1877: The Year of Violence by Robert Bruce

Can you express time in distance? What is the equivalent in distance, for example, of 136 years? I’ll use history to suggest one possible answer.

If you look at the United States and the American experience in 1877 and ask yourself how far we’ve come by 2013, I’d say a good argument can be made for this answer—about 15 inches, roughly one full step. Not much more.

I measured my distance after reading a book entitled “1877, Year of Violence” by Robert Bruce. Sure, we’ve moved light-years ahead in technology, medicine, demographics, human rights, entertainment, and scores of other ways. In some aspects of life, though, we’re still
struggling with the same issues that burdened Americans more than five generations ago. That’s the powerful message that appeared to me in reading Bruce’s book. A few minutes from now, I’ll explain what I mean. Next, though, I’d like to you to take a tour of Bruce’s book with me.

1877 was the single most violent year in American life without a major war. The primary reason was labor unrest and the reactions it induced. Bruce’s book explores the vortex of labor-management storms in 1877, the Great Railroad Strike. The strike manifested
itself in the last two weeks of July 1877 and swept across cities and towns from Philadelphia to San Francisco.

You can gain a crude sense of the significance of the Great Railroad Strike if you imagine a comparable event in the early 21stcentury. The loose equivalent today would be a type of clash between employers and employees in organizations affiliated with the Internet, computers, and smart phones. Imagine the impact if this sector, broadly defined, shut down because of labor strife. The potential disruption to daily life would be vast.

Bruce describes the Great Railroad Strike in the larger context of American life in the 1870s. He points out the harsh conditions for working families and individuals. He summarizes the range of dangers and violence that define day-to-day living. Making matters worse was a national economic slump, the second in less than eight years. It’s a grim picture.

Within this context, then, Bruce unfolds the story of the Great Railroad Strike. It occurs as a result of railroad conglomerates seeking further wage cuts for workers after slashing those wages already. The wage cuts are only part of the problem as railroad workers coped with other practices that raised the demand for productivity without any extra pay or benefit. Very few of these workers belong to formal labor unions; they were a novelty.

Early tensions between the railroad industry’s labor and management spill out in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Martinsburg, West Virginia. Widespread violence—clashes between local residents employed by the railroads and a collection of police, armed guards, state militia, and federal military units—begins in Baltimore, Maryland and then rides the rails to communities in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. One city and town after another is the site for shootings, beatings, rioting, and looting over a 5-day period.

Pittsburgh, Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis are the hardest hit. In some cases several thousand civilians collide with hundreds of police, state militia, and federal soldiers. Upwards of 20-30 people—the numbers are often incomplete—die in these street fights with hundreds of others wounded and arrested.

Railroad executives and management seek aid from law enforcement and from municipal, state, and national government for aid. Mayors, governors, and the less-than-one-year-old presidential administration of Rutherford B. Hayes are key players in making decisions on stamping out mobs and interacting with railroad presidents and vice-presidents. Military officers, usually generals and colonels in rank, also have deep involvement in responding to disorder. Among the workers and residents, leaders emerge who are committed to spurring union organization and, in some cases, simply exploiting the opening made by chaos and confusion. Shops, railroad depots, government buildings, water towers, grain elevators, to name just a few, are the ordinary places that in a matter of hours in July 1877 become scenes of bloodshed, courage, daring, fear, brutality, and the minute-to-minute chess game of armed conflict. Violence is a dragon in the city streets.

This violence did and did not surprise me. The presence of violence I expected. The nuances within the violence I did not expect. Bruce’s account includes repeated references to “youths,” “children,” “teenagers,” and other descriptions of boys in their teen or pre-teen years. These young people were persistent sources of insults, threats, and, often, violence. Their actions complicated the type of response that police and soldiers could use. To be sure, they inflicted harm to these children during clashes in the street, but many police and soldiers noted their unease and discomfort in dealing with such young adversaries. More than once, the forces of public order restrained their impulse to retaliate with gunfire against youth.

Another unexpected point from Bruce’s book was the shadow of the Civil War. Most histories of the period end with the Confederacy’s surrender in 1865. A few will include an account of Reconstruction. Next to zero will place the strikes of 1877 under the shadow of the Civil War. But really, it makes sense to do so; lots of things live and grow in the shade.

Twelve years had passed since the death of Lincoln and the Confederacy. For such an important event, that’s the blink of an eye. The war affected much of what happened in the Great Railroad Strike. Hundreds of Civil War veterans took part either as officers or volunteers among those seeking to re-establish order or with the mobs and crowds protesting wage cuts, harsh working conditions, and a poor quality of life. Former generals from the Union Army were among those who presided over military forces dispatched to put down strike-related riots. Such railroad executives as Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad corporation invoked the specter of “Fort Sumter” and “1861” when pressuring President Rutherford B. Hayes to provide national military support. And Hayes himself thought of or referred to the Civil War in key deliberations with his Cabinet during the last half of July 1877.

Perhaps most unexpected of all to me was the visible worries over Communism. Newspaper editorials and business owners feared that Communists in the United States had agitated for the strike and subsequent riots. They were nervous about the onset of widespread “worker revolutions” triggered by the strike. Unless public order was effectively restored, they believed, Communism would quickly spread throughout the nation. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 marked the beginning of serious concern over Communism in the internal affairs of the United States.

Then, as sudden in going as it was in coming, the violence of the Great Railroad Strike stopped. The disappearance followed two patterns. First, typically after a period of 1-2 days, the mobs and crowds exhaust themselves. They fall back from the alignment of law
enforcement and both formal (army units) and informal (state militia, hired guards, and volunteers) armed forces. These agents of order succeed in overcoming mob and crowd anger, but not before extensive bloodshed and destruction of major buildings, city blocks, and
railroad equipment. Second, once violence cooled, railroad management restored wages to their previous levels and added a handful of other changes in overtime and other business practices to mollify worker demands. They put the lid back on the boiling pot. Inside, the elements simmered toward a deeper trend of union organization, an outcome steadily realized in the 1880s.

Though the book’s content is fresh, the writing style may strike some as not. Bruce as an author has a lyrical style that will feel outdated. He writes with flair and polish. “In those days,” Bruce writes, “when the railroads shivered, the nation shook.” In another sample he pens
the following: “And so rumor sprouted rank and hardy in a thin soil of known truth.” Maybe some people in the 21st century consider such phrasing syrupy and unfashionable. I find it refreshing.

Bruce’s writing style is also challenging in a unique way, something seldom seen in our current historical writers. He sprinkles in literary allusions. He ends one chapter with this nod to Tennyson: “The strength of the typical railroad leader was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure.” The danger, of course, is that absolutely no one will understand or notice this technique. No matter, I get it. And what’s more, I like it.

His literary penchant might tip you off to an additional unusual feature of the book. It was published in 1959. I doubt if an editor or publisher in 2010s would ever approve of a reference to dead authors of long ago. A rap artist? Maybe.

Never let it be said that older books have lesser value, that they aren’t worth the time. Not true. Their value is in their vintage, their flavor is in their age. The good stuff lasts. Bruce’s book is proof of that.

Leadership abounds in this book. This wasn’t Bruce’s intention. He simply wanted to tell the story of the event. Nevertheless, it is the event—specifically, its nature and substance—that contains the stuff of leadership. Consider the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 as a story of leadership: a crisis explodes in many places over a short time. The crisis is intense, important, and emblematic of greater issues. People act; they do things. People think and react; they decide. People do right and wrong, the good and the bad, the understandable and the inexplicable. They solve some problems and create others. People are leaders and people are followers. It’s all here in this midsummer fortnight of 1877.

As I prepare to close this review, permit me to share a thought on a potential leadership session of mine drawn from the book. I suspect that President Rutherford B. Hayes’s handling of this crisis would make for an outstanding session. I envision a theme of leadership in crisis and takeaways for how to lead a team’s analysis and decision-making in such an event.

And the distance between? Not much. In 1877 the American nation grappled with a raucous new sector of the economy wrecking havoc on established practices. It was also seeking to sort out the implications of groups of people different from one another that found themselves in strangely close proximity. And not least, they stared at the troubling reality of some people earning a lot of money, some earning very little, and some not sure which way they would fall.

Yep, I’d say that’s pretty familiar to us, regardless of the 130+ years between then and now.