From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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December 6, 1877

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In April of 1877 managers of many of the largest railroads in the country met and agreed to end their rate wars, to fix rates, and to cut wages by ten percent. With the depression in full force and unemployment high employers were in positions to take advantage of their employees. Shortly after wage reductions were instituted mass resentment resulted in labor strikes and violence. The Great Strike of 1877 began on July 14 when workers for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad walked off their jobs to protest the wage reduction and other grievances connected to working conditions. This action spread quickly to other railroads across the country. Additionally massive sympathy strikes broke out nationwide among factory workers and miners. Riots erupted in many cities and states as police and militia did battle with strikers, other incensed workers and the unemployed. Particularly bloody confrontations occurred in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Chicago. On July 16 nineteen persons were killed in Chicago when police, aided by cavalry, attacked an unorganized gathering. For a time the country seemed on the verge of revolution.

By the end of July however most of the railroad workers had given in to management and had returned to work without any gains. In Scranton, Pennsylvania, workers achieved one of the few successes of the Great Strike. Forty thousand coal miners defiantly held out for and won a ten percent wage increase and other concessions. Although the strike resulted in general defeat, it demonstrated the impotence of single working persons or small groups of the same. As a consequence the labor movement, which had faltered greatly during the depression, took on new vigor.

In Chicago over six hundred militia members responded to a call for troops to deal with the civil disorder. In total they spent two weeks under arms, having served the final two days at Braidwood in Will County, Illinois. The city council rejected the Ellsworth Zouaves' petition because this outfit was pressing a similar claim simultaneously with the state.

Points to Consider

Who were the Ellsworth Zouaves and what were they requesting?

Nationally and locally, describe the labor riots to which they referred.

Briefly describe the uniform of the Zouaves.

From which social strata did this volunteer unit come? What was their motivation in suppressing the labor disturbance?

See Related Document:

28, 29 and 41

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