The 1898 “Battle of Virden,” a 10-minute gunfight that killed 13 men and had lasting significance for Illinois coal mining, was fought in Macoupin County, just south of the Sangamon County line. However, the Virden confrontation also led to turmoil in Springfield, and two Springfield miners were among those shot to death.
The dispute began when owners of the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. refused to honor a nationwide agreement between bituminous coal operators and the United Mine Workers. The company, headed by president J.C. Loucks and manager Frank Lukens, argued that the deal’s provisions – a 40-cent-per-ton pay rate, along with an eight-hour workday and six-day week – would price it out of the Chicago coal market.
Instead, the mine recruited non-union African-American miners from Alabama, apparently without telling the Alabamans the mine’s existing workers were on strike. The company’s first attempt to import black strikebreakers failed in September, when union miners commandeered the train bringing the Alabamans to Virden and then convinced their would-be replacements to return home.
Before their second try in October, Loucks and Lukens had a stockade built around the mine and hired 50 guards, many of them former Chicago police officers, to defend the train, the mine and the strikebreaking workers.
Lukens also appealed to Gov. John Riley Tanner to call in state militia to escort the strikebreakers into the stockade. But Tanner, with midterm elections a month away and public sentiment on the miners’ side, refused.
The first trainload of black miners approached the mine from the south on Oct. 12, 1898. David Markwell set the scene in his article, “A Turning Point: The Lasting Impact of the Virden Mine Riot,” published in the fall 1986/winter 1987 edition (registration required) of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society:
All of the major players were in place on the rainy morning of 12 October. Tanner knew Lukens would make the move to land the imported laborers. Lukens knew Tanner would not back up the move with troops or state militia. The stockade walls were complete. The hired guards took their positions along the walls. The striking miners stood watch along the tracks awaiting the arrival of the Alabamans. Everyone except the Alabama miners was fully aware of the situation.
Also in place, awaiting the anticipated confrontation, were newspaper reporters from all over the country. Nonetheless, many details of the brief battle remain unclear, including who fired the first shot in anger.
Illinois State Journal reporter J.S. Vaughn described the first exchange of gunfire.
At 12:40 this afternoon a special train of five coaches bearing negro miners and armed guards who kept watch from the platforms made its appearance in the view of the large crowd assembled at the village station. … The train sped past the station, going at the rate of forty miles an hour. As it arrived opposite the station, one of the armed guards from the platform of the train discharged his Winchester, presumably into the air. It did no damage, but it was the signal for a volley of shots.
That fusillade killed a relatively neutral participant – D.H. Kiley of Chicago, a guard for the Chicago & Alton Railroad who was assigned to guard the C&A’s switches, was shot in the head, allegedly by one of the gunmen inside the stockade.
“Before the passing of the Limited not a single gun, revolver or fire arm of any kind had been displayed,” according to the Journal’s report. “It had passed but a few seconds, when, as if by magic, every miner was armed. Some had shot guns, some 22-calibre rifles and others carried horse pistols. Some had nothing but revolvers.”
Miner leaders said they had hoped the strikebreakers would leave the train at the depot, where the union miners planned to try to persuade them to return home. Instead, the train continued toward the mine and the stockade. Vaughn wrote:
Across the railroad track in a field, within easy gunshot distance, a considerable body of strikers were drawn up in order. Upon seeing them, the deputies, it is said, opened fire. However the battle may have been commenced, hundreds of shots were again exchanged, this time with very serious results. … (T)he force on the train decided that the conflict was growing entirely too hot. The throttle was pulled wide open and the train was hurried on to Springfield with whatever dead and wounded it had on board.
The battle at the stockades lasted several minutes and the deputies then retired to safety within. The scene in the open field, the battle ground of the strikers and their friends, was a most distressing one. Several men lay dead on the bare ground, having been instantly killed. Others were so seriously injured that death was a matter of only a few moments.
After the battle, Tanner dispatched several militia companies to Virden. The soldiers set up two Gatling guns in front of the Virden Opera House and disarmed both sides with little fuss.
Tanner also ordered the militia not to allow strikebreakers to enter the stockade, and both he and Lukens issued statements blaming the other for the bloodshed.
A total of 13 men – eight miners, four guards hired by the mine and C&A employee Kiley – died as a result of the Battle of Virden. (Different casualty figures given elsewhere – Wikipedia, for instance, says the death toll included seven miners and four guards – are wrong.)
Two of the dead, Edward Welch (b. 1874) and Frank Bilyeu (b. 1854) were living in Springfield when they joined the miners’ protest in Virden. Welch, a bachelor who worked at the Citizens Mine west of Springfield, was shot through the breast. Bilyeu, a widower with a daughter and two sons, was shot in the head. “It is said that he fought after he was wounded until he died,” the Journal reported.
Welch is buried in Calvary Cemetery. Bilyeu’s grave is in Oak Hill Cemetery, Taylorville. Both men’s tombstones were erected in ceremonies attended by thousands of union miners, and both carry a version of the epitaph “Lost his life fighting for industrial liberty at Virden, Illinois, October 12, 1898.” (Bilyeu’s more elaborate gravestone is topped by a statue of a coal miner.)
The Battle of Virden Monument, erected on the town square in 2006, lists the eight dead miners:
William Harmon of Girard; Abraham Brenneman of Girard; Bilyeu; Welch (misspelled “Welsh” on the monument); Joseph Gitterle of Mount Olive; Ernest Kamerer, Mount Olive; Ellis Smith, Mount Olive; and Ernest Long, Mount Olive.
Non-miners killed (and not listed on the monument) were: Kiley; Thomas Preston of Chicago; A.W. Morgan of Chicago; William Carroll of Chicago; and William Clarkson of Leavenworth, Ks. The last four were employed by the Thiel Detective Agency of St. Louis, which was hired by Chicago-Virden Coal to provide security both on the train and at the mine.
Long and Harmon died at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield the day after the riot. Clarkson, shot twice in the head, lingered at St. John’s until Dec. 16.
The black miners
The Alabamans stayed out of sight and on the floor of the train as it passed through Virden, so their only casualty was a man who was grazed by a bullet.
After being turned away at the Virden stockade, the trainload of men, women and children continued to Springfield. There, Illinois UMW president John Hunter persuaded them to leave the train for Allen’s Hall, a union meeting place at Seventh and Washington streets. The union would provide food and protection, he pledged. But Hunter was quickly put out of commission.
As the train was about to leave the city president Hunter boarded it, with the intention of going to Bloomington with the miners, but as the train was between North Grand avenue and the North (mine) shaft he was the victim of a most brutal assault. … He was conversing with two of the negroes, when two deputies came up and began kicking and beating him in the most shameful manner. One of them struck him in the stomach with his rifle. He was finally kicked off the train, and was found in an unconscious condition by a man who happened along in a buggy. …
It is stated that the deputies became angry because Hunter was trying to induce the miners to follow him to the local union’s hall, and when the train reached the edge of town they took the opportunity of venting their vengeance on him.
In Hunter’s absence, other union officials abandoned his promises to the strikebreakers. The coal company also refused to protect or provide for them. That created what the Illinois State Register called “a pitiable and shameful spectacle.”
Shivering and hungry in the third story of what is known as Allen’s hall are huddled together about 106 negroes, men, women and children, practically prisoners of war, and in danger of their lives if they should attempt to assert their liberty. They are without anything to eat, and after today (Oct. 13, the day after the Virden battle – ed.) will be without a roof to shelter them, and are in danger of their lives if they get far from the hall. …
Yesterday the mine workers’ officials served notice that they would neither protect nor provide for the negroes after 6 o’clock, and soon afterward it began to be whispered about town that several of the negroes, who were with a former load that was taken from the train several days ago, would be lynched. An angry crowd, requiring the efforts of the police to restrain, surged about the door of the hall throughout the greater part of the day threatening mob violence.
Two men slipped out of the hall, apparently intending to hop a train south, but they were captured by strike sympathizers. One “was kicked well nigh into insensibility” before they were returned to Allen’s, the Register reported.
The number of blacks on the strikebreakers’ train and at Allen’s Hall is fluid. In testimony a few days after the riot, a train guard echoed the Register, saying the train held 106 African-Americans. However, the Register’s Oct. 15 story about the group’s departure from Springfield gave a figure of 73 people. Markwell, in his study for the historical society Journal, came up with an itemized tally – 57 men, 15 women and five children – that totals 77.
Part of the difference, as suggested by Rosemary Feurer in her study for the Illinois Humanities Council’s centennial publication, “Remember Virden, 1898,” may be that Hunter persuaded some of the strikebreakers to return home, at union expense, almost as soon as they arrived in Springfield Oct. 12.
The remainder finally embarked Oct. 14 on a special train for St. Louis. Springfield businesses raised $100 to hire the train, and leftover funds were given to its passengers – 50 cents to each man and $1 to each woman. At the order of the mayor, Police Chief H.S. Castles provided coffee and 300 sandwiches for the trip.
“Some found employment in St. Louis, others drifted back to Birmingham,” Markwell wrote. “Few, if any records exist charting their plight past the arrival in St. Louis.”
The most prominent figure on the Battle of Virden Monument is that of labor firebrand Mary “Mother” Jones (1837-1930), who is depicted at the top center. Jones was not present for the Virden riot. She is, however, buried with some of the miners killed in the riot in the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, which was established after the battle. According to an account by Jeff Biggers for the Zinn Education Project, Jones once wrote:
When the last call comes for me to take my ﬁnal rest, will the miners see that I get a resting place in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives on the hills of Virden, Illinois. … They are responsible for Illinois being the best organized labor state in America.
Gov. John Tanner monument
John Riley Tanner (b. 1844) died less than five months after leaving office in 1901. Labor unions and African-Americans — whom Tanner also treated fairly — contributed nearly $25,000 to build a mausoleum for Tanner at Oak Ridge Cemetery. The site, between the cemetery’s main entrance and the Lincoln Tomb, makes the Tanner monument one of the most visible memorials at Oak Ridge.
Though awkward to view through a grilled door and windows, the interior of the monument features a bust of Tanner.
The monument, designed by Tiffany of New York and built by Culver Construction of Springfield, was dedicated on May 30, 1908. Among the speakers was UMW secretary-treasurer W. D. Ryan.
If it wasn’t already visible enough, the Tanner monument (Oak Ridge Block 31) is identified by a roadside sign.
Unable to employ strikebreakers and unsupported by state officials, the Chicago-Virden Coal Co. capitulated. The mine reopened a month after the battle, paying the 40-cent rate.
Markwell concluded that the miners’ success at Virden had implications beyond improving living conditions for miners and their families. It also gave Illinois a labor-friendly reputation just as demand for coal was expanding, along with opportunities for mine jobs. The Battle of Virden “marks the beginning of the end of the feudalism that characterized the Illinois coalfields and late nineteenth-century industrialism in general,” he wrote.
Markwell quotes Feurer’s Remember Virden, 1898, pamphlet:
Note: For much more first-hand detail, see the link posted by Diane Unger in Comments below.
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