A massive caravan is working its way across Mexico heading to the U.S. It's causing no small degree of alarm on the northern side of the border.

Almost 125 years earlier, another group made its way on foot across this country with a shared goal. Although it didn't achieve anything its participants sought, it did cause quite an uproar. And it concluded with an incident that created a popular phrase.

This is the forgotten tale of Coxey's Army.

The economy suffered a nasty downturn in the Panic of 1893. It was the nation's worst financial crisis until then. Millions of working people were suddenly unemployed. Suffering was widespread and severe.

Some folks wanted immediate action from Washington. They demanded Congress pass a bill authorizing $500 million to build roads and other public works projects to create jobs and get money circulating again. (Think of it as a forerunner to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal some 40 years later.) And they wanted Congress to do it pretty dang quick.

Jacob Coxey was one of the idea's most enthusiastic backers. A 40-year-old sand quarry owner in Massillon, Ohio, he was a dedicated populist with a witty turn of phrase. Though friends and family considered him something of an oddball, his belief that Congress should act to end suffering was sincere.

Coxey proposed a radical plan: He would personally lead unemployed men to Washington, D.C., where they would march to the Capitol and issue their demands to congressional movers and shakers.

It's likely the idea didn't originate with Coxey. Some three dozen groups of out-of-work men around the country were proposing similar steps. But Coxey was among the first, and because he was so quotable, his effort received the lion's share of news coverage.

Coxey grandly christened his effort the Army of the Commonwealth in Christ. The press dubbed it Coxey's Army. When they set out from Massillon on Easter Sunday 1894, Coxey was at the head of 100 men, confidently predicting their ranks would swell to 100,000 by the time they reached the Capitol. His young wife, plus his son Legal Tender Coxey (yes, that was the poor kid's real name), went with him.

It was a madcap, haphazard affair from the start. In that time long before social media, it was difficult to get the word out and organize. So different groups started for Washington at different times. As for logistics, planning wasn't Jacob Coxey's forte. He seemed to improvise as the group moved from town to town by foot, camping outdoors and feasting on whatever food local supporters provided.

New recruits came in as other protesters dropped out. The whole thing was ragtag from start to finish. But it did generate a lot of news coverage. In the age of yellow journalism, newspapers eagerly covered the march. Many reports were derisive. The country was laughing at Coxey's Army as it plodded eastward. Yet there was also silent anxiety under the surface, a fear that perhaps the marchers would unleash social forces that would prove impossible to control.

But things didn't turn out that way. Barely 500 men were with Coxey when his “army” sauntered into Washington. Just as they were about to present their demands to Congress, Coxey was arrested for walking on the grass on the Capitol lawn. Exhausted, tired of being the butt of jokes, and now leaderless, the men finally had enough. They quietly disbanded and went home.

However, seeds were sown that eventually bore fruit. Coxey's Army is considered the first march on Washington, a tactic later protest groups refined and used to mobilize popular support. Although the federal action Coxey and his army sought didn't happen, the experience triggered discussion about the government's role in time of economic crisis.

Finally, Coxey was ridiculed as “Keep Off the Grass Coxey.” That nickname led to a poplar phrase that's still used today: “Keep off the grass.”

You never know what unintended consequences a good protest may produce.

J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former broadcast journalist and government communicator. His weekly offbeat look at our forgotten past, "Holy Cow! History," can be read at jmarkpowell.com.