Ever heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain? Federal troops were called against 13,000 miners.
Have you ever heard of the West Virginia mine wars?
Maybe they were mentioned in your high school history class, or maybe they were skimmed over, or even left out entirely for one reason or another. Too often, these stories are deemed not “important” enough to warrant the time and attention they deserve.
But the West Virginia mine wars are critical to understanding the history of the labor movement in the U.S. and soon a new
museum will be open to tell the story.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, for example, was and still is
the most violent labor confrontation in history, in which union-supporting coal miners fought against local government and a coal company-funded militia, eventually involving the U.S. Army.
So, what happened?
Be glad you weren’t born into “Coal Country” West Virginia in the 1800s.
In the late 1800s in West Virginia, it wasn’t easy to be a coal miner. For starters, mining wasn’t just a job, it was a way of life and a hard way of life.
You lived in a company town, bought all your food and supplies at the company store, were paid in company money called “scrip,” sent your kids to the company school, read the company paper, obeyed the company-employed police on and on.
Because the coal companies controlled every aspect of the miners’ lives, they could do whatever they wanted: pay as little as they felt like, teach what they felt like, and trap the miners in a cycle of bare-bones survival as they saw fit.
In the spring of 1921, charges against Hatfield and his men were either dismissed or they were found not guilty. The enraged Baldwin-Felts crew swore vengeance, and just a few months later, they killed Sheriff Hatfield and his deputy on the steps of the county courthouse.
Nearly 2,000 people marched in their funeral procession. It wound its way through the town of Matewan and to the cemetery in Kentucky. As the rage built among the miners, it headed toward a final confrontation the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Matewan was “a symbolic moment in a larger, broader and continuing historical struggle in the words of Mingo county miner J.B. Wiggins, the ‘struggle for freedom and liberty.'” Historian David A. Corbin
“ACTUAL WAR IS RAGING IN LOGAN”: The Battle of Blair Mountain
described the outbreak of violence, the culmination of decades of mistreatment by the mining companies and years of rising tensions. This was the Battle of Blair Mountain.
It was just after the Matewan Massacre, and
thousands of miners began pouring out of the mountains to take up arms against the villains who had attacked their families, assassinated their hero, and mistreated them for decades. The miners wore red bandanas around their necks to distinguish themselves from the company men wearing white patches and to avoid getting shot by their own troops. (And now you know where the word “rednecks” comes from.)
The sheriff of Little Coal River sent in law enforcement to keep the miners at bay, but the miners captured the troopers, disarmed them, and sent them running. The West Virginia governor also lost his chance for a peaceful resolution when, after meeting with some of the miner’s leaders, he chose to reject their demands.
The miners were 13,000 strong as they headed toward the non-union territory of Logan and Mingo counties.
A Blair fighter in 1921.
They faced Sheriff Chafin who was financially supported by the coal companies and his 2,000 men who acted as security, police, and militia. Chafin stationed many of his troops in the hills around Blair Mountain, West Virginia. From there, Chafin dropped tear gas and pipe bombs on the miners.
For a moment, it seemed like the confrontation might come to an end when a cease-fire agreement was made, and many of the miners began to head home. But the cease-fire broke when Sheriff Chafin’s men were found shooting miners and their families in the streets of Sharples, West Virginia, just beyond Blair Mountain.
They never imagined it would come to this: Federal troops were called in to break up a strike.
“FIGHTING CONTINUES IN MOUNTAINS AS FEDERAL TROOPS REACH MINGO; PLANES REPORTED BOMBING MINERS,” reported a New York Times headline shortly after Aug. 25, 1921, when the battle escalated to a new point in U.S. history with tactics that have not been seen before or since.
On Aug. 30, President Warren Harding intervened, placing all of West Virginia under martial law. Harding sent 14 planes to West Virginia that were fully armed for combat but were only used for surveillance. According to
Robert Shogan, “the Federal force that mattered most were the infantry units that began arriving … [on] September 2, some 2,100 strong.”
Blair fighters turning in guns.
The miners never made it through Chafin’s lines and it’s hard to say what would’ve happened if they had. After 1 million rounds were fired, the miners retreated. It was time to go home and fight another day.
Over 100 people had been killed about 30 on Chafin’s side and 50-100 on the union miners’ side. Almost 1,000 of the miners were indicted for murder and treason, and many more lost their jobs.
Federal troops standing with arms collected from the striking miners after surrender.
In the short-term, the defeat of the striking miners was devastating to the UMWA. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over the next several years. It took until 1935 post-Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.
But a single battle doesn’t tell the whole story of the larger fight for justice.
In the end, the coal companies lost more than they gained. These bloody conflicts drew the nation’s attention to the plight of the long-suffering mine workers, and unions began to understand that they needed to fight for laws that allowed them to organize and that penalized companies that broke the law.
These victories of conscience allowed a number of other unions, like the United Automobile Workers and the United Steelworkers of America, to flourish as well.
Each battle led to the next.
Each fight solidified the resolve and desire of the miners and their families to stand up for their rights to improve their lot in life.
For these brave workers, the American dream was something they had to fight for, something they died for, and something they wanted to pass on to future generations, despite the efforts of the coal companies to prevent them.
Many people have never heard these stories, but now, they can.
94 years after workers laid down their lives for the right to fair employment, their story is taking root
inside the building that used to be the Chambers Hardware Store in downtown Matewan.
The first museum to tell the story of these brave people is opening this May.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum will open to tell the people’s history of the mine wars something all Americans can be proud of.
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