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Excerpt: 'Death in the Haymarket'

Author James Green recounts The Haymarket Riot in this gripping account of American labor history.
Author James Green recounts The Haymarket Riot in this gripping account of American labor history.

For Once in Common Front

MAY 1, 1865-MAY 1, 1867

THE FIRST OF MAY was by custom a day of hope that marked the coming of spring, a day when children danced and twirled streamers around a Maypole. But in 1865 it was the gloomiest day Chicago had ever seen. For on that occasion "the merry May pole gaily wreathed for the holiday festivities of exuberant life" yielded its place to the "funeral catafalque draped with Death's sad relics." So wrote Abraham Lincoln's friend and ally Joseph Medill in the Chicago Tribune that morning of the day when the multitudes would assemble "to do honor to the great and good King of men," severed from his people when he was "slain so ruthlessly."

In the dark hours of the early morning, crowds gathered all along the Illinois Central tracks on the lakeside. A light rain fell as the funeral train entered Chicago that morning; it hissed to a stop at Michigan Avenue and 12th Street, where 36,000 citizens had gathered to meet it. An honor guard loaded the presidential coffin onto an elaborate horse-drawn hearse, and citizens formed in military rank behind it. A group of thirty-six "maidens dressed in white" surrounded the carriage as it passed through an imposing Gothic arch dedicated to the "Martyr for Justice." After each young woman placed a red rose on the president's coffin, the carriage pulled away, followed by the column of Chicagoans who marched four abreast up Michigan Avenue toward the courthouse, where their martyred president's remains would lie in state. The procession grew to 50,000 as it moved slowly up the lakeside. Along the way twice that many people lined the streets. From all over the Northwest they came-by train, in wagons and buggies and on horseback, all united in silent grief. "In the line of march and looking on, sharing something in common," Carl Sandburg wrote, were native-born Yankees and foreign-born Catholics, blacks and whites, German Lutherans and German Jews-all "for once in common front."

Up Michigan Avenue they trod in rhythm to the sound of drums beating in solemn tribute to Lincoln's memory, expressing, as the Tribune put it, "the devotion with which all classes looked up to him." A military band led the funeral procession of five divisions: first came the Board of Education and 5,000 schoolchildren, and then military officers and enlisted men, the combat troops of the Grand Army of the Republic led by the Old Batteries of the Chicago Light Artillery, whose cannon had laid siege to Atlanta. The black-coated men of the Board of Trade headed the next division, which also featured groups from various ethnic lodges, including 200 of the Turner gymnasts dressed in white linen. Contingents of workingmen followed, paying their respects to a president who said he was not ashamed that he had once been "a hired laborer, mauling rails, on a flatboat-just what might happen to any poor man's son!" Nearly 300 members from the Journeymen Stonecutters' Association walked behind a banner with two sides, one reading in union there is strength and the other proclaiming we unite to protect not to injure.

All through that night of May 1 and well into the next day, mourners stood in the mud and drizzle waiting to file through the courthouse for a last look at the man whose storied path to the White House had so often passed through their city. On May 2, after 125,000 people had gazed upon the face of their departed president, his coffin was escorted to St. Louis Depot on Canal Street by another elaborately organized procession led by a chorus of 250 Germans singing dirges. Lincoln's corpse was placed inside its specially built car, and at 9:30 a.m. the funeral train pulled out of the depot carrying Illinois's "noblest son" to his final destination in Springfield, leaving behind a city whose people he had unified in life and, far more so, in death.

After its journey through the cornfields and little prairie towns Lincoln had visited as a lawyer and campaigner, the funeral train arrived in Springfield. The president's body was buried the next day in Oak Ridge Cemetery, where the eulogist recalled the late Civil War as a momentous "contest for human freedom . . . not for this Republic merely, not for the Union simply, but to decide whether the people, as a people, were destined . . . to be subject to tyrants or aristocrats or class rule of any kind."

Leading Illinois Republicans who gathered at Lincoln's grave on May 4, 1865, rejoiced that free labor had triumphed over the slave system in that great war now won. They believed a new nation had emerged from the bloody conflict, new because now all of its people were "wholly free." The 4 million bondsmen the "martyred emancipator" had liberated were, said the Tribune, a living epistle to Lincoln's immortality. But were all the people now wholly free?

IN THE YEARS after Lincoln's death, emancipated slaves found many compelling reasons to question the meaning of their new freedom in the face of the reign of white terror that descended upon them. At the same time, for quite different reasons, workingmen, the very mechanics who benefited most from the free labor system Lincoln had extolled, began to doubt the nature of their liberty. A few months before the war ended, the nation's most influential trade union leader, William H. Sylvis, came to Chicago and sounded an alarm that echoed in many labor newspapers in the closing months of the war. The president of the powerful Iron Molders' International Union excoriated employers who took advantage of the war emergency to fatten their profits while keeping their employees on lean wages. When union workers protested with strikes, politicians called them traitors, soldiers drove them back to work, and many loyal union men were fired and blacklisted by their bosses in retaliation. How, Sylvis asked, could a republic at war with the principle of slavery make it a felony for a workingman to exercise his right to protest, a right President Lincoln had once celebrated as the emblem of free labor? "What would it profit us, as a nation," the labor leader wondered, if the Union and its Constitution were preserved but essential republican principles were violated? If the "greasy mechanics and horny-handed sons of toil" who elected Abe Lincoln became slaves to work instead of self-educated citizens and producers, what would become of the Republic?

Sylvis told his iron molders that tyranny was based upon ignorance compounded by "long hours, low wages and few privileges," while liberty was founded on education and free association among workingmen. Only when wage earners united could they achieve individual competence and independence. Only then would they exercise a voice in determining their share of the increased wealth and the expanded freedom that would come to the nation after the war.

America had never produced a labor leader as intelligent, articulate and effective as William Sylvis. Born in western Pennsylvania to parents in humble circumstances, young William was let out as a servant to a wealthy neighbor who sent him to school and gave him the key to a good library. Later, after helping in his father's wagon shop, Sylvis apprenticed himself to a local iron foundry owner, a master craftsman who taught his young helper the ancient arts of smelting and smithing and the methods of making molten iron flow into wooden molds to shape the iron products he had designed. After he married, the young molder moved to Philadelphia to ply his trade, but he found it a struggle working long hours every day to provide for his family and failing to rise above the level of manual laborer.

William Sylvis found another way to raise himself up. He became secretary of his local union in 1859, and then two years later secretary of the new National Union of Iron Molders. By this time Sylvis had decided that mechanics were losing their independence and respectability because certain owners monopolized branches of industry and used their power to reduce wages. The rugged individualist was no match against these men who used money and political clout to advance themselves at the expense of their employees. "Single-handed, we can accomplish nothing," he wrote, "but united there is no power of wrong we may not openly defy."


Excerpted from Death in the Haymarket byJames Green Copyright © 2006 by James Green. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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James Green