“A Strong Disinclination to Belong to the State Guard”: Local versus State Authority in the 1877 Louisville Strike

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:20 PM
Michigan State Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Shannon Smith Bennett, Indiana University
The labor strikes and collective violence that exploded across the United States in the summer of 1877 reverberated in Louisville, Kentucky. Faced with a widespread strike initiated by black laborers, the mayor called for the formation of a special militia to put down the striking workers and maintain order. A night of rioting ensued, but the mob restricted damage to property and symbols of wealth. As many as five thousand citizen volunteers, many of them Union and Confederate veterans, patrolled the streets for the following week. Buttressed by arms sent by the governor from the State Arsenal, the community militia prevented any further gatherings or mob violence.

Within days after the riot, city elites called for the formation of a permanent local militia to protect Louisville from future conflicts. However, they did not want to be a part of the State Guard or report to the governor. Instead they would serve in a local capacity only. Governor James McCreary quickly demanded the return of state-issued weapons and cautioned that independent militia companies would not be supported by the Commonwealth. Capitulating to state authority, Louisville’s citizen soldiers eventually organized into official State Guard units.

The debate over citizen soldiers in Louisville’s 1877 strike is representative of the ongoing negotiation for governmental authority in the post–Civil War years. While some called for greater centralization of federal authority in the summer’s aftermath, state and local governments also vied for power over policies and institutions. The strike and riot prompted many reforms in Kentucky’s militia laws. This paper argues that the fear of violence and the need for men trained for riot duty prompted local and state officials to renegotiate who had the authority to call out the national guard.