The Battle of Blair Mountain
by Desmond Kilkeary, English Division
Probably unknown to most people, since 2002 the first week of April has been legally established (AB1900) as California Labor History Week, its purpose to bring greater awareness of worker's rights, work place safety issues, and labor history into the public schools.
Accordingly, It would seem appropriate to remember a forgotten incident of labor history in this issue. A recent publication by Robert Shogan, The Battle of Blair Mountain, deserves our attention. As Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers of America, says of it: “Now, the real story of America's largest labor uprising—and the largest armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War—comes alive.” But few know this story: arguably, every worker should.
In 1921, some 10,000 West Virginia coal workers, outraged over years of brutality and lawless exploitation, picked up their rifles and marched against their tormentors, the powerful mine owners who ruled their corrupt state. For ten days the miners fought a pitched battle against an opposing legion of deputies, state police, and makeshift militia.
Only the declaration of martial law and the intervention of a federal expeditionary force, spearheaded by a bomber squadron commanded by General Billy Mitchell, ended this undeclared civil war and forced the miners to throw down their arms.
The upheaval burst forth in the small town of Matewan in Mingo County, the center of West Virginia's richest coal field. This part of the conflict, aptly portrayed in the 1987 John Sayles dramatic film, Matewan, which won the Academy Award for best cinematography, can and should be rented at most video stores. The cast includes Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, and David Strathairn (all working for union scale) amongst others you'll surely recognize. The labor position on class warfare is powerfully delivered by newly arrived labor organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) to the miners:
Ain't but two sides to this world. Them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you got to know about the enemy.
By early May of 1920, union operatives had formed fourteen locals and signed up more than 3,000 of Mingo County's 4,000 miners. At this time, West Virginia was the last bastion of non-union mines; in most of the other states mine workers had organized, and John L. Lewis's United Mine Workers made up the nation's largest and strongest union. The UMW was determined to enroll all of the mine workers.
West Virginia operators, however, did all they could to oppose unionism. The main problem was that at this time mine workers were forced to sign legally binding “yellow-dog” contracts (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) under which miners pledged not to join a union under penalty of forfeiting their jobs as well as the right to live in company housing.
The trouble started when Baldwin-Felts agents (known to miners as gun thugs), working with for the Stone Mountain Mining company, attempted to evict union miners and their families from company owned housing within the town jurisdiction of Matewan. They, however, lacked the necessary court order. The Baldwin-Felts Agency (which had a nationwide reputation for union busting) policed the mining camps, collected rents, guarded the mines and the payroll, evicted tenants from company housing, and kept out “undesirables” (prostitutes and union men). They also did undercover work posing as ordinary miners or workers and reported back to the agency on the plans and remarks of their co-workers who appeared sympathetic to the union. Nevertheless, these private “detectives” (like the better known Pinkertons) had no right to assume the authority of duly appointed law enforcement agents, but they assumed it anyway, and were despised for doing it.
The attempted Matewan evictions led to a shooting incident between town officials, Mayor Testerman and Police Chief SD Hafted, together with a number of armed miners who had been deputized, and a number of Baldwin-Felts agents. The incident, which lasted just twenty minutes, involved over 100 rounds fired, and ended with two miners and seven detectives dead including Albert and Lee Felts. Mayor Testerman was mortally wounded and died the next day.
Such was the beginning of America's largest labor uprising since the Civil War, ironically, a struggle in which America was also sharply divided into two nations: North and South rather than workers and employers. This latter conflict involved a collision of labor's desperation and management's intransigence that led to an unprecedented wave of strikes beginning in 1919 which involved more than four million workers nationally.
As it happened, Logan County, West Virginia (itself a creation of the Civil War), was the base of the mine operators’ power. The owners subsidized Logan County's Sheriff Don Chafin's department; in return Chafin's deputies did all that they could to protect the owners against the union and its organizers. Outrage over the Sheriff's strong-arm tactics had boiled over in the summer of 1919, about nine months before the Baldwin-Felts agents boarded the train for Matewan, so the area was a veritable tinderbox waiting to explode. It soon did!
As conditions worsened, the United Mine Workers union called for a strike; however, the United States Attorney General, Alexander Mitchell Palmer—who spearheaded the great Red Scare of 1919-1920— intervened and won an injunction against the strike on the eve of the scheduled walkout. Labor was furious as was the Secretary of Labor, William Wilson, who had been working hard to resolve the problem by offering a 14 percent pay raise for miners. Wilson threatened to resign in disgust.
Unbidden by their leaders, 400,000 miners walked off the job, shutting down the industry. Eventually, a federal arbitration commission recommended a 27 percent wage increase, but the mine operators would not agree. Finally, on Thursday May 12, 1921, one week short of the first anniversary of the Matewan shoot-out, the violence escalated and the union launched a full-scale attack on the town of Merrimack (near Matewan), laying siege to the town.
The sustained outbreak of violence came to be known as the “Three Days’ Battle,” and estimates ran as high as twenty deaths on both sides. This prompted President Harding to sign a proclamation of martial law for West Virginia. On May 19, Governor Morgan proclaimed martial law declaring West Virginia to be in “a state of war, insurrection, and riot.”
Mingo County authorities created a vigilance committee made up of the “better citizens of Mingo County,” men of business, men of property, to reinforce the state police and the newly constituted national Guard as well as a newly recruited volunteer army known as the State Militia, which lacked proper uniforms but wore white armbands to distinguish themselves from the union men with the red bandanas. Most miners had taken to wearing blue bib overalls and tying around their necks a red bandana which soon became the hallmark of the insurgent army, leading both friends and foes to refer to them as “rednecks.”
While a shipment of Thompson submachine guns arrived in Mingo County for the State Police, union miners were being arrested for carrying union literature, for speaking against martial law, and for carrying arms. Held without bail or hearing, they overflowed the Mingo County jail and were sent to prisons in adjoining counties. A military commission ruled on offenses ranging from larceny, adultery and disorderly conduct to disobeying sentries and perjury. A makeshift prison was erected in a freight terminal to house “criminals,” among whom was Mother Jones.
The Harding Administration not only sent troops but set up a base for air operations under the command of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell.
Small battles or skirmishes, local group encounters, intermittent sniping, marches and counter marches, kidnappings and ransoms, marked the progress of the union forces as they made their way through southern West Virginia toward the town of Logan, which they hoped to envelop in a gigantic pincer movement. A major problem with the plan was the imposing presence of Blair Mountain, an easily defended high ground consisting of twin peaks which looked down on a pass leading into Logan.
During the ensuing conflict, thousands of rounds were fired by both sides using all kinds of small arms including machine guns. The precise death toll was never established, but estimates range from fewer than twenty to more than fifty. Both miners and defenders were well armed and had plenty of ammunition which they fired freely. The roar of the guns became a steady pounding in the ears of the men on both sides: you could hear it for miles along the river.
Eventually, the federal troops arrived. The miners were optimistic, believing that their grievances would be vindicated. Governor Morgan and his allies, the coal mine operators, expected that the arrival of the troops would end their troubles with the union. The governor was right; the officer class was more than sympathetic to the owner's interests with which they identified and saw the miners simply as mutineers.
Although clearly disappointed with the turn of events, the miners were not of a mind to war against the federal government and its military which proved to be unsympathetic to their interests. The army of workers, some ten thousand strong, simply quit the battle and went home. Once the war was over, the federal government opted out.
Federal prosecution would have been redundant since the State of West Virginia was coming down on the union rebels with all its might and authority. Led by a vengeful governor Morgan, determined to punish the rebel leaders by choosing to charge them with the most serious crimes of murder and treason, which it turned out were easier to bring than to make stick, the focus shifted to the courts. No one could deny that the insurgents had committed violent acts and rejected lawful authority, but the claim that they were trying to make war against the state distorted reality.
The aftermath of the “war” included a number of trials for treason conducted by biased judges and corrupt prosecutors; however, the crime of treason was hard to prove, and nearly all of the defendants were exonerated, but one lowly insurgent, Walter Allen—a minor figure in the rebel army—was convicted of the charge even though nothing more damaging than that he had been seen "with the armed forces" in Logan County and "had been carrying a gun" was presented. Out on bail while awaiting an appeal, Allen simply disappeared and was never seen again. The state dropped the treason charges against the other twenty men.
While most of the arrested miners were acquitted or had the charges against them dropped, the rebellion proved to be a disaster. The miners didn't lose the war, they lost the peace, and the financial injuries suffered under the state's legal system proved to be devastating to the labor movement. The numerous legal battles essentially emptied the union coffers. As Shogan describes it: “A political wind was blowing with gale force against the miners in West Virginia and against organized labor throughout the country:”
In West Virginia union membership tumbled from 50,000 to a few hundred. Nationally, the United Mine Workers membership declined from 600,000 to fewer than 100,000. From 1920 to 1923 the American Federation of Labor lost two million workers or nearly 25 percent of its total membership. And the courts seemed ready to issue strike-breaking injunctions almost for the asking.
It seemed to all that the struggle between working people and employers backed by the government and its military had been forever lost.
It took the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt to rescue the unions and the rest of the American Labor Movement from near oblivion. Success came on the heels of the auto worker's sit-down strike against General Motors in 1936-1937, which was the boldest venture for American organized labor since the miners' march on Blair Mountain.
When the auto workers occupied GM's huge complex in Flint, Michigan, police assaulted the building but were driven back by a barrage of auto parts dropped from second story windows. The war had started again.
1921 -- [September 1] US: The Battle of Blair Mountain
The murders of Sid Hatfield & Ed Chambers, on August 1, set off this battle. Hatfield & Chambers were executed on the Welch County court house steps in front of their wives by the Baldwin-Feltz death squad agency for their role in the Matewan labor battle, where two Feltz family thugs were killed by Hatfield & his deputies.The Battle Of Blair Mountain" - Democratic Underground
In the Battle of Blair Mountain, up to 20,000 pissed coal miners marched on anti-union stronghold Logan County to overthrow Sheriff Dan Chaffin, the coal company tyrant who murdered miners with impunity.
- The book Bloodletting in Appalachia, by former Attorney General of West Virginia is a good resource, as well as,
- Life, Work & Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922, by David Alan Corbin.
- for The Battle of Matewan, see Daily Bleed Gallery page, http://recollectionbooks.com/siml/library/BattleOfMatewan.htm
29, the morning train, to evict families living at stone mountain coal camp just outside of Matewan. Sheriff Sid Hatfield and his friend and deputy, ... A nation wide strike needs to come about.
PAWV - Blair Mountain History
Blair Mountain is a unique place, with a unique and powerful story to tell. ... Miners turn their weapons over to soldiers after the strike ends.
PAWV - Blair Mountain Announcement Made
Endangered Status Announced; For Blair Mountain ... Private planes dropped homemade bombs on the miners in an unprecedented – and unparalleled – air strike on U.S. soil.
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Friends of Blair Mountain
The following are but a selection of books and videos available about the Battle of Blair Mountain.