Rights & Responsibilities During the Civil war: Coal Mine Operators & Laborers in Northern Anthracite Coal Fields

Rights and Responsibilities During the Civil War:
Coal Mine Operators and Laborers
In the Northern Anthracite Coal Fields


          The first three months of the Civil War passed quickly and both sides soon realized the need for longer enlistments and more men. It was clear by that time that the war was not going to be short and it was also clear that blood was going to be shed. Not only would they need men, they would need the supplies to provide for the men which meant enormous requests for leather, iron, canvas, wool, lumber, and coal. Pennsylvania had all of those resources and had them in abundance.

While the ranks filled quickly during the first three months of the war, when Lincoln issued a call in 1862 for 300,000 men the states were slower to respond. To help with enlistments, states were authorized by the federal government to hold a draft. The states were carved into districts and men called “enrollers” were employed to travel throughout each district taking the names of those who were at least eighteen. The enrollers were organized under a Provost Marshal who was the overall authority and answered to authorities in the federal government.

The large national issues of states’ rights versus national authority, freedom, citizenship, duty, and patriotism were not seen so clearly when looked at from a local viewpoint. Family security and survival often ranked higher than the national issues. So when those in the federal government called for sacrifice, the call was weighed against how that sacrifice would affect the individual.

While men were willing to fight to save the Union, they were not willing to sacrifice life or limb to free the slaves, however. They were willing to leave their farms if someone was going to take care of their crops(1). When the men did not sign up right away, they did not see it as an unpatriotic action. When enrollers were opposed or outright lied to about the name of a man, this too, was not seen as unpatriotic. The federal government, however, did not view those actions the same way and Congress passed its first Conscription Act in 1863.

Habeas corpus was suspended. The enrollers and the Provost Marshals could arrest those who resisted the draft or who were caught as deserters. What constituted opposition to conscription? Refusing to cooperate with or evading draft enrollers? Calling strikes in war-related industries?(2) Were those actions treasonous? What information in this section was most important to you?

Miners and Operators

          Anthracite was a critical source of fuel for the Navy, the Army, factories, and trains. Unfortunately, trouble had been a constant companion to those who worked in the coalfields. Squabbles over an increase in wages, working conditions, and the cost of supplies among coal miners, laborers, and the coal operators had been going on for quite a few decades before the split between the North and South. Now that coal was in great demand, perhaps higher profits could be made and wages raised. If only those two issues could happen at the same time and without a fuss, all would be well. Unfortunately, that would not happen.

The issue was very clear and simple to those who worked for the federal government. The government needed coal and those who supplied it should be cognizant of their patriotic duty. No interference with its supply should or would be tolerated.

On the other hand, the miners and laborers did not see this issue from that point of view. The miners and laborers had to consistently juggle inconsistent wages. By the mid-1830s, it took $6.00 a week to live comfortably. Miners made about 88¢ a day during that time while laborers earned about 70¢ a day at the same time.(3) Wages rose so that by 1842, miners earned about $1.25 a day, but received a low of only 80¢ a day in 1850(4). Many times they were paid in scrip or company money, because the companies did not have cash as they often had to wait until the coal was sold. The scrip was good only at the company store where prices were often 25% higher than elsewhere. Kerosene, blasting powder and other supplies rose in price during this same period.

The coal operators ran into problems as well. Price wars hurt their profit line. For example, if coal sold for $3.25 per ton in 1850, operators paid 90 cents to mine coal, $1.45 to ship it, and 40 cents in fees(5). If operators took a 10 cent profit per ton, that left 40 cents to maintain the mines. When new equipment was needed to start a colliery, it could mean a $50,000 investment.(6)

When shippers raised their rates, that meant even less money. Shippers, like the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad sometimes refused to transport the coal. Instead they bought it—and paid a low price. They got away with that tactic because the coal owner was stuck. He had to get the coal to market and since he did not control the transportation he had to sell or watch his coal stockpiles grow without any money coming in.

However, the stop work actions of the miners were considered in bad taste at the very least and treasonous “outrages” at most. Men were dying on the battlefield and their country needed the product as one of the essential ingredients for victory, so the miners looked unpatriotic. Provost marshals and enrollers arrested strike leaders. They asked for troops to come into their districts (Luzerne County was #12) in order to secure peace.



1 Grace Palladino, Another Civil War (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), xii
2 ibid. xiii
3 Ibid. 37
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.


With whom do you empathize more—the miner or the coal owner?

Post your reply in the comment section below.

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One comment on “Rights & Responsibilities During the Civil war: Coal Mine Operators & Laborers in Northern Anthracite Coal Fields
  1. OHI says:

    This story was written by Clark Switzer. Thank you for your contribution.

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