The Main Battle
I had been told that the greater part of military life consists in inactivity and boredom, but I hadn't yet discovered it. Far from being inactive, I had to figure out from the papers in the yard office how the yards were run, and then train our men to run them. Since the Eugene yards were the focal point for four lines which came in from the north, south, east, and west, it was a matter of splitting each incoming freight up into five parts, one destined for Eugene itself, and the others for the points of the compass. Having done that, we would send the freights out again.
It would have been impossible to accomplish anything, but for the freak circumstance that most of the men in the roundhouse were still at work. It was an utterly chaotic strike, going not by unions, or even crafts, but by the sentiments of the individuals. Some chose to work, some to stay home. Some were intimidated by the strikers, some struck peacefully, and some struck violently. I suspected that Biggar might have antagonized some men who were somewhere between these positions, and, as soon as I found that there were men in the roundhouse, I went there immediately to assure them of our protection.
One of the first men I spoke to was an engineer standing by to take his train out. After I identified myself, he said,
"I can't afford to strike. I've got too many kids at home. If you lay me off, I'll kill the man who takes my job, but, until then, I'll run my engine."
He was a man of at least forty, probably not prone to violence as a general thing, but I believed him. I replied,
"Not everyone realizes that a man like yourself will be welcome in our union. Our wages are lower, but they'll rise as we succeed, and, from the beginning, you'll be able to buy food and almost everything at cut rates in our canteens."
"Will that be enough to support a wife and seven kids?"
"I'm sure it will."
I had actually not worked out how many dependents could be supported under what conditions on our various pay grades, but I was sure that a way could be found. It was a lucky thing for us that most engineers, of all people, were willing to work. I thus went around spreading assurances.
We had taken control of the yards by ten thirty in the morning, and, by one in the afternoon, we were successfully classifying the freights that came in. In the next hour, we sent out several freights, and, so far as I could tell, the strikers were making no attempt to interfere with either incoming or outgoing traffic. Indeed, I had come to believe that such a badly organized strike wouldn't last for more than a day or two.
The next question was whether to take back the strikers when they re-appeared, probably the next morning, or take that opportunity to replace them with non-union men from the east. Since the decision would have to be made almost immediately, I picked up the telephone to call Mac. Unfortunately, the line was dead.
We had anticipated this possibility, and had already established signal communication with Speed on Skinner's Butte. On the other hand, I could hardly conduct my discussion with Mac on the basis of messages relayed by the slow and laborious full-arm semaphore system. I was just thinking of proceeding elsewhere to get to a public phone when one of the captains came in and said,
"We've got no water coming in from the outside, general."
I wasn't immediately very concerned. We had water towers with thousands of gallons in them, and we could drink water otherwise intended for locomotives. On the other hand, locomotives consumed tremendous quantities of water. I asked the captain,
"How long can we go on servicing engines if the towers aren't being supplied by the mains?"
Neither of us knew, but we guessed two or three days. I didn't expect the strike to last that long, but I was also beginning to feel somewhat besieged. Under the circumstances, I gave up my plan to hunt for a phone and wrote out a message to be signalled to Speed and relayed to Mac.
"Eugene yards occupied. Should we take back strikers?"
Biggar then came by, and we discussed our immediate situation. We could follow the telephone wires and probably find where they had been cut. Tracing the water lines and finding the manhole in the street or elsewhere with the main valve controlling our supply would be much more difficult. I therefore tacked on another message to the one presently being signalled to Speed, asking him to alert the municipal telephone and water authorities. If they came out and turned our water back on, we would then detail a unit to guard the valve. In the meantime, Biggar sent out a platoon to find the manholes and open any valves which seemed likely.
I followed the platoon out to the yard gate, partly with the idea that I might be able to prevail on one of the neighboring businesses to let me use their telephone.
The platoon leader was in the act of prying up a manhole cover in the street when I heard what I realized must be a shot. I wasn't used to guns, but there was a crack and the men came running back toward me. No one seemed to have been hit.
I supposed that the shot must have come from across the street. I also realized, after a minute's hesitation, that I was in the open myself. There was someone with a rifle not very far away who didn't love the GER. I might easily be identified as a leader, and he might, at that moment, be lining me up in his sights.
I'm not sure that I thought these things so much as felt them, and, after that very slight delay, I took off running for the shelter of a nearby building. I knew that it wasn't a dignified thing to do, but the other men were also running, and it was only common sense not to stand there and allow oneself to be shot.
When we all collected behind the corner of the building, the platoon leader reported to me,
"I think that shot was just meant for a warning."
We weren't sure where the shot had come from, but, across from the yard, not far from the gate we had originally entered, there was a row of rather modest homes. They were probably inhabited by men who worked in the yards, and it seemed most likely that one of the strikers had shot from an attic window. For all we knew, the houses might be filled with strikers armed with hunting rifles. Practically everyone in that part of the country had a gun, and, after the events of the morning, I could imagine their being mad enough to use them.
By this time, we had gotten a message back from Speed. He had sent a man off to rouse the telephone and water people, and another to phone in the message to Mac. He was even now leading his three companies in our direction with the idea of scouting out the area around us and taking any hostile forces in the rear.
It wasn't now possible to communicate to Speed that the strikers might shoot, but I was sure that he would be careful. Indeed, we had discussed a situation not very different from the present one in the light of Atwater's suggestions, and had agreed that Speed would keep his force moving at all costs, sending runners or using signals to communicate as opportunities presented themselves.
The next development was the arrival of a water works truck in front of the gate. Two men got out, and one waited while the other came through the gate into the yard. I went out to meet him and explained that we had had some labor trouble. The man replied that he was aware of it, in a tone which suggested that he was not on our side. I said,
"Anyhow, our water's gone off. I wondered if you could get it on again."
The man shrugged and walked slowly back. I followed at a safe distance. He then joined the other man, and they proceeded to a manhole a little way down the street. It looked as if we hadn't been far off in our search for water.
As the two men set slowly to work, there were shouts from a house opposite, and a man leaned from an upper-floor window, brandishing a rifle. I couldn't hear what was said, but the water works men moved quickly for once, this time in the direction of their truck. As the man I had spoken with earlier passed the gate, he shouted to me,
"If you want water, you'll have to turn it on yourself."
Now that we knew where the valve was, I thought we might be able to do just that.
My first idea was that we would have to cover the men turning on the water with the guns of our headquarters company. We would make these visible, and would set up our automatic rifles to bear on the houses across the street. Chances were good that the other side wouldn't fire.
Having set out our threat, we would drive out one of the trucks in the yard and park it almost over the critical manhole in order to provide protection for the man who went down first. The driver would also be vulnerable, but he would drive out fast, screech to a stop, and then scramble out of the cab. Both men could then stay below ground to guard the valve.
I put my plan to Biggar and asked him,
"If we ask for volunteers to drive the truck and go down the manhole, will we get any?"
"I think so. Certainly if we offer a promotion."
I then asked Biggar to deploy the headquarters company in the open. They, too, would be vulnerable, but we thought that their firepower would be great enough to deter any shots from the houses.
When the headquarters company went out into the cleared area, some hundred yards short of the gate, it was just about one in the afternoon. The slanting rays of the sun were making their way through the mist, but it still remained along the ground. The result was a bright winter day of the northern sort. There wasn't much heat in the sun, but it hadn't been particularly cold to begin with. I had been active enough to keep warm in just my suit coat, and I began to feel cold for the first time as I stood with Biggar behind the row of kneeling riflemen.
We had gotten our volunteers easily enough, and they sat ready in the truck, waiting for the signal to set off. It wasn't entirely clear whether Biggar or I would give the signal, but, before either of us could do so, there was an extraordinary development in front of us.
At first, it looked like an invasion of ants out of the mist. Men came running down the side streets, and from between the houses. Within less than a minute there must have been more than a thousand of them packed into the street in front of our wire fence. There were occasional rifles among them, but most had ax handles or monkey wrenches for weapons.
Just then, I had one of my thoughts, the sort that burst on me with great clarity and too much force to be denied. Someone would fire a shot at us, either from the mob or from one of the houses behind it, and Biggar would think himself justified in opening fire. With our automatic weapons raking the crowd, there would be a massacre with hundreds dead. Afterwards, it would be disputed whether we had even been fired on.
In retrospect, I am as convinced of this as I was at the time. From the Boston Massacre and Napoleon's action of the 18th Brumaire down to our time, there have been a great many instances of soldiers firing into crowds. It had even happened in the Pullman strike of ninety three. The soldiers sometimes panic, but, more often, their officers think the crowd has done something that will justify them in doing what they have wanted to do from the beginning.
I looked at Colonel Biggar. He was pleased. Something he had expected to be rather dull was turning out to be rather interesting. He was hoping that the mob would tear down the fence separating them from us. I said clearly and forcefully,
"Colonel Biggar, take A Company with you and go out one of the gates in the rear. If you can, make contact with Colonel Speed Trent's force. In any case, get in position to take the enemy in flank. Then, if the position appears favorable, go ahead without waiting for an order from me."
My primary purpose was to get Biggar away from the men with the guns, but my order made military sense. I was also a lieutenant general. Biggar looked at me only briefly before setting off.
Immediately after he left, I went to the captain of the headquarters company, a few yards away, and said,
"No one is to fire without a definite order from me."
"Just to be safe, go down the line and make sure everyone understands. No firing without an order from me personally."
The captain obviously didn't want to cede his authority to me in that way, but, like Biggar, he went. I went myself to each of the two BAR crews and instructed them carefully. When the captain and I again took our positions, I realized that it must have looked to the strikers as if we were preparing to fire. I hoped that they wouldn't decide to shoot me as a precautionary measure.
At that point, everything stopped dead. The strikers had come rushing into the street readily enough, and they might well have gone on another arson binge. There were many tough- looking youths among them who I suspected of never having worked on any railway. On the other hand, it seemed that whoever had sent them hadn't warned them of what they would be facing. Far from clawing at our boundary fence, they stopped suddenly and stood well back from it, as if to make it clear that they didn't wish their immediate intentions to be misunderstood. Guns have their uses.
On our side, there was equally little that we could do. At any rate, we certainly couldn't send our men into the middle of the mob to turn on the water.
It thus looked like a stalemate, perhaps one with decreasing tension. The strikers would gradually become increasingly confident that we wouldn't shoot if they did nothing, and we would become increasingly confident that they wouldn't charge our guns. We weren't getting any water, but we had a good supply. On the other side, it wasn't clear how long they could keep so many men standing there doing nothing. The boredom factor would work in our favor.
Thinking that it might well be a matter of waiting out the strikers, I walked behind the line of riflemen, making somewhat inane comments to ease the tension. One of them asked me,
"Are we gonna shoot em?"
"No. We'll just wait like this until they get tired and go away."
Another man asked,
"What if they go away and come back at night?"
That was a possibility I hadn't taken account of. A surprise night attack could certainly create problems. I replied,
"It's hard to get a large group of men together like that. If they have to go away empty-handed this time, their leaders won't be able to do it again."
I don't know how many anxieties I calmed, but I at least established myself as the man who was in charge, and I became increasingly confident that the men wouldn't shoot without my permission. It also began to seem that the trick of command had a lot to do with always acting as if one has a solution to every problem.
As we continued to remain in position, I thought of the tactical situation. Crowded into three short blocks with our gate at the left side were something like twelve or fifteen hundred men. They probably consisted of strikers, their male relatives, rambunctious youths, and general roughnecks. They weren't just a mob without direction. Otherwise, they couldn't have been hidden from us, perhaps for some time, and then rushed forward in unison. Somewhere, probably in one of the houses behind them, my opposite number was matching wits with me.
The captain of the headquarters company, a middle-aged former army sergeant, then appeared at my elbow and said to me,
"If we're going to shoot, sir, we'd better do it before they spread out up and down the street. We've got a lot of unprotected boundary, and they'll never be as good a target as they are now."
In tactical terms, he was certainly right. The opposition leader had drawn up his plan before we showed our guns, and he hadn't the wit or opportunity to change it. A filled square or rectangle was a good formation for breaching a light defense, such as our wire fence, and flooding the maximum number of men through the breach. But that was provided only that the defense didn't have guns, particularly machine-guns. I replied,
"We can't shoot unless they tear down the fence and rush us. I'll make other arrangements if they spread out."
I then called to the captain of B company and said,
"They may move further down the boundary out of our field of fire and breach the fence. If they move, I want you to deploy to the right of headquarters company and keep going as far as you have to in order to protect the boundary."
The captain immediately acknowledged my order and moved off. I realized that I should have told him that, if he encountered rifle fire, he should retreat on headquarters company. But, then, such a procedure should be second nature for a professional soldier.
I then set C company out on the left of headquarters company, right opposite the gate, and told the captain,
"Be ready to attack through the gate if Colonel Biggar attacks from the side or rear."
The opposition didn't react to these moves, and I settled down to wait. I hoped only that Biggar would find Speed before he attacked. I was pretty sure that he would make every attempt to do so. He might want to hurt people, but he would be patient enough to wait to attack with four companies instead of one.
We had to wait in that position some twenty minutes, which was a long time. It would have been better if the men in the street had shouted, or even chanted or sung, but they probably were too diverse in ideology to have any common slogans or songs. So, we just stood there. The men in the street must have known that they weren't going to get to plunder box cars, but whoever was directing them had enough control to keep them there for the time being.
When it did happen, it was sudden. The mist had cleared almost entirely, and I was treated to the sight of John Henry emerging from one of the two side streets which trisected the opposition. He was visible and unmistakeable above the crowd, and he was laying people low with his stick. Almost at the same time that John Henry led his company into the mob, another of our companies came up the other side street and two others attacked from either flank. I immediately sent my companies, B and C, forward.
A filled rectangle is, as a military formation, a mistake. The men in front have no room to give ground. When surprised and pushed in, the whole square becomes helpless. The men in front don't have enough room to swing their arms and use their weapons, and when they shrink back from the blows directed at them, they crowd those behind them still further.
Most of the men at the edges of the mob were clubbed down, and the remainder, in the middle of the squares being compressed, could do little but wait helplessly to be hit over the head with sticks. It didn't seem to help much when they covered their heads with their arms.
I stopped the carnage as quickly as I could, and, even though I had trouble making myself heard in the tumult, the officers saw me and disengaged surprisingly quickly. Our men were, indeed, well trained.
The dust had hardly settled when Speed came loping up with a smile on his face and addressed me,
"Afternoon, captain. Do you want us to shoot the prisoners or yoke them together and have them pull us through Eugene on flat cars?"
It's said that Napoleon never had any plans for retreat in case of defeat. I had no plans for the treatment of the strikers in case of victory. It did occur to me, however, that I might well emulate the graciousness of Grant at Appomattox. Moreover, looked at in one way, we had just attacked, rather brutally, a group of men who, however menacing they had looked, hadn't actually done much but exercise their constitutional right of free assembly. Of course, a shot had been fired, and it was naughty to turn off people's water and telephones, but the situation was, at best, somewhat ambiguous. I therefore ordered the whole force to seek out injured men try to help them.
Again, this time almost miraculously, no one was killed. There were a few broken bones and some men staggering dizzily around, but, as before, they were sent off in the care of the uninjured men. We then turned on the water and went back to work on the railway.
When we got the telephone working, I immediately got in touch with Mac. He congratulated me and added,
"I thought all along that you were the man for that kind of job."
I couldn't imagine what had made him think so, except possibly my tendency to wriggle free when caught on a hook, but I didn't question him. He further said,
"At present, we don't have the manpower to replace any large number of men in the west. Since it was only an unofficial strike anyway, most of the strikers will probably come back. Just let them. You can ask men with bandaged heads whether they walked into doors by mistake."
I also had the feeling that the strike might collapse after the engagement, and I kept our men out of sight so as not to offer provocation. When most of the night shift turned up, I withdrew our whole force to Skinner's Butte, where we spent the night.
It was cold, but there was no rain, and we wrapped the canvas tents around ourselves for warmth. I could have gone to the hotel, but, by this time, I was feeling very military indeed. As I lay shivering on the hard ground constantly changing positions in search of relative comfort, I consoled myself with the thought that the great captains of the past had probably spent many such nights.
In the morning, I called to find the yard superintendant back in control. He reported that absenteeism was only slightly above normal. After a quick conference with Biggar, Speed, and John Henry, we boarded the ten thirty train for Portland with our whole force.