Battle of Virden

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The Battle of Virden, also known as the Virden Massacre, was a labor union conflict in central Illinois that occurred on October 12, 1898. After a United Mine Workers of America local struck a mine in Virden, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company hired armed detectives or security guards to accompany African-American strikebreakers to start production again. An armed conflict broke out when the train carrying these men arrived at Virden. The detectives shot first but strikers were also armed: a total of four detective/security guards and seven striking mine workers were killed, with five guards and more than thirty miners wounded.

In addition, an unrecorded number of the 50 black strikebreakers on the train were wounded. The engineer pulled out and drove the train on to Springfield, Illinois. This was one of several fatal conflicts in the area at the turn of the century that reflected both labor union tension and racial violence.


When the United Mine Workers struck a mine in Virden, Illinois, in September 1898, the owner, the Chicago-Virden Coal Company, recruited African-American miners as strikebreakers. On September 24, a trainload of potential strikebreaking African-American miners pulled into Virden on the Chicago & Alton Railroad (C&A RR, multiple tracks to the west, right in the photograph). Representatives of UMWA Local 693 told the miners that they were entering a strike. That train continued north to Springfield, Illinois without incident.

On October 12, 1898, another northbound train pulled into Virden, loaded with about fifty African-American potential strikebreakers. The train had brought the recruited workers from Birmingham, Alabama via East St. Louis. There it had taken on detectives from the Thiel Detective Service Company, who were armed with Winchester rifles and orders to protect the strikebreakers. It stopped on the C&A RR tracks just outside the minehead stockade. As the strikers attempted to surround the train, the guards opened fire.

The strikers were also armed. As a gun battle broke out in and around the strikebreakers' train, there were dead and wounded on both sides. Seven miners were killed, and 30 wounded; four Thiel guards were killed and five wounded. Many black strikebreakers on the train were also wounded but their casualties were not recorded.[1] After twenty minutes of firing on both sides, the train's engineer pulled away from the minehead, keeping the strikebreakers in their cars, and continued northward to Springfield, Illinois.[2]

Calling in the National Guard[edit]

Battle of Virden Illinois, 1898

Governor Tanner ordered the Illinois National Guard to prevent any more strikebreakers from arriving in the state. He said that if another rail car carried strikebreakers into the state, he would "shoot it to pieces with Gatling guns."[3] In compliance to Tanner's orders, the captain in charge of the Illinois Guard at Pana promised: "If any negros are brought into Pana while I am in charge, and if they refuse orders to retreat when ordered to do so, I will order my men to fire. If I lose every man under my command no negros shall land at Pana."[3]

The governor admitted that he had no legal authority for his action to prevent strikebreakers, but said that he was doing the will of the people.[3] The mine owners capitulated in mid-November and accepted the UMWA unionization of the Virden coal mines. The union and the mine owners agreed to segregate the Virden mines. Virden enforced segregation as a sundown town for decades thereafter.[2]

A monument in the Virden town square commemorates the coal strike of 1898 and the battle of October 12 that was its bitter end. The monument contains a large bronze bas-relief that includes the names of those killed in the battle, and a copy of a recruiting handbill distributed by the Chicago-Virden Company in Birmingham, Alabama, to recruit the Negro miners. The body of the bas-relief is made of symbolic representations of the Chicago & Alton tracks and the assault on the strikers. The guards are shown pointing their Winchesters at the strikers and their families. Atop the bas-relief is a bronze portrait of Mary Harris Jones ("Mother Jones").

Mother Jones is buried in the Union Miners Cemetery in nearby Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside miners who died in the October 1898 conflict.[4]

Related conflicts[edit]

The UMWA and coal mine owners were involved in similar conflicts in three other towns where the owners hired guards and strikebreakers: the Pana Massacre in Pana, Illinois on April 10, 1899; in Lauder (now Cambria, Illinois) on June 30; and in Carterville, Illinois on September 17, 1899.

Both before and after the events at Virden, Governor John Riley Tanner ordered the state militia to Pana to keep the peace, as the miners tried to unionize the mine. The militia withdrew from Pana in March, and on April 10, 1899, a skirmish between strikers, guards and strikebreakers left seven killed and at least 15 wounded, many of them bystanders.[1][5]

At Lauder a group of African-American miners traveling by train from Pana were attacked on June 30, 1899. A woman bystander, Anna Karr, was shot and killed, and about twenty other persons wounded. At Carterville on September 17, union miners rioted against black strikebreakers, and five non-union miners were killed. [1] Local juries acquitted all those accused in those attacks.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Encyclopedia of American Race Riots, By Walter C. Rucker, James N. Upton, page 673
  2. ^ a b Rosemary Feuer. "Remember Virden! The Coal Mines Wars of 1898-1900." Illinois History Teacher, Volume 13:2, 2006, pp. 10–22. online edition
  3. ^ a b c Paul D. Moreno, Blacks and Organized Labor: a New History, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008) 61.
  4. ^ "Service Tomorrow for Mother Jones," The Washington Post, Dec 2, 1930, pg. 12.
  5. ^ No primary source refers to fatal labor strife in Pana in 1902, although this date is sometimes cited.
  6. ^ Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness By Paul M. Angle

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