Local hostilities, martial law lead to creation of state police

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

A FT-17 tank from the 38th Tank Company destroys illegal moonshine stills in Newport, Ky., February, 1922. As a measure during the Newport Rolling Mill strike, Col. Henry Denhardt ordered Kentucky guardsmen to raid local homes and businesses to “clean up” Newport and restore order. (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky National Guard eMuseum)

With the ending of the First World War, the steel industry in the United States found itself with an excessive production capability in personnel and a reduced market.  Steel factories faced fierce competition as the national requirement for steel and steel products plummeted in the early 1920’s.  The Andrews rolling mills at Newport, Kentucky was one of the factories that felt the financial pressures and decided to reduce the hourly pay of its employees as well as organizing the plant as an open shop, where workers did not have to join a union.

Negotiations failed to produce a new contract between labor and management, and in November 1921, the union called a strike.  On November 30, ownership issued an ultimatum to fire any employee who refused the new wage, and having an open shop.  A thousand employees accepted the plan, another thousand took to the picket line.

This was the beginning of a five-month strike that would tear apart the community, friendships dissolved, neighborhoods and families split, men who had worked side-by-side for years became bitter enemies.  The city of Newport became a battlefield.

Strikers initiated a campaign to harass and intimidate workers into staying at home, manning posts around the plants intercepting workers in an attempt to stop them going to work.  Management countered by organizing a security force armed with rifles and machine guns to protect its workers and the plant property.

Attempts to maintain peace and calm failed, strikers openly brandished revolvers and the plant’s guards carried their machine guns while on patrol.  At night, floodlights lite the strike area around the plants in an attempt to deter vandalism.  On December 18, union men fired on cars carrying workers to the mill, the next day, strikers began shooting out windows at the rolling mills, President William Andrews fired back with his own rifle, and an estimated 100 to 200 rounds were fired during the firefight.

By Dec. 23, the situation had escalated to the point that Kentucky Governor Edwin P. Morrow sent State Guard troops to the strike area to curb the disorder and growing violence.  Initially, Morrow sent Col. Jackson Morris, the adjutant general and deputy adjutant general to Newport to asset the situation.  When they arrived in the city Morris immediately telegraphed the Governor for a force to be sent to Newport.

On December 24th, 20 Officers and 172 enlisted personnel of the Kentucky National Guard were deployed to Newport.  Upon their arrival the Kentucky troops were greeted by the sounds of gun fire around the plant.  The Guardsmen quickly took control of the situation, setting up around the plant, establishing their headquarters on the plant’s property and immediately began to disarm the guards and inventoried the weapons and ammunition.  Guard posts and patrols were established and an official announcement was issued that all was quiet.  Throughout their tour of duty the Guardsmen had to endure repeated taunts and curses from strikers and their wives while out on patrol.

The command of the troops in Newport fell to Col. Henry Herman Denhardt, of Bowling Green, commander of the 149th Infantry Regiment.  Soon after his arrival in Newport, Denhardt sent a letter to Campbell County Judge A. M. Caldwell, Newport Mayor Joseph Herrmann, Sheriff Joseph Deitz and Public Safety Commissioner Chris Ebert, stating the mission of the Guard troops and his initial observations in an attempt to allay any fears and concerns the local officials may have had about the troops in their city:

As commanding officer of the troops now on duty in the city of Newport, and in the county of Campbell, I deem it proper that I should advise you of the purpose for which the troops were ordered here and to assure you that the only desire the officers and men of the command have is to restore law and order in this community, to safeguard life and property, to prevent breaches of the peace and other violations of the law, and that we are not in Newport for the purpose directly or indirectly, or at all of taking any part whatsoever in the strike, but to see to it that lives are not endangered; that public property is not destroyed, and that both sides shall conduct themselves in a law-abiding and peaceable manner.  These, our orders, it is our fixed and determined purpose to carry into effect.

I was indeed surprised and grieved to find such a serious state of lawlessness existed as we discovered upon our arrival in your city this morning, and I feel certain that you will welcome our assistance in aiding you in your efforts to restore law and order.

It is needless for me to say to you that I know nothing of the merits if the strike, either the way or the other of it, and that I, together with the troops under my command, will maintain, so far as the strike itself is concerned, an attitude of utmost impartiality.  Our mission is to see to it that the constitutional rights and privileges of all citizens are preserved and protected, and that the ordinary life shall continue under normal conditions.

Trusting that I may have the pleasure of meeting you personally while in Newport, and assuring you that I am ready to co-operate with you in every way to the end that law and order shall again prevail in your county and city, I am,

Most sincerely yours,
H. Denhardt, Colonel,
Commanding, One Hundred and Forty-ninth Infantry.

The first mill strike casualty of the Kentucky Guard was Cpl. Robert L. Deaton, a member of Company G, 149th Infantry from Barbourville, Kentucky. Deaton was accidentally killed at the corner of Powell and Brighton Streets in Covington Dec. 24, 1921.  While Deaton and Sgt. Charles Black were on duty, Black became suddenly ill and about to fall, but in recovering his balance his right arm knocked Deaton’s revolver from its holster. The revolver fell to the street discharging a round. The bullet struck the right side of Deaton’s neck.  He was rushed to the hospital, but bled to death on the way.  An investigation of the incident pronounced the shooting accidental.

On December 27, 1921, Morrow sent an additional 138 Guardsmen to Newport to augment the force already there.

The strike continued into the New Year, with considerable resentment among the strikers to the presence of the troops in Newport.  On New Year’s Day, snipers positioned in the hills on the west bank of the Licking River began randomly shooting at the plant.  The Guardsmen located on the Campbell County side of the river immediately silenced the snipers with machine gun fire into the hills of Kenton County.

Morrow came to Newport Jan. 17 to attend a meeting in hopes of ending the strike, this effort failed and the strike continued.

On January 28, 1922, Denhardt and his command at Newport were ordered to withdraw and stand relieved from strike duty by the Governor.  This return to their home stations by the Guardsmen was short lived.

On February 1st, the west-end of Newport erupted into a severe gun battle in which the local police force lost control, having to evacuate the strike area.  The firing was so intense families had to retreat to their cellars overnight.  It was estimated that over a thousand rounds were fired in the strike zone that night. The next day Morrow, once again activated Denhardt and his troops for duty.  This time Denhardt’s men were reinforced with the 38th Tank Company along with additional machine gun companies.  A total of 27 officers and 410 enlisted men from various units were ordered to duty.

On the evening of Feb. 3, 1922, Pvt. Melvin Larkin, of the 38th Tank Company was slightly wounded in the face by a sniper.  Larkin was able to return fire with his riot gun and survived his wounds.

The skirmish and wounding of a Guardsman provoked Denhardt into ordering his men the discretion to “shot to kill” any assailants.  The strikers responded by taking pot shots at Guardsmen driving vehicles through the streets.  Within a week, nervous Soldiers opened fire on two boats approaching the steel works along the Licking River, assuming that the boats were floating mines that were to be detonated when they passed the plants.

Military occupation and martial law prevailed during the second tour of duty in Newport. Denhardt expanded his efforts to end the lawlessness in and around Campbell County. His orders forbade anyone, even children, alone or in groups to stand around on the streets.  The Kentucky troops had complete authority to disperse groups on public or private property and to pursue individuals into their homes.  Other than the members of the 38th Tank Company, few of the Soldiers were from Northern Kentucky, many of the men disliked the duty and the local citizens, giving its citizens a severe dose of martial law.  Several hundred wives had joined their husbands on the picket lines, these women had been highly visible among the crowds that jeered, hissed and cursed the troops, few Guardsmen considered the city’s female residents deserving of courtesy, much less chivalry.  Many of these women found themselves being marched at gunpoint through their own yards, and more than a few heard some mighty impolite language while being hustled inside their homes.

The west-end of Newport continued under military rule for several months as random shots were taken at the Guardsmen and workers in the plant.  Under Denhardt’s expanded plan to clean-up Campbell County, Kentucky troops took control of a union meeting arresting strike leaders. The Guardsmen, working with Federal agents began raiding saloons and private homes suspected of violating anti-gambling or liquor laws.  Additionally, some local officials ran afoul of Denhardt and his campaign, and they felt his wrath.

The second fatality of a Guardsman while on strike duty was Pvt. Frank Crone, of Covington, a member of the 38th Tank Company. Crone was on duty as a guard at the mill, while being relieved from duty by Pvt. John Yates of Newport, Crone was accidentally shot and killed March 13, 1922.  The revolver slipped from Yates’ pocket and fell to the ground, discharging and mortally wounding Crone.

Complaints of the abusive nature and in some cases the fraternization of the Guardsmen with and towards the citizens were recounted in the local newspapers.  Denhardt was brought up on charges and sued for over stepping his authority by a number of citizens in the amount totaling $50,000.

Almost as soon as the first Guard units arrived in Newport, local officials, citizens and clergy had repeatedly stated that the National Guardsmen were not required and continually requested that the Governor remove the troops from their community.  On April 24, Morrow withdrew the Kentucky National Guard from Newport. By this time most of the strikers had found other employment or relocated to different locations and mills.

Special Orders No. 60                                                 April 24, 1922.

Colonel H. H. Denhardt, 149th Infantry, Kentucky National Guard, and all troops under his command (except Major James K. Dillion) now on duty at Newport, Kentucky, are relieved and will proceed to their home stations this date and upon arrival will stand relieved.
Major James K. Dillion will remain on duty at the Newport Rolling Mills until further orders as an observer, and will report daily to the Adjutant General of Kentucky the situation and conditions in and around said mills and the City of Newport. . .

By order of the Governor:
Jackson Morris
The Adjutant General.

Henry Herman Denhardt and John Arthur Polin both served on strike duty at Newport, and would later become Adjutant Generals of Kentucky.  Denhardt served from 1932 to 1935, and Polin from 1939 to 1944.

In his 1922 Annual Report, the Chief of the Militia Bureau stated his concerns for the use of National Guard troops on emergency duty and the establishment of State Police forces:

Emergency duty in a strike area is the most disagreeable feature of National Guard service.  Not only does such duty require a man in the ranks to use arms, when necessary, perhaps against his own friends and fellow workmen, but such duty also imposes actual hardship on the Guardsman, both in the matter of long absences from his business and in the violence which he is frequently called upon to overcome.

It has been occasionally suggested to the Militia Bureau from National Guard sources that such emergency duty should not be required of the National Guard, but should be imposed upon a State police force organized to supplement the local police authorities when needed.  The Militia Bureau recognizes the advantages of such a plan, but it is believed that this course would cause the National Guard to forfeit much of the support now given it by the States and the citizens generally, who are rapidly learning to look upon the National Guard force as an efficient agent for upholding the law and preserving our citizens’ rights to life and property.

At the time of the rolling mill strike no State Police force existed in Kentucky.  During times of civil disorder or natural disaster, the State Guard would be activated by the Governor if local authorities and law enforcement were unable to control the situation.  In January 1922, during the height of the rolling mill strike, legislation was began in the Kentucky House to establish a State Police force consisting of State Militiamen and police officers from across the State.  The legislation failed to pass and it would be another twelve years, in 1934, before legislation established the Kentucky State Police, which was initially placed under the command of the then Adjutant General, Henry H. Denhardt.