Congressman Alexander K. McClure could be counted among the most influential Pennsylvania politicians in history. And in the autumn of 1862, McClure’s home state was providing the administration of Abraham Lincoln with a serious crisis.
The Republican from Franklin County helped Lincoln and his cabinet negotiate a solution to a revolt in the Coal Region. Irish workers in Schuylkill County took up arms to protest the Union war effort and new legislation that foretold of a draft on the Northern home-front.
McClure’s recollections, published in a 1905 memoir of his experiences in Pennsylvania politics, demonstrate how dangerous the situation in the Coal Region had become for Lincoln and Governor Andrew G. Curtin during the Civil War. Representative McClure’s suggestion to avoid drafting men from specific townships in Schuylkill County likely saved lives and avoided a large-scale revolution inside Irish-dominated districts in the mining regions.
The hesitating, doubting sentiment relating to the war was not the most to be feared. In several of the mining districts there were positive indications of revolutionary disloyalty, and it was especially manifested in Schuylkill, where the Molly Maguires were then in the zenith of their power. The center of their power was in Cass Township, where thirteen murders had been committed within two or three years, and not a single murderer brought to punishment.
They successfully dominated the politics of the county, and made even the judges and court officers and jurors fear them. They had a very compact secret organization, and, as was developed in the later remarkable trial and conviction oi the leaders by Mr. Gowan, they many times decided on the murder of an individual, drew lots as to who should commit the crime, and in nearly or quite every instance the chosen victim suffered a violent death. They were implacably hostile to the Republican party, and to the loyal sentiment that demanded the prosecution of the war, and they openly declared their purpose not to submit to the conscription that was about to be enforced.
I had chosen Benjamin Bannan, one of the most prominent and sagacious citizens of the county, then editor of the Pottsville “Journal,” as commissioner for that county, not only because of his high character and admitted ability, but because of his intimate knowledge of all the political ramifications of the Commonwealth, including the Molly Maguires. He was very reluctant to accept the position, but when the needs of the case were explained to him he finally agreed to assume the task, and it was a task of appalling magnitude. He selected with the greatest care the men who were to make the enumeration of these districts, and although they were hindered at every stage in the immediate Molly Maguire region, they managed to get a fairly accurate enumeration without provoking any outbreak.
Cass Township had an agricultural section in it that was entirely different from the Molly Maguires who ruled the mines, and the residents there were generally loyal. Of course, such a township would not have an excess of volunteers in the service, and an unusually large quota was officially returned to Commissioner Bannan with directions to fill the same with conscripts, and on the 16th day of October the list of conscripts was drawn for every district in the State, and it included a few of the agricultural people of Cass Township, and a much larger number of miners, all of whom were under the absolute influence of the Molly Maguires. The conscripts were ordered to start for Harrisburg on a given day, and those of the agricultural portion of Cass Township appeared at the depot to take the train for Harrisburg, but the Molly Maguire conscripts, with a number of their friends, appeared also, and not only refused to respond to the call of the State by going to Harrisburg, but riotously excluded the willing conscripts from the car.
The facts were promptly telegraphed me by Bannan, and in turn I promptly communicated them to Secretary Stanton, of the War Department. Stanton was strenuously loyal and at times impetuous when confronted by open disregard of law. He at once telegraphed me, assigning a regiment in Harrisburg and another in Philadelphia to be subject to my orders to be sent at once to Schuylkill County with orders to enforce the draft at the point of the bayonet.
After consultation with the Governor he urged that a conflict between our own troops and rioters opposing the execution of the draft would be most disastrous in its consequences, not only at home, but throughout the country, and in accordance with his views I prepared an answer to Secretary Stanton suggesting that haste should be avoided in forcing a conflict between the troops and the Cass Township insurgents.
He promptly answered repeating his order that the regiments should be started at once to Schuylkill County, and the draft enforced without parleying. The troops were ordered to prepare at once to be transported to Pottsville in accordance with the directions of the Secretary of War, and they arrived in Pottsville on the following day, but no orders had been given to them beyond going to that point.
After further conference with the Governor I prepared a dispatch in cypher to President Lincoln, giving the Governor’s views as to the peril of provoking a conflict with the Schuylkill rioters and asked for an early answer. This despatch was sent some time in the afternoon, and we were greatly disappointed that no answer came to it, although I waited until two o’clock in the morning, hoping to receive it. I slept little and was up early in the morning, and when I entered the breakfast room at the hotel I saw Assistant Adjutant General Townsend at the table, and he at once beckoned me to come and join him.
I was well acquainted with him, and was greatly gratified at seeing him, as I did not doubt that he had some official instructions for me. He at once informed me that he had been sent by President Lincoln to see me and to deliver a personal message, saying that he did not know to what the message related. He said the President had instructed him to inform me that he was desirous, of course, to see the law executed, or at least to appear to have been executed, to which he added: “I think McClure will understand.” General Townsend said: ”I have no knowledge as to the subject matter of this communication that I have delivered exactly as instructed.”
Without waiting for breakfast I sent a despatch to Commissioner Bannan to come to Harrisburg at once, and he was there very soon after noon, and we at once went to the Executive chamber and discussed the situation with the Governor. Lincoln’s message was well understood. Bannan was most desirous for a peaceful solution of the problem, and he said that the draft could not be executed in Cass Township without a bloody conflict with the Molly Maguires, and he could conceive of no method by which there could be given the appearance of executing the law.
I told him that there was but one way in which it could be done; that several districts in the State had shown conclusively that their quota had been entirely filled by volunteers, some of whom had enlisted in county towns or in the cities and had not been properly credited to the township as the law required. Where the facts were made clear I had at once revoked the order for the draft, and I said that only in that way could the Cass Township problem be solved if it were practicable.
Bannan made no reply, but took his hat, hastened to the train and reached Pottsville the same evening. On the following evening he was back in Harrisburg with a large number of affidavits regularly executed before a justice of the peace or notary public, proving on their face that the quota of Cass Township had been filled by volunteers, chiefly by men connected with the mines who had enlisted from the towns or cities where companies or regiments were being formed. The affidavits were carefully tabulated and they made the quota of Cass Township entirely full. They were undisputed, and I at once issued the order releasing the conscripts of Cass Township from reporting for duty because the quota had been filled with volunteers.
Commissioner Bannan did not proffer any explanation as to how the affidavits had been obtained, nor did the Governor or myself make any inquiry. The law appeared to be executed, although all connected with its execution were entirely satisfied that the affidavits were fictitious, but it was an imperious necessity to avoid a conflict between the Molly Maguires and the troops, and that was accomplished by Commissioner Bannan furnishing the required affidavits that were clothed with all the ceremony of law. The troops were at once ordered back from Pottsville, and the draft was executed in every other district in the State without trouble…
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Featured Image: Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet