands – by stopping work, they could threaten the South with starvation, and by walking into federal camps they deprived the Confederacy of field workers. Sojourner Truth recruited black troops for the Union army, and Harriet Tubman raided plantations, led black and white troops, and in one expedition freed 750 slaves. Most slaves stayed on the plantation, but half a million – one in five – ran away, a high proportion when one considers that they didn’t know where to go or how they would live. In Lafayette County, Mississippi, slaves responded to the Emancipation Proclamation by driving off their overseers and dividing land and implements among themselves. In Yazoo City, Mississippi, slaves burned the courthouse and 14 homes. Robert Smalls (later a South Carolina Congressman) and other blacks took over a steamship, The Planter, and sailed it past the Confederate guns to deliver it to the Union navy. 200,000 blacks were in the army and navy, and 38,000 were killed (a rate of 17%). Historian James McPherson says, “Without their help, the North couldn’t have won the war as soon as it did, and perhaps it couldn’t have won at all.”
What happened to blacks in the Union army and in the northern cities during the war gave some hint of how limited emancipation would be. Off-duty black soldiers were attacked in northern cities, and black soldiers were used for the heaviest and dirtiest work. White privates received $13 a month, Negro privates $10. Congress finally passed a law granting equal pay to Negro soldiers in June 1864.
In March 1865, President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy signed a “Negro Soldier Law” authorizing the enlistment of slaves as soldiers, to be freed by consent of their owners and the state governments. Before it could have any significant effect, the war was over.
The Thirteenth Amendment had outlawed slavery, and the Fourteenth repudiated the Dred Scott decision by declaring that all persons born and naturalized in the United States were citizens. It also denied states the ability to make or enforce any law that would abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Fifteenth Amendment protected the right of all citizens to vote. Congress also passed a number of laws in the late 1860s and early 1870s making it a crime to deprive Negroes of their rights, requiring federal officials to enforce those rights, and giving Negroes the right to enter into contracts and buy property without discrimination. In 1875, a Civil Rights Act outlawed the exclusion of Negroes from public accommodations.
With these laws, with the Union army in the South as protection, and a civilian army of officials in the Freedman’s Bureau to help them, southern Negroes voted, formed political organizations, and expressed themselves on issues important to them. They were hampered in this for several years by Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s vice president, who became president after Lincoln was assassinated 6 days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Johnson vetoed bills to help Negroes and made it easy for Confederate states to re-enter the Union without guaranteeing equal rights to blacks. In 1865, Mississippi made it illegal for freedmen to rent or lease farmland, and provided for them to work under labor contracts they couldn’t break under penalty of prison. It also provided that the courts could assign black children under eighteen who had no parents, or whose parents were poor, to forced labor (called “apprenticeships”), with punishment for runaways.
In 1868, Republican Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, winning by 300,000 votes, with 700,000 Negroes voting. Black voting in the period after 1869 also resulted in the election of two Negro U.S. Senators – Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both from Mississippi, and 20 Congressmen, including eight from South Carolina, four from North Carolina, three from Alabama, and one each from the other former Confederate states. This list would dwindle rapidly after 1876, and the last black left Congress in 1901.
So long as the Negro depended on privileged whites for work, his vote could be bought or taken away by threat of force, making laws calling for equal treatment meaningless. The southern white oligarchy used this economic power and more, organizing the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups. In Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1866, whites killed 46 Negroes, most of them veterans of the Union army, and two white sympathizers. Five Negro women were raped, and 90 homes, 12 schools, and 4 churches were burned. That summer in New Orleans another riot against blacks killed 35 Negroes and three whites. The violence mounted through the late 1860s and early 1870s as the KKK organized raids, lynchings, beatings, and burnings.
The national government became less enthusiastic about defending blacks, and in 1883 the Supreme Court nullified the Civil Rights Act of 1875, saying that it applied only to state action, not the actions of individuals. The mood of the Court reflected a new coalition of northern industrialists and southern businessmen and planters that culminated in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) when the Court ruled that a railroad could segregate blacks and whites if the segregated facilities were equal (the infamous “separate but equal” principle).
What was happening was spelled out clearly and dramatically in 1877. When the year opened, the presidential election of the past November was in bitter dispute. With 184 electoral votes, the Democratic candidate, Samuel Tilden, needed one more to be elected; his share of the popular vote was greater by 250,000. The Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, had 166 electoral votes. Three states not yet counted had a total of 19 electoral votes; if Hayes could get all of these, he’d have 185 and be president. His managers made concessions to the Democratic Party and the white South, including an agreement to remove Union troops from the South, the last obstacle to reestablishing white supremacy there, and Hayes was elected.
Northern political and economic interests needed powerful allies. The country had been in economic depression since 1873, and by 1877 farmers and workers were beginning to rebel. As C. Vann Woodward puts it in his history of the 1877 Compromise, Reunion and Reaction, “It was the worst year of the worst depression yet experienced…From both East and West came threats against the elaborate structure of protective tariffs, national banks, railroad subsidies, and monetary arrangements upon which the new economic order was founded.” It was time for a reconciliation between northern and southern elites.
With billions of dollars worth of slaves gone, the wealth of the old South was wiped out. Southerners now looked to the national government for credit and subsidies – like federal aid for the Texas and Pacific Railroad. Even poor white farmers wanted railroads, harbor improvements, flood control, and, of course, land, but the first act of the new North-South capitalist cooperation was the repeal the Southern Homestead Act, which had reserved all federal land – one-third of the area of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi – for farmers who would work it. This enabled absentee speculators and lumbermen to move in and buy up much of the area. Woodward sums it up: “The Compromise of 1877 did not restore the old order in the South. It did assure the dominant whites political autonomy and non-intervention in matters of race policy and promised them a share in the blessings of the new economic order.”
The North didn’t have to undergo a revolution in its thinking to accept the subordination of the Negro. When the Civil war ended, only five of the 24 northern states allowed blacks to vote, and, while not written into law, there was racist thought and practice. In this atmosphere, it was no wonder that those Negro leaders most accepted in white society, like the educator Booker T. Washington, urged Negro political passivity. Thomas Fortune, a young black editor of the New York Globe, testified before a Senate committee in 1883 about the situation of the Negro, speaking of “widespread poverty,” government betrayal, and desperate attempts on the part of blacks to educate themselves. The average wage of Negro farm laborers in the South was about 50 cents a day, Fortune said, usually in the form of “orders” that could only be used at a store controlled by the planter. To get the wherewithal to plant a crop, the Negro farmer had to promise it to the store, and when everything was added up at the end of the year he was in debt, according to fraudulent records kept by the planter. Fortune also spoke of “the penitentiary system of the South, with its chain gang…the object being to terrorize the blacks and furnish victims for contractors, who purchase the labor of these wretches from the State for a song…The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain-gang for ten years.” Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon (2008) explains how this system worked, and how it was used to rebuild the South, using free black labor.
Many Negroes fled the South. About 6,000 black people left Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, migrating to Kansas to escape violence and poverty. And even in the worst periods, southern Negroes continued to meet and organize self-defense – despite the fact that by the 1880s there were over a hundred lynchings a year.
W.E.B. DuBois, a black professor at Atlanta University, saw the late 19th century betrayal of the Negro as part of something happening to poor whites as well. In Black Reconstruction, written in 1935, he said: “There began to arise in America in 1876 a new capitalism and a new enslavement of labor.” DuBois saw this new capitalism as part of a process of exploitation taking place in all of the “civilized” countries of the world.
The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded from the Confederacy
This book by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer (2009) tells the story of Newton Knight, an antislavery farmer in Jones County, Mississippi, who led an insurrection against the Confederacy from 1863 to 1865, working side by side with blacks. During this period, Knight also began a relationship with Rachel, a slave owned by his family, sharing his homestead with her until her death in 1889 and acknowledging their children and grandchildren.
In May 1862, Company F of the 7th Mississippi Battalion, consisting of 69 men and four officers from Jones County, was forcibly mustered into the Confederate army. By October 1862, half the men were ill, two-thirds were absent or on leave, and six had died. Among the men was recently promoted third sergeant Newton Knight, 24, who had volunteered as a hospital orderly in an effort to avoid fighting (his sympathies lay with the Union). Knight, a poor yeoman farmer, didn’t feel any common interest with the merchants and planters who made up the officer class that had pressed him into service. These elites seemed to view their officer status as a prerogative, and the men in the ranks as serfs they could mistreat.
In its first battle, on October 3, 1862, the 7th Battalion, under General Earl Van Dorn, attacked 25,000 Union troops stationed in Corinth, Mississippi, a hub for seized cotton. They took over the town with heavy losses on both sides, but lost it within hours. Van Dorn’s army was shattered. In two days of fighting, he’d wrecked two of his three divisions and suffered a horrifying casualty rate of 35%. The loss was crushing for the Confederacy, closing off Southern transportation lines, giving Grant control of northern Mississippi, and opening the way for his campaign against Vicksburg. Van Dorn and other officers had behaved incompetently, using slipshod logistics and neglecting their troops.
The 7th Mississippi, which had done some of the heaviest fighting, suffered 59 casualties. Company F lost a quarter of its men, among them some of Knight’s relatives, friends, and neighbors. Knight was promoted to second sergeant.
A week after the battle, on October 11, 1862, the Confederate legislature passed its infamous Twenty Negro Law, permitting one white man on every plantation with twenty or more slaves to remain at home. The law was greeted with outrage in the ranks, and in the next few months, 7,000 men from southeastern Mississippi went absent without leave. Some would eventually return to the ranks out of guilt; others were captured and forced back. A muster roll for Company F on February 18, 1863 listed 39 men as AWOL.
Another egregious law passed at the same time gave officials the authority to enter farmers’ storehouses and walk off with 10% of their provisions. Officers, or thieves masquerading as such, roamed Mississippi seizing slaves, horses, food, and even houses. Knight deserted in early November of 1862 after receiving a letter from his wife, Serena, complaining that a Confederate cavalryman had seized their best horse.
Mississippi, the largest cotton producer in the South, had almost 437,000 slaves, constituting half the state’s population. Though Newton Knight’s grandfather, Jackie Knight, was a wealthy plantation owner and slave trader, his father, Albert Knight, refused to own slaves, choosing to belong to the yeoman rather than the planter class. In contrast, Albert’s brother Jesse Davis Knight had amassed acreage worth $3,000 and a personal estate worth $8,900 by the time he was 39.
The Knight family schism was reflective of larger rifts taking place all over Mississippi during the secession crisis. The most common division was between rich and poor – on the eve of the Civil War, for example, Jones County was an island of poverty in a sea of cotton-and-slave-based wealth. The rare Jones County farmer who owned slaves tended to have four or fewer, and most families owned none at all.
After Lincoln was elected president in November 1860, Mississippi governor John Pettus, a fiery secessionist, instructed the state legislature to call a convention so that delegates could vote on an ordinance of secession. The plain folk of Jones County had little stake in the slave and cotton economy and even less in the political affairs of the planters. And Southern pride on its own was a thin reason to go to war. So, when it came time to vote, the men of Jones County cast their ballots overwhelmingly for “cooperationist” candidate John H. Powell. Jones County was firmly Union, and Powell was sent off to tell the convention so.
But when Powell arrived in Jackson in early January 1861, he found the city already celebrating secession as a foregone conclusion. Amid the exultation, Unionists were shouted down as “cowards” and “submissionists” who would place the state under Northern tyranny.
Had secession been put to a popular vote, it probably wouldn’t have passed. But the delegates in Jackson didn’t represent what was popular, only what was powerful.
Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession was a document written by and for the planters, announcing their interests in its very first sentence: “ Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”
Powell ended up losing his nerve and voting for secession, along with an overwhelming majority of the delegates. The vote was 84 to 15. Many other anti-secessionist delegates also betrayed their constituents and voted for the ordinance. Some of them did so because they were swayed by the moment, others may have been bribed with the promise of advancement, and still others had been told that a later referendum would enable the people to ratify or reject the ordinance. But there was no referendum. On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede, after South Carolina.
“Jones County never seceded from the Union,” Knight insisted later. “Her delegate seceded.” In Ellisville, an effigy of Powell was strung up and burned.
In February 1863, Knight was seized, sent to a military prison, and court-martialed. He was probably also flogged publicly. Agreeing to return to his unit to avoid the death penalty, Knight survived the siege of Vicksburg. After the siege was over, there were too many Confederate prisoners for Grant to guard and feed, and the job of transporting 30,000 captured Confederates north to prison camps would tie up the army and transportation routes. Instead, the prisoners took oaths pledging not to bear arms against the Union and to report to a parole camp at Enterprise, Mississippi to await exchange. The parolees could only return to fighting if the Confederacy released an equal number of Union prisoners. Grant figured many of the starved, disenchanted parolees would go home as soon as they could. The Confederacy soon issued a call to the paroled men to return to their units, in violation of the agreement, but many deserted, as Grant had predicted, including Knight and more than half of Company F (39 men).
Knight had little sympathy for the planters who bemoaned their lost world or were plundered by Yankees. Rebel forces perpetrated equally savage violence on the countryside, if not worse. Union troops patrolling the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River were aghast to find that rebel raiders had slain or set fire to everything in their path that might be put to use – including the slaves, who were shot or burned alive to prevent them from defecting.
A month after Vicksburg fewer than 1,500 of the 30,000 Confederate soldiers released by Grant had reported for duty. All across the South – in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana – men were missing from their units. In Mississippi, there were at least 5,000 deserters, and many rural counties were disaffected, with armed bands of deserters resisting authority. In Jones County, 75-100 deserters prowled through the thickets, with hundreds more lurking deeper in the swamps. The men loosely cooperated in evading Confederate authorities and filched supplies from the homes of loyal rebels.
Confederate soldiers’ pay of $11 a month in near-worthless scrip was six months in arrears, and the disparity between their circumstances and the advantages of officers bred thoughts of disloyalty. Some officers habitually dined luxuriously and partied while their men suffered, without proper food, clothing, and sanitation. Many marched shoeless.
As the Yankee occupation of Mississippi broadened, thousands of slaves moved toward Union lines. Once there, they took on an increasingly vital role in the Union war effort: according to one estimate there were 20,000 black refugees in the Vicksburg area alone, doing hard labor for the North instead of the South. John Eaton, the chaplain of the 27th Ohio, appointed superintendent of the freedmen by Grant, organized work programs for which they could earn wages, plowing on abandoned plantations leased to northern speculators or wielding axes in woodyards.
In the spring of 1863, freedmen began to volunteer in the first black regiments, mustered by General Lorenzo Thomas and led by volunteer white officers. By the end of the year 50,000 freedmen were serving in the Union army, most of them in the Mississippi Valley.
On June 5th at Milliken’s Bend, a Union position on the Mississippi a few miles above Vicksburg, five regiments of black troops proved their mettle when a Confederate brigade under H.E. McCulloch attacked. Of the 1,061 black soldiers who fought, 652 were killed, wounded, or missing, along with 160 white officers. The fight was negligible strategically, but the troops who fought there won the first significant victory over bigotry in the Union service, a full six weeks before the 54th Massachusetts made their legendary assault at Fort Wagner.
Rachel’s owner, Jesse Davis Knight, fell ill with measles in the fall of 1863 while in Georgia with the 27th Mississippi Regiment. He died in December, having fathered three of Rachel’s children, the last, a girl named Fanny, born in the spring of 1864.
Immediately after the war, 10,000 Union soldiers, many of them black, occupied the towns and villages of Mississippi’s interior. A detachment of the 70th U.S. Colored Infantry set up camp in Ellisville, and Newton Knight conducted business openly with them.
A third of Mississippi’s Confederates, some 28,000 men, had died during the war, and more than half of those who survived had lost a leg or arm (in 1866 one-fifth of the state budget went to the purchase of artificial limbs). Many died walking home.
The Union army appointed Knight “commissioner to procure relief for the destitute,” empowering him to requisition supplies from the federal depot at Meridian. He delivered wagons full of bacon, beans, flour, salt, and soap to the starved citizens of Jones. Knight also helped black parents gain custody of children being held as slaves by plantation owners. His interference infuriated local Confederates, and he soon found that his new position as a government man and public protector of blacks was hardly less dangerous than his old one of fugitive. Confederate marauders continued to roam the state through the spring and summer of 1865, murdering freedmen and attacking Unionists. “Mississippians have been shooting and cutting each other to a greater extent than in all the other states of the union put together,” a federal inspector reported.
Knight further inflamed feelings against him when he used his influence to get rebel bureaucrats turned out of their jobs. He petitioned the new provisional governor, William Sharkey, to discard the results of the Confederate elections of October 1864, arguing that the rebels had denied citizens the right to vote. He proposed that all new county officers be appointed and reminded Sharkey that the Jones County Scouts had held “true and loyal to the Union.” Sharkey followed Knight’s recommendation and appointed Knight men as judge of probate and county sheriff.
In the fall of 1865, ex-Confederates John Baylis and Joel Welborn petitioned the legislature to change the county name to Davis and the name of the county seat, Ellisburg, to Leesburg. This was done in December.
President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a virulent racist and former slave owner, enabled the southern states to resume their constitutional rights as quickly as possible. In May 1865, he issued a general amnesty and restored all confiscated land to rebels who took an oath of allegiance to the Union and promised to support emancipation. About 15,000 Southerners were excluded, mainly wealthy planters and senior Confederate officials, but they could apply individually for pardons, and by the end of the year, Johnson was granting them wholesale, sometimes hundreds in a single day.
Johnson also appointed provisional governors like William Sharkey who were sympathetic to his policy of general amnesty. Sharkey, a planter and prewar anti-secessionist, filled his administration almost entirely with pardoned Confederate leaders in the belief that they would help restore order. Next, he called for a provisional legislature. The body that convened in July was also made up largely of former Confederates, and it promptly sought legal ways to return blacks to servitude.
Incredibly, Sharkey also allowed former rebels to rearm themselves and form military units. Many of the 400,000 freed blacks in Mississippi roamed the state looking for food and work, and white Mississippians were threatened by their loss of authority over these former slaves, who outnumbered them.
Union general Henry Slocum, the federal commander of the Department of Mississippi, seeing that Confederate militias were harassing Unionists and blacks, issued an order prohibiting them. But Sharkey appealed to Andrew Johnson, who ruled in his favor. The military, the president said, was in the state “to aid, but not to interfere with the provisional government.”
It was in this potent, uncertain environment that Knight and his Jones County Scouts were mustered out of service. On September 10, 1865, they turned their arms over to Captain A.R. Smith of the 70th Colored Infantry in Ellisville, although they retained their personal shotguns.
In Mississippi’s October elections, impenitent rebels were swept back into the state’s highest offices. A former Confederate brigadier general, Benjamin G. Humphreys, who still wore a bullet-riddled Confederate army coat, was elected governor by a landslide. Three days after the election President Johnson approved his application for a pardon, allowing him to take office.
Humphreys and the legislature that convened on October 16th set about restoring the old antebellum order, enacting a notorious set of laws known as the “Black Codes,” which prevented freedmen from voting, assembling, renting or owning land, or quitting their jobs. Perhaps worst of all, under an “apprenticeship” law, all blacks under age 18 who were without means of support were required to be “apprenticed” – i.e., enslaved – to whites without pay. A purposely broad vagrancy law defined any blacks whom whites might find troublesome as criminals: “All rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practicing unlawful games or plays, runaways, drunkards, night-walkers, pilferers, brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons shall be deemed and considered vagrants.” The penalty was imprisonment and a fine of $50, and those unable to pay could be hired out to whites.
The state legislature also refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished slavery, claiming it would empower “radicals and demagogues.” Not until 1995 would Mississippi ratify the Thirteenth Amendment.
Union troops were gradually mustered out of the state, leaving only a few battalions of infantry and agents from the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the division of the War Department that now governed the relationships between former slaves and their white employers. The woefully understaffed and embattled head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Mississippi, Colonel Samuel Thomas, was overwhelmed by the size of the problem he faced. Most Mississippi whites, he reported, “cannot conceive of the negro having any rights at all. Men who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors will cheat a negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor; to kill a negro they do not deem murder; to debauch a negro woman they do not think fornication; to take property away from a negro they do not deem robbery. They still have the ingrained feeling that the black people at large belong to the whites at large.”
Knight kept to himself, rebuilding his farm on the county border. He built Rachel a cabin and gave her some land to sharecrop. Rachel’s youngest, a daughter named Martha Ann, was his. Another daughter with the same name was born to Knight’s wife Serena at this time, and a son, Joseph Sullivan Knight, was born in 1866.
After Grant won the presidential election of 1868, he appointed Adelbert Ames, a Union war hero, provisional governor of the state. Ames began awarding state offices to Union loyalists and blacks, and one of Knight’s allies became assistant U.S. marshal for Jones County. In 1870 Mississippi approved a new constitution that abolished the Black Codes and upheld federal laws guaranteeing civil and voting rights. Blacks won election as sheriffs, mayors, and magistrates, and by 1873 there were 64 black men in the statehouse. The now heavily Republican state legislature also selected two new U.S. senators: black minister and teacher Hiram Revels and Adelbert Ames.
Knight now felt confident enough to pursue some controversial public issues: restoring the names of Jones County and Ellisville, and petitioning Congress for payment for services during the war for himself and those he felt had served most reliably or were most needy. Knight’s boldest public act in the years 1871 to 1873 was a campaign to organize and build an integrated school. By 1875, Knight and Rachel had five children together: Martha Ann (1865), Stewart (1869), Floyd (1870), Augusta Ann (1873), and Hinchie (1875).
In the summer of 1872 Knight was deputized marshal, probably because Klan violence had visited the Piney Woods, and he required a badge to deal with it. He was also appointed Provost Marshal, with the authority to call in U.S. troops.
The day after Knight’s white neighbors refused to allow Rachel’s three oldest children – Jeff, Georgeanne, and Fanny – to attend the new school Knight had helped build, he burned it down.
In 1873 Ames ran for governor against the incumbent, James Lusk Alcorn, a cotton trader and former Confederate. Lusk’s pose as a conciliatory moderate had helped him win the governorship in 1870, after which he refused to crack down on the Klan. During one year of Alcorn’s tenure, 30 black schoolhouses and churches were burned down and 63 men killed. Black voters swept Ames into office decisively, also electing ten new black state senators and 55 black representatives in the state legislature.
Ames, the 38-year-old son of a Maine sea captain, had graduated fifth in his class at West Point and served dauntlessly through 16 major Civil War battles, attaining the rank of general. He earned the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bull Run, where he continued to fight though shot through the thigh.
Ex-Confederates and conservative Democrats now planned to retake the statehouse by force, using violence and intimidation against black voters. The Democratic campaign chairman, a former Confederate general named James Z. George, turned the state elections of 1875 into a farce that it would become notorious as the “Mississippi Plan,” emulated by states throughout the South.
The first sign of trouble for Ames came on July 4, 1876 in Vicksburg, where whites were livid over the marriage of a Negro legislator to the daughter of a local planter. A mob shot up an Independence Day rally of black Republicans, killing several, and took the city over by force. Ames wrote to President Grant begging for federal troops, but Grant, fearful of political backlash, advised him to settle the matter locally.
Six months later, another Vicksburg mob forcibly turned black Republican sheriff Peter Crosby out of office. Crosby, on orders from Ames, mustered 500 freedmen to help him take back his post, but as they marched on the town a heavily armed white militia led by Horace Miller, a Confederate cavalry colonel, met them at a bridge on the outskirts. The black militia leader, a Union veteran named Andrew Owen, advised his outnumbered and outgunned men to retreat. As they turned their backs, a white man fired a shot that touched off a massacre – for the next three days vigilantes hunted blacks through the woods. Grant finally dispatched a small unit of federal troops to restore order, but the damage had been done.
Ames tried to get a trustworthy force of men together, appointing Knight a colonel alongside black officers, but his powerlessness was demonstrated almost daily. The sheriff of Yazoo City, his good friend Albert Morgan, a Union veteran from Wisconsin, had helped 300 black families buy their own land and build schools for their children. He’d also married a beautiful mulatto schoolteacher from the North named Carrie Highgate. On the first day of September, armed whites on horseback shot into a Republican rally, wounding several people and causing Morgan to run for his life. After hiding in the woods for several days, he left the state for good. Ames, Morgan and his wife, and others were “carpetbaggers,” a pejorative term Southerners gave to Northerners who moved to the South during the Reconstruction era, 1865-1877.
Three days later, another brutal assault took place in Clinton, a small town fifteen miles from Jackson. A gang of white riflemen opened fire on a political rally of 1,200 Republicans led by a black state senator named Charles Caldwell, killing eight people. This time, Republicans fought back, killing two whites, and for the next few days violence raged. Large posses of white men arrived from surrounding counties by train to join in chasing down blacks and shooting them. Among the 30 killed was William Haffa, a white carpetbagger who taught black schoolchildren. Five hundred survivors, including Caldwell, fled to Jackson, where they congregated around the federal buildings and pleaded for protection. Ames begged Grant for permission to use the small force of 500 U.S. troops in Mississippi, divided between posts in Jackson, Holly Springs, and Vicksburg, but the president, looking ahead to re-election, declined.
Ames had hesitated to arm a black militia for fear of igniting a race war, but now he ordered 1,000 Springfield breech-loading muskets and authorized the mobilization of three Negro units, including men like Charles Caldwell.
In early October, Caldwell led a small wagon train of men and armaments in a march across the countryside near Jackson. As election day approached, however, Ames agreed to disband the black militia. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders paraded with cannon – in Meridian the day before voter registration began, voters were informed that if they didn’t vote the right way, the guns would be turned on them. In Noxubee, Oktibbeha, and Colfax counties the cannon were detonated often, and a group of Democrats marched through Jackson one night with a cannon drawn by mules. They fired pistol shots at the governor’s mansion and used the cannon to rattle the windows.
The Republican majority splintered, voter support faltered, and the Democrats won in a landslide. In Columbus, vigilantes set fourteen fires and killed four black voters. Mobs greeted others and made them vote Democratic at the end of gun barrels. In Aberdeen, a hundred mounted and uniformed men under former Confederate general Reuben Davis guarded the polls and threatened to “cover the yard with dead niggers in fifteen minutes,” if any blacks tried to vote. Similar events took place throughout the state.
Charles Caldwell was assassinated in Clinton at Christmastime, and his brother was shot dead when he tried to retrieve the former senator’s body from the street. Then, in February 1876, Ames was impeached.
That spring and summer a committee of the U.S. Congress went to Mississippi to investigate conditions. Though many Republicans were too traumatized to answer their questions, the committee collected two volumes of documentary evidence describing the tactics employed in the election of 1875 in gruesome detail. Their report concluded that militants had retaken by force what Grant and Sherman had fought for so bloodily.
But even while the report was being written, Mississippi’s Democrats were once again using gun blasts and suppression to sway the 1876 presidential race between Rutherford Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. When the national votes were tallied, it was the closest election in U.S. history, creating a constitutional crisis that lasted for months and was only settled, after protracted negotiation, by the Compromise of 1877. Democrats agreed to give Hayes the presidency if federal troops stayed out of Dixie.
Unlike the majority of blacks in Mississippi (92.7% of whom were landless), Rachel owned 160 acres, land that sheltered her from the neo-Confederate ascendancy that had swept the state and released her from the iron grip of the sharecropping system. Knight now had seven children with Serena, ranging in age from their eldest boy, Mat, born before the war, to a toddler named Cora. Rachel’s five children by Knight were all under the age of eleven. Also living with her were her teenaged children by Davis Knight, Jeff and Fanny, and her two eldest – Edmund and Georgeanne. Georgeanne now had two children of her own: Anna and John Howard.
Georgeanne eventually purchased 80 adjoining acres, moving her children into a one-room cabin there. Knight also deeded land to Rachel’s eldest son, Jeffrey, who married Molly, his daughter by Serena, in 1878. Shortly afterward, Mat Knight married Rachel’s daughter Fanny.
Some of Knight’s friends and family disowned him for consorting with blacks, and he continued to fear for his and his family’s safety, always keeping a gun handy.
Statutes reminiscent of the Black Codes, including sweeping vagrancy laws, were soon put into effect, and the number of state convicts quadrupled. Men and women were thrown into jail and onto chain gangs and then had their sentences extended when they were unable to pay their fines.
In 1889, Rachel, not yet 50, died suddenly, and the fragile interracial community Knight called a family began to splinter. Serena left sometime before 1890, perhaps angry because her husband was becoming even closer with his black children. Knight moved in with Georgeanne, and in 1891, after a 16-year hiatus in childbearing, she had a daughter, Grace, and in 1894 a second daughter, Lessie. These children may have been Knight’s.
Serena moved in with Molly and Jeffrey Knight, but her son Tom moved to Ellisville, where he ran a small store, refusing to acknowledge his relationship to Rachel’s family. Mat’s feelings on race also turned sharply and ruined his marriage with Fanny, whom he deserted in 1895. In 1914, when asked during a real estate court proceeding if she was black, Fanny described her racial makeup as “Choctaw and French,” which is perhaps what she perceived her heritage from Rachel to be.
Mississippi, meanwhile, led the nation in documented lynchings, with 581 between 1882 and 1962 – one of the most vicious in 1919 in Ellisville.
In 1900, the census taker described everyone living in the Knight family compound as black, including Knight. They were known locally as the “Knight Niggers.”
In 1898 Georgeanne’s daughter Anna returned from six years as a Seventh Day Adventist missionary and opened a private school for black children and adults. She kept a shotgun and a revolver always at hand, and at times various Knight males stood watch over the school building at night. Still, in 1902 it was burned to the ground. Anna left for five more years of missionary work, but returned in 1908 and built a new school in the Jones County village of Gitano.
In November 1920, Stewart, Knight’s son with Rachel, was found murdered. An industrious farmer and businessman, clad in a suit with vest and watch chain, he had been shot and axed in the head. A white man named Sharp Welborn was arrested and convicted of manslaughter. The apparent motive was robbery, but the family believed an incident with a white woman was the real cause of the attack.
Newton Knight died on February 16, 1922 at the age of 86. He was buried as he’d requested – with his head elevated above his feet, ever on the alert – in the small family graveyard, near Rachel. Few whites ever visited his grave, including his own son, Tom.
With Knight dead and buried, the Klan targeted his black family, vowing to “burn them out.” They survived, but continued to be disdained by whites and unwelcome among other blacks. Some stayed in Mississippi; others struck out for Texas and California and passed as white. Some Knight branches grew lighter, and some grew darker.
On December 13, 1948, Knight’s 23-year-old great-grandson, Davis Knight, the grandchild of Jeff and Molly Knight, went on trial in Ellisville for miscegenation – marrying a white woman. In 1946, he’d received an honorable discharge from the navy and come home to wed June Lee Spradley, a blonde, blue-eyed 18-year-old, in the presence of her mother and a civil clerk. The clerk hadn’t thought to ask him his race, and Davis considered himself, and passed as, white. A relative, irked by an old family feud, reported him.
In order to make the case that Davis was one-eighth Negro, District Attorney Paul Swartzfager had to prove that Rachel was of full African ancestry. Among the most hostile witnesses was 88-year-old Tom Knight, who described Rachel’s “wooly head,” while relatives described her as “ginger cake” and a local doctor who’d given the Knights medical care said her hair was long and hung down her back. Rachel and Newton’s grandson, Henry Knight (son of Mat and Fanny), denied that she had any Negro blood whatsoever, calling her part Creole and part Indian.
The jury found Davis Knight guilty, but on November 14, 1949, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the conviction. Knight’s attorney, Quitman Ross, had asked that the verdict be reversed on the grounds that the statute was unconstitutional. Fearful that an appeal would invite federal interference in Mississippi’s segregation laws, the court used the excuse that it was impossible, 60 years after Rachel’s death, to establish her racial identity.
Davis Knight’s marriage and business failed, and he moved to the old Knight family area near Soso, Mississippi, at the Jones County line. He drowned in a fishing accident in Houston in 1959. In 1960 his sister Louvenia succeeded in getting her children admitted to white schools.
Chapter 10: The Other Civil War
“Jacksonian Democracy” used liberal rhetoric to develop a base of support for government among whites, but both major parties were still controlled by men of wealth and ambition: lawyers, newspaper editors, merchants, industrialists, large landowners, and speculators. As is still the case today, the new politics merely allowed better-paid workers and landowning farmers to choose the slightly more democratic of two parties. Meanwhile, the resentment of the poor was deflected into racial hatred of blacks, religious warfare against Catholics, and nativist resentment of immigrants.
Trade unions, once considered an illegal “restraint of trade” by the courts, were also beginning to form. In 1835, 50 different trades organized unions in Philadelphia, and there was a successful general strike of laborers, factory workers, bookbinders, jewelers, coal heavers, butchers, and cabinet workers for the 10-hour day. Soon after that, Philadelphia weavers – mostly Irish immigrants working at home – struck for higher wages, attacking the homes of those who refused to strike.
In 1857 the boom in railroads and manufacturing, the surge of immigration, the increased speculation in stocks and bonds, and the stealing, corruption, and manipulation led to wild expansion and then a crash. By October, 200,000 were unemployed. In New York City, 15,000 people marched from downtown Manhattan to Wall Street and paraded around the stock exchange shouting “We want work!” A mob of 500 attacked the police with pistols and bricks, and demonstrators demanding bread and work looted shops. In November, a crowd occupied City Hall, and the marines were brought in to drive them out.
Of the country’s work force of 6 million, half a million were women: 330,000 of these worked as domestics and 55,000 were teachers. Of the 181,000 women in factories, half worked in textile mills. In 1825, the United Tailoresses of New York were the first women to strike by themselves, demanding higher wages. In 1828, the first strike of mill women on their own took place in Dover, New Hampshire, when several hundred women paraded with banners and flags, protesting new factory rules, which charged fines for lateness, forbade talking on the job, and required church attendance. They were forced to return to the mill, their demands unmet and their leaders fired and blacklisted.
In Lowell, Massachusetts, young factory girls lived in dormitories, controlled by rules and regulations. The Lowell girls started their own newspapers, protesting their working conditions. They went on strike in 1834 against a cut in wages, but the threat of hiring others to replace them brought them back to work at reduced wages, and their leaders were fired. Determined to do better next time, they organized a Factory Girls’ Association, and 1,500 went on strike in 1836 against higher boardinghouse charges. They held out a month, but most went back to work after their money ran out. Again, their leaders were fired. In the late 1840s, the New England farm women who worked in the mills began to leave them, as more and more Irish immigrants took their place. Company towns grew up around mills in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, using immigrant workers who signed contracts pledging everyone in the family to work for a year. They lived in slum tenements owned by the company, were paid in scrip, which they could only use at company stores, and were evicted if their work was unsatisfactory.
The shoemakers of Lynn, Massachusetts started the largest strike to take place in the United States before the Civil War. The economic crisis of 1857 brought the shoe business to a halt, and the workers of Lynn, already angry at machine-stitching replacing shoemakers, lost their jobs. Prices were up, and wages were repeatedly cut. In early 1860, a mass meeting of the newly formed Mechanics Association demanded higher wages. When the manufacturers refused to meet with them, the workers called a strike for Washington’s Birthday. That morning 3,000 shoemakers met in the Lyceum Hall in Lynn and set up committees of 100 to post the names of scabs, guard against violence, and make sure shoes weren’t sent out to be finished elsewhere. In a few days, shoe workers throughout New England joined the strike, with Mechanics Associations in 25 towns and 20,000 on strike. A procession of 10,000 striking workers marched through Lynn, in what was the greatest demonstration of labor to take place in New England up until that time.
Police from Boston and the militia were sent in to make sure strikers didn’t interfere with shipments of shoes to be finished out of state. City grocers and provisions dealers provided food for the strikers. The strike continued through March with morale high, but by April it was losing force. The manufacturers offered higher wages to bring the strikers back into the factories, but without recognizing the unions. Alan Dawley, who wrote a study of the Lynn strike (Class and Community) believes that because American workers gained political democracy early (by the 1830s), their economic battles were taken over by political parties that blurred class lines. Even this might not have stopped labor militancy and the rise of class consciousness, Dawley says, if not for the fact that “an entire generation was sidetracked in the 1860s because of the Civil War.” Northern wage earners who rallied to the Union cause became allied with their employers as national issues superseded class issues.
In the North, the war brought high prices for food and the necessities of life, but wages stayed low. When workers tried to organize, Union troops broke strikes. In July 1863, anti-black, anti-rich, anti-Republican draft riots killed 400 people in New York City – more deaths than in any other incident of domestic violence in American history. Less prolonged and bloody anti-draft riots also took place in Newark, NJ; Troy, NY; Boston, MA; Toledo, OH; and Evansville, IL.
There was also conflict in the South beneath the apparent unity of the white Confederacy. A few thousand families made up the plantation elite: 1,000 families in 1850 received $50 million in income, while all the other families – about 660,000 – received $60 million a year. Two-thirds of whites didn’t own slaves – millions were poor farmers cultivating land so bad the plantation owners had abandoned it; others were workers on starvation wages.
Just as in the North, the rich could avoid conscription, and many historians believe that lack of will and low morale on the part of its soldiers led to the Confederate defeat. In the summer of 1863, draft riots occurred in various southern cities.
The Civil War was one of the first instances in the world of modern warfare: deadly artillery shells, Gatling guns, and bayonet charges combining the indiscriminate killing of mechanized war with hand-to-hand combat. In one charge before Petersburg, Virginia, a regiment of 850 Maine soldiers lost 632 men in half an hour. It was a vast butchery, with 623,000 dead and 471,000 wounded – over a million dead and wounded in a country of 30 million. Desertions grew among southern soldiers as the war went on, and by the end of the war, 200,000 Union soldiers had deserted.
Still, 600,000 volunteered for the Confederacy in 1861, and many in the Union army were volunteers. The psychology of patriotism, the lure of adventure, and the aura of moral crusade created by political leaders worked to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful and turn much of that anger against “the enemy.”
Meanwhile, Congress was passing legislation to give business interests what the agrarian South had blocked before secession. In 1861 the Morrill Tariff made foreign goods more expensive and allowed American manufacturers to raise their prices. The following year a Homestead Act was passed, giving 160 acres of a total of 50 million acres of western land to anyone who would cultivate it for five years. Anyone willing to pay $1.25 an acre could buy a homestead. Few ordinary people had the $200 necessary to do this, so speculators bought up much of the land. During the war, 100 million acres were also given to various railroads. In addition, Congress set up a private national bank again and put government into partnership with the banking interests, guaranteeing their profits.
With strikes spreading, employers pressed Congress for help. The Contract Labor Law of 1864 made it possible for companies to sign contracts with foreign workers whereby they pledged to give twelve months of their wages to pay the cost of emigration. This gave employers strikebreakers and cheap labor. State laws also operated for the benefit of landlords and merchants.
In The Transformation of American Law, Morton Horwitz shows how “by the middle of the 19th century the legal system had been reshaped to the advantage of men of commerce and industry at the expense of farmers, workers, consumers, and other less powerful groups, actively promoting a legal redistribution of wealth.” After the war, returned soldiers had difficulty finding work, and found the cities to which they returned to be death traps of typhus, tuberculosis, hunger, and fire. There were no sanitation systems.
A movement for the eight-hour day began among working people, helped by the formation of the first national federation of unions, the National Labor Union. A three-month strike of 100,000 workers in New York City won the 8-hour day. Women succeeded in getting the Cigarmakers Union and the National Typographical Union to admit them, and black workers formed their own unions and carried out their own strikes, including those of dockworkers in Mobile, AL; Charleston, SC; and Savannah, GA. Most white unions kept blacks out or asked them to form their own locals.
In 1873, another economic crisis – started by the closing of the banking house of Jay Cooke – devastated the nation. It was part of a chaotic system of periodic crises – 1837, 1857, 1873, and later: 1893, 1907, 1919, and 1929 – that wiped out small businesses and brought cold, hunger, and death to working people while the fortunes of the Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans kept growing. The 1873 crisis enabled Carnegie to capture the steel market and Rockefeller to wipe out his competitors in oil.
The depression continued through the 1870s. In Chicago, 20,000 unemployed marched through the streets to City Hall asking for “bread for the needy, clothing for the naked, and houses for the homeless.” In Pennsylvania’s coal region, Irish miners belonging to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the “Molly Maguires”) were found guilty of acts of violence and 19 of them were executed.
In 1877 there was a series of strikes by railroad workers in a dozen cities that shook the nation as no labor conflict had before. The strikes began with wage cuts on railroad after railroad in tense situations of already low wages and worker deaths and injuries. The governor of West Virginia applied for federal troops, and since much of the army was fighting Indians in the west, J.P. Morgan and other bankers offered to lend money to pay officers. Federal troops arrived in Martinsburg, and the freight cars began to move.
In Baltimore, a crowd of thousands sympathetic to the strikers surrounded the armory of the National Guard and threw rocks at soldiers, who fired back, killing 10 and badly wounding others. At the train depot, a crowd of 200 smashed the engine of a passenger train and engaged the militia in a running battle. Federal troops were called in as 15,000 protestors surrounded the depot and three passenger cars, the station platform, and a locomotive were set on fire. Five hundred soldiers arrived, and Baltimore quieted down, but the rebellion of the railroad workers spread. Joseph Dacus, editor of the St. Louis Republican wrote that “the great state of Pennsylvania was in an uproar, New Jersey was afflicted by a paralyzing dread, New York was mustering an army of militia,” etc.
The strike spread to Pittsburgh, still outside the regular union. Pent-up anger exploded without plan when a flagman refusing to go out on a “double-header,” a train with two locomotives carrying a double length of cars, was joined by the rest of the crew. The strikers multiplied, joined by men and boys from the mills and factories, and freight trains stopped moving out of the city. As militia from Philadelphia came and began to clear the track, gunfire was exchanged and 10 workers were killed. The whole city rose in anger: a crowd surrounded the troops, railroad cars and buildings were set afire, and the troops retreated. Thousands looted the freight cars, and a huge grain elevator and a small section of the city went up in flames. In a few days, 24 people, including four soldiers, had been killed, and 79 buildings had been burned to the ground.
Something like a general strike was developing. The National Guard of Pennsylvania was called out, but many of its companies couldn’t move with strikers in other towns holding up traffic. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a Guard company mutinied, and in Harrisburg and Altoona troops fraternized with the crowd and were dismissed. In Reading, Pennsylvania, where the railroad was two months behind in paying wages, 2,000 people gathered while men tore up tracks, jammed switches, derailed cars, and set cabooses and a railroad bridge on fire. A National Guard company arrived, fresh from duty at the execution of the Molly Maguires, and fired on the crowd, killing five men. When the crowd grew more menacing, the 16th regiment from Morristown stacked its arms. When the Guardsmen left for home, federal troops arrived and took control, and the local police began making arrests.
The leaders of the big railway brotherhoods – the Order of Railway Conductors, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and the Brotherhood of Engineers – disavowed the strike, worried about “communistic ideas.” But there was an active Workingmen’s Party in Chicago with several thousand members, most of them immigrants from Germany and Bohemia. It called a rally in the summer of 1877 to which 6,000 people came, demanding nationalization of the railroads. The next day, a crowd of young people went to the railroad yards and kept freight trains from running. They also went to the factories and called out the mill and stockyard workers and the crewmen on Lake Michigan ships. The police attacked the crowds, and two companies of U.S. infantrymen arrived, joining National Guardsmen and Civil War veterans. Police fired into a surging crowd, and three men were killed. The next day an armed crowd of 5,000 fought the police, who killed 18 workers and boys.
The Workingmen’s Party led the rebellion in St. Louis, too, where a thousand of its members – bakers, coopers, cabinetmakers, cigarmakers, and brewery workers – were organized in four sections by nationality: German, English, French, and Bohemian. All four sections took a ferry across the Mississippi to join a meeting of railroad men in East St. Louis. One of their members told the meeting: “All you have to do, gentlemen, for you have the numbers, is unite on one idea – that workingmen shall rule this country. What a man makes belongs to him, and the workingmen made this country.” Railroaders in East St. Louis declared themselves on strike. The mayor of East St. Louis was a European immigrant and an active revolutionist as a youth, and railroad men’s votes dominated the city.
The party called a mass meeting, to which 5,000 people came, and called for the nationalization of all industry, including railroads and mines. At another huge party meeting a black man, speaking for those who worked on the steamboats and the levees, asked, “Will you stand to us regardless of color?” The crowd shouted back, “We will!” An executive committee was set up, and it called for a general strike of all branches of industry in St. Louis. Only around St. Louis did the strike on the railroads expand into such a systematically organized and complete shut-down of all industry that the term general strike is justified, and only there did socialists assume undisputed leadership. However, as elsewhere, the momentum could not be sustained. As the crowds and meetings diminished, the police, militia, and federal troops moved in. The police raided the headquarters of the Workingmen’s Party and arrested the executive committee (70 people), and the strikers surrendered. The wage cuts remained, and 131 strike leaders were fired by the railroad.
When the great railroad strikes of 1877 were over, 100 people were dead and a thousand had gone to jail. 100,000 workers had gone on strike, and the strikes had roused countless urban unemployed. More than half the freight on the nation’s 75,000 miles of track had stopped running at the height of the strikes. But in the same year blacks learned they didn’t have the strength to make the promise of equality real, working people learned they weren’t united or powerful enough to defeat the combination of private capital and government power.