"They Are Not Your Brothers": Divided Loyalties and the Pennsylvania National Guard in the Summer of 1877

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM
Michigan State Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Zachary M. Schrag, George Mason University
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 21, 1877, members of the Pennsylvania National Guard fired into a crowd of strikers, tramps, and curiosity seekers on a Pittsburgh hillside. It is not known how many were killed, but the dead included an old man, a little girl, and, quite possibly, Private Jacob Neumeister, a guardsman himself. Neumeister (whose death was officially blamed on the mob) came from Pittsburgh’s 19th Regiment, while the regiments firing into the crowd had all come from Philadelphia. Pennsylvania was at war with itself in the summer of 1877, and the war pitted not only labor against capital, but guardsman against guardsman.

 Asked to embody their communities and enforce the rule of law, members of the militia and National Guard had, in decades past, found themselves torn between these two duties when their neighbors took to the street in protest or riot. In 1812, for example, the Baltimore militia had stayed home rather than stop the lynching of an unpopular group of Federalists. In 1844, by contrast, Philadelphia militiamen had battled their fellow nativists in defense of a Catholic church, putting the law above their own sympathies. And in the chaos of 1877, guardsmen split over how to respond to orders to suppress angry strikers.

 This paper will explore how guardsmen, officers, politicians, workers, and industrialists regarded the loyalty of the Pennsylvania National Guard in that dreadful summer and in its aftermath. Focusing on events in Pittsburgh, it will ask why the violence of 1877, more than previous decades’ riots, prompted a broad reconsideration of the militia’s role in civil disorder.

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