Category Archives: Firearms

When Kendall County Guardsmen policed the southern Illinois mine wars

Taylorville, in south-central Illinois, was in the news this past week after it got hit by a powerful tornado. And hearing about Taylorville on the news reminded me about the town’s old connection with Kendall County.

That relationship, memorable though brief, goes back to the 1930s, when there were problems—big problems—in the Illinois coalfields that surround Taylorville in Christian County.

The nation’s economic conditions, and it slipped into the Great Depression just kept getting worse. And then, in the midst of all the economic turmoil on July 9, 1932, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), under the leadership of the pugnacious John L. Lewis, made a deal with the owners of coal mines around Taylorville and other nearby towns. Negotiations on a new four-year contract championed by Lewis had been dragging on since the spring, and the miners were anxious to get back to work. But when the union and the companies finally settled and the miners found out the details of the agreement, they were outraged.

Lewis had agreed to a cut in the basic daily wage from $6.10 a day to just $5. Lewis insisted it was the best deal the miners could get considering the economic shape the country was in. His argument was that the companies were in danger of going broke altogether. Not surprisingly, however, the members’ vote on the new contract went down by more than 2-1.

But Lewis was determined to force the contract through, and he ordered UMWA District 12 President John H. Walker to sell the new contract to his angry members, while Lewis traveled through safer areas of the state to lobby for acceptance of the pact. When Walker spoke to miners at Gillespie, physical violence nearly broke out.

A second vote on the contract was held Aug. 6, and Lewis and his union officers announced it had passed. But before the vote could be certified, the tally sheets were said to have been stolen. A couple days later, Lewis ordered District 12 miners to accept the new contract. But rebellion was in the air.

1932 abt Police vs Miners

Local police and the state police were often hostile to organized labor during the southern Illinois mine wars. The Taylorville confrontations were unusual in that the United Mine Workers were allied with coal company owners against the new Progressive Miners of America. (minewar.org image)

On Aug. 14 in the Macoupin County mining community of Benld, miners met and voted to go to neighboring Taylorville and close down the Peabody Coal Company mine there—Taylorville’s miners had voted in favor of the contract and had gone back to work. By Aug. 19, a convoy of some 1,500 miners left for Taylorville where they successfully shut down the mine—the Christian County miners refused to cross their picket line.

Farther south in Illinois, the protests were not successful, resulting in the so-called “Battle of Mulkeytown,” in which five miners were injured by sheriff’s deputies.

In early September disaffected miners met at Gillespie and established a new union, the Progressive Miners of America, in direct opposition to Lewis’ UMWA. Christian County—and Taylorville—became the battlefield between the two sides. While the “Proggies” managed to negotiate a slightly better contract, Peabody officials refused to hire any PMA workers. In fact, PMA membership became a ticket to being fired in most mines.

1932 PMA rally

The upstart Progressive Miners of America tried to foil the United Mineworkers’ John L. Lewis and the coal companies’ efforts to cut miners’ pay. The companies and the UMWA responded with violence. (minewars.org image)

With this as a backdrop, in 1933, open warfare finally broke out between the PMA on one side and the mine owners and the UMWA on the other. A headline in the Taylorville Breeze on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1933 reported: “4 Killed, 14 Shot in Mine Battle.” According to the news story, PMA opened fire on “scabs and special deputies” at Peabody’s Taylorville Mine No. 7. The report said the PMA miners opened up with rifles from “several homes,” and included machine gun fire from Freddie Bassana’s gas station (Bassana was subsequently charged with murder).

Clearly things were getting out of hand in Taylorville, so Gov. Henry Horner called out the Illinois National Guard. Initially, five infantry companies from Danville, Champagne, Springfield, and Salina were activated, along with a headquarters company from Sullivan to respond to Horner’s call.

1932 ING at Peabody Coal Company mine

The Illinois National Guard was dispatched to the Taylorville region in 1933 to maintain peace as the unions and companies fought each other over a new labor contract. (minewars.org image)

And ominously, on Jan. 7, 17 cases of explosives were reported stolen from a nearby mine.

Tensions went up further in February when National Guard cavalry from Chicago was stationed in Taylorville. The cavalrymen were generally well-to-do, and didn’t get along at all with the miners. By March 28, 10 miners had been killed and 100 wounded in the mine war. On April 3, a Baptist church in Taylorville was bombed, and a gun battle in Duquoin on April 7, left two Progressives dead. On April 13, perhaps thinking to cash in on the situation, Montgomery-Ward advertised a “Special Sale” on .22 cal. Rifles—just $3.41.

Then on May 13, the Breeze reported that the National Guard company from Kankakee that had been on duty at Taylorville was being replaced by Company E of the 129th Infantry, based in tiny Plattville, right here in Kendall County.

1935 abt Co E officers

Leadership of Company E, 129th Illinois National Guard Infantry, pictured about 1935 at Camp Grant, Illinois. Company commander Capt. Charles “Timmy” Howell is second from left; his son, Clyde, is on the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

The company had been established and accepted for service on July 16, 1923 with Capt. David Mewhirter, a World War I veteran, in command. In June 1928, Capt. Charles Howell succeeded Mewhirter. Howell was in command when the company was deployed to Taylorville.

On April 5, 1933, the Kendall County Record reported that “Capt. Charles Howell of Company E. Plattville, was in receipt Friday of orders for the men to be ready and fully equipped for service at Taylorville, the scene during many months of serious mine labor trouble and riots. When the orders for actual movement to the area will be received it cannot be foreseen, but farmers here are looking around for substitute hired men who can fill in during the Company’s absence Since the beginning of the disputes at Taylorville, national guard companies have been sent to the area in rotation for stated periods of time.”

1935 abt Stacked Springfields @ Camp Grant

Company E. Model 1903 Springfield rifles they carried while on duty at Taylorville, stacked outside the armory tent during their 1935 deployment to Camp Grant. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Daily Herald in nearby Morris reported on May 11 that: “A telephone message was received at midnight last night by Capt. Charles Howell in Plattville where the company quarters are located, to report for duty in Taylorville and the company of 60 men will leave for the trouble zone Saturday night by bus.”

According to the May 17, 1933 Kendall County Record, “Company E, 129th Infantry, left Yorkville Saturday night for Taylorville, where they will relieve the company from Kankakee and resume the guard of the mines. The company left in special buses. A truck carried the necessary equipment for the stay. The boys will return in two weeks. Their company is the last one in the district to be called. Capt. Charles F. Howell is in command. His lieutenants are Arthur Hubbard, first [lieutenant[; Irwin Knutson, second [lieutenant]; Rasmus Knutson, William Reed, Harvey Reed, Vernon Wright, Nels Nelson, Gordon Bertram, and Wilbert Henne, sergeants; and Harold Stein, mess sergeant.”

From both press reports and letters home, Company E did well. Years later, Clyde Howell, Capt. Howell’s son, recalled that “There were no problems when E Company was down there because they could read each other because everybody in E Company was a farmer. When you had somebody from Chicago, it wasn’t so good.”

On May 24, 1933, Capt. Howell wrote in a letter to the editor of the Record that “Taylorville is a very pretty town and the people treat us fine, but the small mining towns around are not so good. Fights are common afternoons and evenings.”

When Company E’s tour was up, the Guardsmen headed back to their homes, farms, and businesses in Kendall County. While it didn’t seem like much at the time, the experience they gained served several members of Company E in good stead some years later when World War II broke out. After it was nationalized, Company E and the rest of the 129th served in the Pacific Theatre throughout the war.

The boys from Kendall County made a good showing, both during their service during the mine war, and later on, during their actual combat against Japan. A pretty good showing for the farmers and small businessmen coming out of the nation’s smallest National Guard Armory. How tiny Plattville got a certified armory is a fascinating story in itself—but one for another time…

 

 

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Filed under Crime, Firearms, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, People in History

Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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