Governor powerless against the strikers — West Virginia State Quarter Coin

Today, the West Virginia State Quarter Coin remembers the strikes of 1877, the Governor’s request for assistance and the President’s response on July 18, 1877.

From the Annals of the Great Strikes in the United States by Joseph A. Dacus, published in 1877:


The strikers had gone further than persons engaged in such movements had been accustomed to go.

It revealed the existence of a determination on their part to enforce their demands at every hazard. The situation the morning of the 18th was alarming.

The strikers had been reinforced during the night at all points by accessions of workingmen engaged in other avocations than railroading. They had grown bold because they knew they had the sympathies of the people with them, especially in that portion of West Virginia where the strike had assumed the most threatening aspect.

The Governor of the State of West Virginia, apprised of the extent of the lawless combination, found himself in the humiliating position of complete inability to deal with the issue.

Powerless to suppress the disorders, appealed to by the managers of the railroad for that protection which he was unable to afford; harassed by the knowledge that a large portion of the people whom he governed were in sympathy with the turbulent strikers, and tormented by the evidence that the few militia at his command were unfaithful to their duty, the position of Governor Matthews was sufficiently disagreeable.

The movement had now become so formidable that State authority could no longer assert supremacy.

Under these circumstances, the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth of West Virginia, was constrained to appeal to the Federal Government for protection and assistance in quelling the riots which had taken place.

During the afternoon of the 18th, Governor Matthews perceiving his inability to deal with the emergency, with no little reluctance, forwarded to the President of the United States the following formal appeal for the intervention of the federal power in suppressing the disorders in his State:

Wheeling, W. Va., July 18.

To His Excellency R. B. Hayes, President of the United States:

Owing to unlawful combinations and domestic violence now existing at Martinsburg and other points along the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, it is impossible with any force at my command to execute the laws of the State.

I therefore call upon Your Excellency for the assistance of the United States military to protect the law-abiding people of the State against domestic violence, and to maintain the supremacy of the law.

The Legislature is not now in session, and could not be assembled in time to take any action in the emergency.

A force of from two to three hundred should be sent without delay to Martinsburg, where my aid, Colonel Delaplaine, will meet and confer with the officers in command.

Henry M. Matthews,
Governor of West Virginia.

Upon receipt of this call at Washington, President Hayes at once dispatched a messenger for the Secretary of War, who immediately answered the summons by repairing to the Executive Mansion.

A brief consultation between them followed.

The result was the conclusion that the information contained in the call was not sufficiently definite to warrant the President in employing the military forces of the United States for such purposes.

It was agreed, however, that the Governor of West Virginia be called upon to furnish more definite information, and accordingly the Secretary of War was instructed to send a dispatch to Governor Matthews, requesting complete information.

The Governor’s reply showed that there were but four militia companies in West Virginia, two of which had already fraternized with the Strikers at Martinsburg, a third was in an interior county, thirty miles from any railway line, and the fourth consisted of only forty-eight men, while the Governor estimated the force of strikers massed at Martinsburg, at not less than eight hundred men.

Notwithstanding his reluctance to interfere in the matter, the President esteemed the emergency one of sufficient gravity to justify him in taking decisive action.

Accordingly he issued the following proclamation, the same evening:


Whereas, The Governor of the State of West Virginia has represented that domestic violence exists in said State, at Martinsburg, and at various other points along the line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in said State, which the authorities of said State are unable to suppress; and

Whereas, It is provided in the Constitution of the United States, that the United States shall protect every State in this Union on application of the Legislature, or of the Executive when the Legislature cannot be convened, against violence; and

Whereas, By laws in pursuance of the above it is provided (in the laws of the United States) that in all cases of insurrection in any State, or of obstruction to the laws thereof, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, on application of the Legislature of such State, or of the Executive when the Legislature cannot be convened, to call forth the militia of any other State or States, or to employ such part of the land and naval forces as shall be judged necessary for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection or causing the laws to be duly executed; and

Whereas, The Legislature of said State is not now in session and cannot be convened in time to meet the present emergency, and the Executive of said State, under section IV. of article 4 of the Constitution of the United States and the laws passed in pursuance thereof, has made due application to me in the premises for such part of the military force of the United States as may be necessary and adequate to protect said State and the citizens there of against domestic violence, and to enforce the due execution of the laws; and

Whereas, It is required that whenever it may be necessary in the judgment of the President to use the military force for the purpose aforesaid, he shall forth with, by proclamation, command such insurgents to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective homes within a limited time; now, therefore,

I, Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, do hereby make proclamation and command all persons engaged in said unlawful and insurrectionary proceedings to disperse and retire peaceably to their respective abodes on or before twelve o’clock, noon, the nineteenth day of July instant, and hereafter abandon said combinations and submit themselves to the laws and constituted authorities of said State, and I invoke the aid and cooperation of all good citizens thereof to uphold the laws and preserve the public peace.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington this eighteenth day of July, in the year of our Lord, 1877, and of the independence of the United States the one hundred and second.

(Signed,) R. B. Hayes.

By the President.
F. A. Seward, Acting. Secretary of State.

Orders were issued from the War Department, to General French, commanding at the Washington arsenal, requiring him to take all the available troops from that station and proceed at once to Martinsburg. At the same time like orders were forwarded to General Barry, in command at Fort McHenry, to detach all available forces from that post to join the forces under command of General French at the threatened points.

These troops were armed as infantry, the full strength of the battalion was about two hundred and fifty men. The whole force was in readiness to proceed on their way to Martinsburg at an early hour in the evening.

The marching of troops through the streets of the National Capital created a profound sensation among the citizens.

It was the first time in the history of the country that a labor strike had become so formidable as to require the intervention of the general Government to preserve order.

It was nine o’clock at night when the armed battalion of regulars tiled through the streets of Washington on the way to the station of the Baltimore and Ohio Railway to embark on the train to proceed to Martinsburg.

A vast concourse of people had assembled to witness their departure. The scene was not unlike some of those which characterized the early days of the year 1861.

The train moved away from the station at ten o’clock in the evening, bound for the scene of the disturbance.

Meanwhile bands of strikers had taken possession of the railway stations at Cumberland, Grafton, Keyser, and other points, and refused to allow any freight trains to pass.

Emissaries were dispatched from the headquarters of the strikers at Martinsburg and Wheeling, to induce the firemen and brakemen; along the Connellsville Branch, the Pennsylvania road, the Pittsburgh and Chicago, and other railroads in that section of the country to join in the strike.

During the day the strikers at Wheeling made a demonstration of a rather threatening character. The single company of militia at that place paraded for action. But it was evident that it was not strong enough to effect anything, and so the citizen soldiers allowed themselves to be quietly disarmed by the striking workingmen.

The strikers at Martinsburg received the President’s proclamation with indifference or positive disrespect.

No attention whatever was paid to the injunction to disperse. On the contrary, with constant accessions to their numbers, they became more demonstrative and threatening in their bearing.

During the day, a committee of strikers at Baltimore prepared and caused to be printed and circulated a statement of the causes which impelled them to pursue the course which they had adopted.

They declared that they had submitted to three reductions of wages in three years; that they would have acquiesced in a moderate reduction; that they were frequently sent out on a trip to Martinsburg, and there detained four days at the discretion of the company, for which detention they were allowed pay for but two day’s time; that they were compelled to pay their board during the time they were detained, which was more than the wages they received; that they had nothing left with which to support their families; that it was a question of bread with them; that when times were dull on the road they could not get more than fifteen day’s work in a month; that many sober, steady, economical men became involved in debt last winter; that honest men had their wages attached because they could not meet their expenses; that by a role of the company any man who had his wages attached should be discharged; that this was a tyranny to which no rational being should submit, and that it was utterly impossible for a man with a family to support himself and family at the reduced rate of wages.

These statements of the striking employees were not without effect in awakening sympathy for them among the great mass of the people.

Anticipating the approach of the regular troops under General French, the Martinsburg strikers proceeded to the Sand House, an advantageous position a short distance west of the town, and proceeded to erect barricades, and to take other measures for defense.

At this point their forces numbered about four hundred and fifty men. It was now evident that the strike was destined to spread to other roads than the Baltimore and Ohio.

Mysterious journeys were undertaken by non-communicative laboring men; workingmen’s unions all over the land held meetings nightly; small bands of operatives were constantly meeting and discussing the situation, and everywhere was manifested a feeling of unrest among the working classes.

Nor was evidence wanting of a deep undercurrent of popular sympathy with the object aimed at by the West Virginia strikers.

The close of the third day after the commencement of the strike witnessed the following condition of affairs:

The Baltimore and Ohio Railway was still held by the strikers. The State militia of West Virginia had either disbanded and had been absorbed by the strikers, or had been disarmed by them; the Governor of West Virginia, confessing his powerlessness, had appealed to the President of the United States for assistance in suppressing the disorders in his State; the discontent of railway operatives was manifested in an alarming degree; workingmen engaged in other avocations had given unmistakable evidence of sympathy with the cause of the railroad men and gave ominous hints of a purpose to join them, and to still further complicate matters, railroad managers were demanding the intervention of the Federal Government in their behalf to protect them while operating their roads.

Meanwhile General French with a force of regular soldiers of the United States was preparing to move from Washington on Martinsburg for the purpose of suppressing the strikers. The movement had already become too great for control by the State government. The national administration had been appealed to, and the great strike was fully inaugurated.

Mutterings, deep, and significant, from a thousand different points, portended the storm which was ready to sweep the country with unexampled fury.

The day had been one of dread, not because of what had occurred, as on account of forebodings of what the future would bring to pass.


The West Virginia State Quarter Coin shows with images of destructive events during the great strike at Martinsburg, WV, in 1877.

West Virginia State Quarter Coin