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Coxey’s army was the name given in the popular press to a protest movement of the unemployed begun by the Ohio Businessman Jacob Coxey. While the official name of the original group was the “Army of the Commonweal in Christ” the nickname Coxey’s army proved more enduring.
Jacob Coxey was a quarry operator in Massillon, Ohio and an advocate for reform of American economic policy. In his youth Coxey had been a supporter of the “Green backers” but as their party began to decline, Coxey joined the People’s Party instead. As a populist and reformer, Coxey was a rarity among 19th century American businessman.
In 1892 Coxey drafted and presented to Congress a proposal for a “Good Roads bill,” a $500 million road construction bill stipulating the hiring of unemployed workers who would be paid a minimum of 1.50 per 8 hour day. Coxey hoped that that the bill would address several problems at once: it would increase the money supply in the U.S., promote public works, and solve the problem of unemployment.
Congress did not enact the bill, but Coxey continued to publicize his proposal through his organization the “J.S. Coxey Good Roads Administration of the United States”. Through this group Coxey conducted friendly exchanges of letters with interested citizens, where he learned that one of the friendly criticisms of his bill was that it provided relief for farmers but little aid for cities.
With the Panic of 1893, the U.S. economy went into a tail spin. Coxey, further convinced of the usefulness and need for his ideas, wrote a new version of his Good Roads bill and On January 1, 1894 he unveiled a new proposed bill the “Noninterest-bearing Bonds Bill”
The new bill would authorize any state, territory, county, or municipality to issue noninterest-bearing bonds on the basis of half its assessed property value. These bonds would be turned over to the secretary of the treasury as security for loans of legal tender notes to finance public works projects. The loans could be used to finance the construction of roads, educational facilities, and municipal structures. Coxey was confident that the new bill answered critics of the Good Roads bill. He felt certain that if both bills were passed their combined effect could relieve the high unemployment the followed the Panic of 1893.
Senator William A. Peffer introduced both bills in congress. To put pressure on the senate to vote on the bills, Coxey issued a call for the unemployed of the nation to rally in a march on Washington, and present to the capitol a “petition with boots on”. Coxey hoped to arrive in Washington with a host 100,000 strong, to illustrate vividly to the federal government (and the press) the reality of the unemployment problem.
Coxey’s army departed Massillon, Ohio on Easter Sunday March 25, 1894. Approximately 100 unemployed marched with Coxey from Ohio, far less than his goal. By the time the group reached the capitol, their number had grown to only about 500.
The main march came to an ignoble end on May 1, 1894 when Coxey and his men were arrested by the Capitol police for violating an ordinance against walking on the Whitehouse lawn. Neither of Coxey’s bills were passed.
While Coxey’s main march ended in disappointment, his call had galvanized support across the country especially in cities in the west where “armies” of unemployed formed. In Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, armies formed that were ten times the size of Coxey’s initial Massillon group (the San Francisco army alone had 1,400 troops) and set out to try and meet him in Washington.
These armies were heavily influenced by the populist movement that had gained ground among the farmers and miners in the western United States and though they supported Coxey’s bills, their demands were much broader. These included calls for government support for immigration projects, free coinage of silver and employment programs for the jobless. Their demands also reflected nativist strains within the populist movements that weren’t part of Coxey’s original proposal, and these western armies also stressed opposition to Chinese immigration, and “alien” landownership.
The “Coxeyism” that emerged in the west was also different in its organization. The nickname Coxey’s Army had been given to the original march by newspapers but it was taken quite literally by the western groups. These groups were regimented, led by Generals, and maintained strict discipline among their members, dismissing men from their groups for infractions like drunkenness.
The western armies also differed from Coxey’s group in their relationship with women supporters. Coxey had early on dismissed the idea of allowing women to join his movement, but the western groups were more open. Most did not directly include women in their ranks, but women’s groups played an active role in aiding the armies heading east. Women organized into home guards and auxiliary units that sent supplies to the armies, and took care of the families of men, marching east. Home guards and auxiliary units of women existed in every western city that sent an army east, but for the most part the armies relegated women to indirect supporting roles.
There were exceptions to this general rule. In Oakland a regiment organized under John Barker decided to break with tradition and encourage both women and men to join. When Barker failed to secure a train for his 300 strong contingent, they voted to elect a new general, a local agitator named Anna Smith, and demoted Barker to her assistant.
These western armies were also far more militant than Coxey’s original group, as illustrated by the actions of the army of Butte, Montana. On April 24, 1894 the Butte army, led by William Hogan, commandeered a steam engine and several coal cars to transport his force of 500 men. They made it as far as Billings, Montana, when they were confronted by Marshall McDermott and his deputies, and a shootout ensued. After the gun battle, federal troops were dispatched by President Grover Cleveland, and Hogan and his men were captured and arrested near Forsyth, Montana.
The Butte story is illustrative of a general pattern for the western armies, which grew quickly in their home cities, began to lose numbers during the long trek east, and either dissipated or were blocked by the railroads from heading further east. Like the Butte group, many other armies also seized trains to try and make the journey to Washington, but most of these were stopped by federal troops. None of the western armies ever managed to complete the trip to Washington.
While the original march of Coxey’s army ended in failure it would have far reaching effects throughout American history. The tactics employed by federal troops to seize Coxey’s army trains served as training for similar actions by federal troops during the Pullman Strike. Coxey’s army provided inspiration for similar attempts to March on Washington to draw attention to social ills, most notably the Bonus Army of WWI veterans, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr.
Clinch, Thomas A. “Coxey's Army in Montana” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 2-11
Schwantes, Carlos A. “Western Women in Coxey's Army in 1894” Arizona and the West, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring, 1984), pp. 5-20