Sunday, January 29, 2023

Andy Jackson —First to President to Call Troops Out Against Strikers

President Andrew Jackson, self-proclaimed friend of the working man, lost no time in ordering out Federal Troops to crush a strike by canal diggers.

It had been George Washingtons dream first.  And a big one.  Decades later it seemed that despite enormous obstacles, it was finally coming to pass.  But on January 29, 1834 the hundreds immigrant Irish, Dutch, and German laborers downed their picks and shovels to protest to the brutal conditions of hewing the ditch by hand from the stony soil of Virginia (now West Virginia) from first light to the descending gloaming seven days a week. 

Blacks were also on the job—mostly slaves contracted from local plantations—but whether they joined the impromptu strike is unclear.  Slave or free all were ill clothed and given little more than a single thin blanket in the brutal winter weather.  Wages—for those who got paid at all—were pitiful and the use of tools and such were charged to the workers.

A National Park Service diagram of the construction of a lock on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal.

When the spontaneous job action broke out supervisors and foremen on the job were roughed up and some Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company property was damaged. 

The company claimed insurrection and riot and appealed for aid.  In Washington, DC the crusty and volatile President Andrew Jackson wasted no time in ordering Federal Troops to suppress the rebellion.”  It was the first time the United States Army was ever called upon to suppress a strike.  It would not be the last.

                            Army Regulars--Dragoons--in the 1830s.  Troops in their best parade ground uniforms smashed the strike.

When they arrived on the scene the smartly dressed Army Regulars had no trouble putting down the strike by men armed only with stones and brickbats.  It is unclear if shots were fired or the flash of bayonets and sabers was sufficient to disperse the strikers, who had no organization or union.  A few identified leaders were arrested, others fled.  Most of the men sullenly went back to work under armed guard.  It is presumed that any slaves who participated were much more brutally handled by their owners or overseers with the lash.

It all began before the Revolution.  Virginia planter, surveyor, and militia officer Col. George Washington had vast land claims in the Ohio wilderness which he dreamed of filling with settlers on 99 year leases.  But besides persistent hostility by Native American nations, and the British policy confining legal settlement to the east of the Allegheny Mountains, the biggest obstacle to making those dreams come true was the near geographic impossibility of easy access to and from the land.  Mountains divided the watersheds of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers and provided a rugged barrier to even land access.

George Washington in his British uniform at Mt. Vernon on the banks of the Potomac.

Washington wanted to build canals, complete with locks to raise boats to higher and higher elevations to circumvent and push past the rapids which were the navigable limits of the Potomac.  In 1772 he received a Charter from the Colony of Virginia to survey possible routes.  But before work could progress beyond the planning stage, the Revolution intervened and Washington was occupied elsewhere.

But he never forgot the pet project.   Back home at Mount Vernon in 1785 Washington formed the Patowmack Company in. The Company built short connecting canals along the Maryland and Virginia shorelines of Chesapeake Bay.  The lock systems at Little Falls, Maryland, and Great Falls, Virginia, were innovative in concept and construction. Washington himself sometimes visited construction sites and supervised the dangerous work of removing earth and boulders by manual labor.

Washington often personally supervised work on his Patwomack Company Canal before assuming the Presidency. Its ruins are still visible.

Now confident that his scheme would work, Washington began to plan more inland sections.  A call to another job—as President of the United States—interrupted his plans, but he looked forward to resuming work in retirement.

Unfortunately, that retirement did not last long and when the great man died in 1799, the Patowmack Company folded.

Canal construction was near Williamsport, Maryland when the strike erupted.

Almost 25 years later, in 1823 Virginia and Maryland planters began to fret that the Erie Canal, which was nearing completion in upstate New York would leave their region far behind in economic growth as all or most of the production from the rapidly growing states north of the Ohio would be funneled to the Great Lakes, and via the Canal and Hudson River to New York City.  They organized and got chartered the new Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company.

Five years later in 1828 Yankee born President John Quincy Adams, probably with some qualms about the possible effect on the westward spread of slavery, ceremonially turned the first spade of earth.

Progress was slow and arduous as the canal ran parallel to the Potomac.  There had been other sporadic work stoppages.   Difficulties in the era of repeated financial panics also interrupted work.  Then there was bad weather, the increasingly difficult terrain, and even a cholera epidemic.  In late 1832 the ditch finally reached the critical river port of Harpers Ferry.  Workers were pushing on to Williamsport when the trouble broke out.

Work continued with more interruptions and a lawsuit between the Canal Company and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad about a right of way to cross from the Virginia to the Maryland side of the river also complicated matters. 

In 1850 the canal finally reached Columbia, Maryland far short of the goal of connecting with the Ohio.  But by that time the rapid spread of railroads, particularly the B&O, had rendered completing the project obsolete.  Washington’s Grand Canal never got any further.

Children line up for a school outing on a canal barge in the 1870s.

But the existing ditch was still useful.  Boats, originally romantically named gondolas later barges, used the waterway until it finally went out of business in 1924.

Today you can visit the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and hike along the tow path.

The bloody tradition of using Federal troops as strike breakers out-lived the canal.

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