General Alexander Bradley

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Please look at our General Bradley story map to see his southern Illinois campaign:

This image is from Edward A. Wieck’s article whose title is seen above. It was published in American Mercury, No. 8, in May 1926. Bradley had died in 1918. (source: The article is printed below with the typos in the original corrected.

An eight-foot crayon portrait of the man looms through the smoke of the miners’ local onion hall at Mt. Olive, Illinois. Above his smooth-shaven face, full month, straight nose and big blade [sic] eyes perches the shiniest of ping [sic] hats. He wears a stiff collar, a black bowtie. An abundant boutonniere adorns the lapel of his Prince Albert coat. The hand that rests jauntily on his left hip is covered with rings. There’s a glimpse of a broad belt buckle. His right-hand stretches out to the handle of a huge, partially furled umbrella. A fading laurel-wreath above the picture has the words, “Our Hero,” marching in gold across it. All this brilliant apparel is a symbol to the older men among the Illinois coal-diggers of their most famous victory over the mine owners…
It was in July of 1897 that Alexander Bradley, then a gangling youth of twenty-eight, popped up out of a mine near the little town of Mt. Olive to write his name in labor history alongside those of Mother Jones, the fantastic General Coxey, and West Virginia’s General Blizzard. Bradley had achieved some local fame as an agitator before the coal strike of that year, but it was the “March of the High Hat” that put him on the front page of the papers and made his name a hissing or a hurrah, according to the economic sympathies of the reader. After his one Homeric deed he drifted off the scene, for the routine work of the union made no appeal to his fiery soul, and today the younger generation of miners knows but little of his fame. But while he was on the move, the General stepped out … free and handsome, and the tale thereof makes a thundering American saga.
The Bradley’s were an English family of miners who settled in the Illinois coal-field in 1873. When young Alex was nine years old he was picking slate in Devil’s Hole, a mine near Collinsville. In a rambling pamphlet, “The History of the Strike of 1897,” the General tells of his first lessons in unionism. Someone gave the boy an almanac in which were two pictures that held his big black eyes. The first showed two chicks standing on the shore of a pond pulling at a worm. This bore the caption, “United We Stand.” In the second picture, “Divided We Fall,” the chicks had pulled the worm in two—and fallen headlong into the water. That gave the boy the clue to the whispered conferences between his father and the other older miners up on the wooded hills behind the mine, or back of the stove in the Bradley shack. The organization they were forever muttering about meant a united stand for the fat worm of wages. Or, as he put it a bit more floridly in his history, he “stored up in his soul a bitter hatred of the oppressor and a great longing for the time when the miner should stand up and face the mine owner and insist on fair treatment and a wage sufficient to permit him to live like a human being.”
The rebel in him sent him, during the summer months of slack work, away from the drabness of the coal camp to the colorful jungles of the open road. With other youngsters he came to know the fascinations of Hinky Dinky’s place in Chicago’s Clark Street and the big schooners and free lunches of Tom Allen’s saloon in Market Street, St Louis. He came to know too, golden hours along the lazy Wabash or the Kaw or in the shadow of the railroad water tanks. Cold weather sent him and some of his comrades back to the empty life of the mining camp, but others, hardened bums by now, went to the penitentiaries, and still others to sudden death beneath car wheels. Always through this way-faring life and afterwards in the mine there ran a red thread of revolt against the working conditions and wages of the unorganized miners.
Then came the Hungry Nineties and General Coxey and his march on Washington. Clark Street and Market Street buzzed with the news. The jungles had word of it through greasy newspapers wrapped around hand-outs, and the broadcasting of the hobo wireless. Of a sudden all hobodom was on the move. The youngsters took the blinds or decked the fast mails, the older men went on the slower drags, but all headed in the same direction, the army’s line of march. Young Bradley was one of the first of General Coxey’s recruits and one of the last of his Old Guard. He was among the handful driven off the grass in front of the Capitol at Washington when the army’s goal was reached.
On his return to Mt. Olive, he was dubbed “Coxey” and the nickname pleased him. Now he came out openly for the union. He taught the miner the philosophy he had picked up on the road to Washington through the medium of this swinging ballad:
For might was right when Caesar bled
   upon the stones of Rome,
And might was right when Joshua led
   his men o’er Jordan’s foam,
And might was right when German
   troops poured down through Paris gay,
‘Twas the logic of the ancient world,
   ‘tis the gospel of to-day.
You must prove your right by deeds of
   might, of splendor and renown,
If you would march through flames of
   hell to dash opponents down.
If need be, die on scaffold high, in
   morning’s mist of gray,
For liberty or death is still the logic
of to-day.
Bellowed by lusty-lunged coal-diggers assembled in some lonely clearing, this song had a most rousing effect. Bradley, waving his long arms from a stump top, enjoyed himself tremendously. A change of a line or two to bring in some local strike or mine tragedy might disturb the meter, but never the leader.
The opportunity for putting this Nietzschean philosophy to the test came with the call from the headquarters of the United Mine Workers of America for a nation-wide strike of coal miners to begin on July 4, 1897. The national union was a paper organization. Of the more than 35,000 miners in Illinois at that time, less than four hundred were actual members of it. The call was an appeal rather than a command, but thousands joined in the strike during the course of the summer.
The more militant of the miners in and around Mt. Olive gathered on July 4 in a nearby wood, and swore allegiance to the U. M. W. of A. But the attendance was ominously small—only about ten per cent of the miners of the section were there. Bradley mounted a stump and to the brethren squatting on the grass preached the gospel of brotherhood and unionism. A skeptic in the audience pointed out that unless the big field to the South were organized, the handful in the wood could do nothing. Instantly Bradley and a faithful lieutenant volunteered to go southward and preach the cause. Next day the two set forth for Belleville…
At two mass meetings held in Belleville on the afternoon and evening of July 6, Bradley uttered such “large, divine and comfortable words” that his hearers rallied almost unanimously to the strike call. An immediate strike was voted and committees were formed to urge upon recalcitrants the heady delights of organization. When Bradley and his colleague brought back this good news to Mt. Olive, they found all the miners in that vicinity already on strike. But the resultant jubilation suddenly ceased when a telegram from Belleville informed them that the amateur strike leaders there had failed to hold the men, and that the latter were returning to work.
Bradley took this as a personal affront. On the stump again he shouted, “I was there and they gave me their word of honor to stick with us. Somethin’ crooked!” Standing above the gathering of angry, Mt. Olive men, tearing the distressful telegram to pieces, there came to him a vision of marching men, Coxey’s men. Up went the long arms as he shouted, “I’m goin’ down there again and I’m going to take you fellers along! We’ll all march down, by God!”
“By God, yes! Come on, you Staunton men! Come on Mt. Olive! Who’s got a flag? Ever’body git a little grub together!” yelled the ranks. In a short time an excited mob had formed itself into an orderly procession. Bradley, temperamentally unable to march anywhere but in the lead, assumed command. Next to him was a huge Slav bearing aloft an American flag. In the rear came two mules harnessed to the wagon that contained the meager commissary gathered from wellnigh empty cupboards.
They passed under the street lights of Staunton on that hot July night, as incredible an army of crusaders as one could imagine. But there was a man in front who was sending back through the ranks the rhythm of a long stride that would be hard to stop. With his coat on his arm, his battered felt hat in his hand, his short, dark pompadour curving above his lean face, blue-black with several days of unshaven beard, this inspired mule driver swung on beneath the stars and his army followed after.
All through the night they marched. By sun-up they were in Worden, already on strike, and here new recruits were added to their ranks. Between them and the strategic point of Belleville lay Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Collinsville, O’Fallon, all working. But the sight of the marching men had an electric effect upon the miners. “‘We might as well starve strikin’ as to starve workin’,” they agreed, and so each mine sent a delegation into the line of march. “On to Belleville!” was the cry.
Now St. Louis reporters began to drop off trains to march with the army and interview Bradley. The story of the march was spread across the front pages of the papers, and his title of General, conferred upon him by the reporters, stood out in huge print. The General made splendid copy. He was most gracious in his reception of the war correspondents and they reciprocated with long dispatches. He passed among his men with becoming dignity and they adored him. Some of them whittled out wooden guns and the more ribald indulged in intricate manoeuvres. But never once did the General descend from the heights. By a wave of his lean hand he made and unmade colonels, majors and lieutenants, and there was about him always a deadly seriousness.
The Illinois mine owners could see no humor in the march. Throughout the coal field the miners were striking and falling in. Increase of wages were granted here and there in a belated attempt to stop the progress of the army. The Belleville papers began to show signs of nerves. In Murphysboro, further to the south, vigilantes were ready to repel the invaders. But on the army rolled, sweating under clouds of dust, profane, out of step, hell-bent. On July 21 the General, with more than a thousand men behind him, came in sight of Belleville. With his staff he now occupied a surrey, bedecked with garlands. Reporters warned him that he might expect resistance if he attempted to bring his army into town. The General looked down at them from his seat in the surrey, gazed ahead at the heat-hung town, then picked up his reins with a “Giddap,” and into Belleville the army went.
Belleville did not resist. Indeed, the police guided the General to the ball park, selected by him as a camping place for his army. The local union leaders got busy and soon miners were swarming from all directions to meet the crusaders from the north. Again the General’s eloquence won. One day the St. Louis papers announced that the Belleville mines had struck. Belleville business men, despairing of a situation where men worked every day and still were unable to pay up, were willing by now to see unionism tried out. Bakers donated bread, butchers sent meat others gave money, and the breweries sent beer chips, four per day per man. With the ball park as a base, volunteer organizers spread out into the surrounding country while the rank and file rested. The army was sitting pretty.
Then came the General’s great adventure. He went out of camp and into town one morning without leaving word of his destination. There was much speculation as to his mission. When he didn’t show up for supper a report began to spread that he had been seen in the company of operators. All sorts of uneasy rumors ran around the camp.
It was to one of the cook crew, foraging for wood on the outskirts of the camp, that the vision first appeared. He looked up to behold before him the resplendent original of the Mt. Olive portrait, high hat, umbrella, Prince Albert, rings and all. Smitten dumb at the sights he stood for a moment, the kindling dripping from his arms, and then turned on his heel and fled, spreading the tidings as he went.
Through the ranks of his open-mouthed followers the General strode, superbly indifferent to the mutterings of his amazed cohorts. Arrived at the center of things, he wheeled, drew his hand from his silken-clad bosom and boomed: “Order in the ranks! The General has an announcement to make.” Flicking some dust from his sleeve, he began, “The General went to St. Louis in your behalf.” He liked referring to himself in the third person. “Met some good fellers there —real sports. They fed the General at Tony Faust’s. Damn good beer at Tony’s. Got to talking about the army. Pretty soon they showed the General a nice pile of money that would be his if he’d sell the army out. And here it is!” He held aloft a breath-taking roll. Then with a quick gesture he sent some bills fluttering into the crowd. “Git some shoes, boys. The General knows you need ‘em—that’s why he took it. When you need some more, come to the General—plenty more where that came from. The General knows how to take care of his own.”
The mine owners made only one more effort to undo the General. At Murphysboro, where he had gone to make an organization speech, they worked on his weakness for rye whisky so successfully that the sheriff, following his wavering footsteps, came upon him in a house of sin and promptly jailed him. But as in every other situation, the General was ready for the newspaper men. When interviewed in his cell he said quite simply, “Oh, the General was out for a little sport. The operators’ gang got next to him and had him run in. I regret that it happened, but it won’t hurt the cause.”
And it didn’t. Ten dollars and costs was the penalty. The army immediately forgot the incident.
In the meantime, men with less fire but more flair for constructive effort than the General were consolidating his victories, and when finally he set out for home, he left behind him a well-organized field. At Mt. Olive he was welcomed at the station by four thousand cheering idolators and a brass band. He was escorted to the park, where he orated to an awed populace.
For a brief moment he was a national figure, and his high hat appeared in cartoons and sketches far beyond Illinois’ boundaries. He settled down to enjoy his triumphs, but duty soon called him into the field again. In Coffeen the miners had been lured back to work by a promise of a small raise in wages and the town was closed to all agitators. One hundred armed deputies patrolled the community and the nearby highway. Obviously, no one but the General could deal with this situation—and if Coffeen were not won back to the union, the effect on the whole Illinois strike might prove disastrous. So the General responded to the call.
When he arrived upon the scene he immediately developed a plan of campaign that caused a great nervousness among the coal operators and their military guard. There had been rumors that Governor Tanner of Illinois, was about to send in the militia to reinforce the deputies. Straightway the General betook himself to the state capital. Of that historic interview the newspapers said:
“General Bradley called on Governor Tanner and was in consultation with him for nearly two hours regarding the situation in Coffeen. The Governor assured the General that he would give the striking miners every possible consideration as long as they refrained from overt acts…. The General was dressed in a light pair of corduroy trousers, turned up at the bottom, black silk negligee shirt, long, dark four-in-hand tie, a small gold pin, a white golf cap and a blue serge coat. He carried a linen duster and a small hand satchel and a large umbrella. He sported a large charm on a gold chain that went clear around his neck. From this was suspended an elegant gold watch. Knights of Labor and other buttons were in the lapel of his coat. He wore a handsome seat ring with a big B on it and two large gold rings on his right hand.”
The General was back in camp on the outskirts of Coffeen the next day. Volunteers for his army now rolled in from all directions. And then began his peaceful penetration of the cordon of deputies. Every afternoon the General would line up his men sixteen abreast and march them in silence down the broad road toward the mine under strict instructions that no word was to be spoken, no action taken. A few feet from the dead-line of the deputies, the General would throw up his hand and the long line would shuffle to a dead stop. There the strikers would stand in absolute silence as the Coffeen miners filed out of the mine to go to their homes behind the protecting guards. Then, with great solemnity, the General would order his men back to the camp in the wood. For a week this performance was staged daily. Then the sight of the silent advancing host began to get upon the nerves of the deputies. Was the General bluffing? Were his men armed? If only somebody would holler or throw a rock!
The last afternoon of the week an aide came out of the General’s lean-to in great excitement. Through the ranks went a whispering, “We’re goin’ in to-day. No noise. No clubs. Nothin’. Ever’body walk real slow and peaceful and keep on walkin’. The General will take care of the rest.”
They started slowly, plodding in grim silence down the highway. The deputies took a firm grip on their guns, but no word or gesture from the General revealed his strategy. There was a sneer on the face of the commanding deputy. Bradley, he was sure, would stop as usual. But no, by God, they’re comin’ on! Look out, boys, git that man! It’s action at last. The silent glacier-like mass was upon them before the rattled deputies could bring their rifles to their shoulders. Four of the guards seized the General, shouting hysterically that he was under arrest. Bradley stood still, mocking them with his eyes and called out in a steady, commanding voice. “Go right on, boys, go right on! No rough stuff! Jim is in command now. To the front!”
The ranks eddied around the five men in the road. The deputies on the flanks broke and ran. Above the steady tramp, tramp rose one chuckling note as a deputy tore out his trouser seat in his haste to crawl through a barbed wire fence. That night the army camped in Coffeen. The General spent the night as the honorary guest of the sheriff at the county seat, which is to say, at the county jail.
The next day the mine worked with half a force and the General rejoined his army, under bond. Two days later not a miner responded for work when the whistles blew in Coffeen.
It was the General’s last campaign. The settlement of the big strike came soon after the Coffeen victory, bringing increased wages and improved working conditions to the miners. There was no place for the General in the yeoman’s work of building upon that settlement the compact, business-like organization that today includes all of the hundred thousand miners in Illinois. His was not the head for the drawing up of air-tight contracts, for the fashioning of machinery, for the adjustments of endless disputes that arise in the course of a day’s work. His technique soon became as antiquated as his high hat, and he took to drifting from camp to camp, selling his fantastic biography, dictated to a friendly newspaper man, and to complaining, now and then, about the lack of general appreciation of his achievements! But he was not wholly forgotten. Whenever the famous hat was passed around at a miners’ meeting it was returned brimful of silver to its querulous owner. In his latter days the Illinois district organization had official charge of the General’s welfare, the old timers insisting that the best was none too good for him. When at last he died in a Belleville hospital, with the district union paying his bills, the officials of the organization saw to it that his last wishes were carried out and his body removed to Mt. Olive. There an imposing monument now stands at the head of the General’s grave. It is in this cemetery, near the grave, that Mother Jones is to be buried when her time comes.


Ultimately, Bradley succeeded in creating a militant group of mine workers in southern Illinois. They formed “the most powerful vanguard in the union movement” (see p. 151, Reckoning at Eagle Creek, 2010, by Jeff Biggers).