Battle of Matewan

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Battle of Matewan
Date May 19, 1920
Location Matewan, West Virginia, United States
Result A setback of Miners' rights until the early 1930s when the Government finally recognized American labor unions that eventually led to the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of 1933
Parties to the civil conflict
United States The People of Matewan;
United Mine Workers of America
Lead figures
United States Sid Hatfield
Mayor Cabell Testerman
United States Albert Felts
Casualties
Deaths: 3;
two Miners and Mayor Cabell Testerman
Deaths: 7;
including Baldwin-Felts Detectives brothers Albert and Lee Felts

The Battle of Matewan (also known as the Matewan Massacre) was a shootout in the town of Matewan, West Virginia in Mingo County on May 19, 1920 between local miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.

A contingent of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived on the no. 29 morning train in order to evict families that had been living at the Stone Mountain Coal Camp just on the outskirts of town. The detectives carried out several evictions before they ate dinner at the Urias Hotel and, upon finishing, they walked to the train depot to catch the five o'clock train back to Bluefield, West Virginia. This is when Matewan Chief of Police Sid Hatfield intervened on behalf of the evicted families. Hatfield, a native of the Tug River Valley, was a supporter of the miners' attempts to organize the UMWA in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. While the detectives made their way to the train depot, they were intercepted by Hatfield, who claimed to have arrest warrants from the Mingo County sheriff. Detective Albert Felts and his brother Lee Felts then produced his own warrant for Sid Hatfield's arrest. Upon inspection, Matewan mayor Cabell Testerman claimed it was fraudulent. Unbeknownst to the detectives, they had been surrounded by armed miners, who watched intently from the windows, doorways, and roofs of the businesses that lined Mate Street. Stories vary as to who actually fired the first shot; only unconfirmed rumors exist. Thus, on the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store, began the clash that became known as the Matewan Massacre, or the Battle of Matewan. The ensuing gun battle left seven detectives and three townspeople dead, including the Felts brothers and Testerman. The battle was hailed by miners and working class members for the number of casualties inflicted on the Baldwin-Felts detectives. This tragedy, along with events such as the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado six years earlier, marked an important turning point in the battle for miners' rights.

History[edit]

At the time, the United Mine Workers of America had just elected John L. Lewis as their president. During this period, miners worked long hours in unsafe and dismal working conditions, while being paid low wages. Adding to the hardship was the use of company scrip by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, because the scrip could only be used for those goods the company sold through their company stores, thus the miners did not have actual money that could be used elsewhere. A few months before the battle at Matewan, union miners in other parts of the country went on strike, receiving a full 27 percent pay increase for their efforts. Lewis recognized that the area was ripe for change, and planned to organize the coal fields of southern Appalachia. The union sent its top organizers, including the famous Mary Harris "Mother" Jones.[1] Roughly 3000 men signed the union's roster in the Spring of 1920. They signed their union cards at the community church, something that they knew could cost them their jobs, and in many cases their homes. The coal companies controlled many aspects of the miners' lives.[2] Stone Mountain Coal Corporation fought back with mass firings, harassment, and evictions.[3]

The Town of Matewan[edit]

Matewan, founded in 1895, was a small independent town with only a few elected officials. The mayor at the time was Cabell Testerman, and the chief of police was Sid Hatfield. Both refused to succumb to the company's plans, and sided with the miners. In turn, the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation hired their own enforcers, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, dubbed the "Baldwin Thugs" by the coal miners. The Baldwin-Felts Detectives had earned a reputation for their brutality (citation needed). The coal operators hired them to evict the miners and their families from the company owned houses.[4] As a result, hundreds of miner families spent that spring in tents.

The Battle of Matewan[edit]

On the day of the fight, a group of the Baldwin-Felts enforcers arrived to evict families living at the mountain coal camp, just outside of Matewan. The sheriff and his deputy, Fred Burgraff, sensed trouble and met the Baldwin-Felts detectives at the train station. News of the evictions soon spread around the town. When Sid Hatfield approached Mr. Felts, Mr. Felts served a warrant on Sid Hatfield, which had been issued by Squire R. M. Stafford, a Justice of the Peace of Magnolia District, Mingo County, West Virginia, for the arrest of Sid Hatfield, Bas Ball, Tony Webb and others, which warrant was directed to Albert C. Felts for execution. The warrant turned out to be fraudulent. Burgraff's son reports that the detectives had sub-machine guns with them in their suitcases. Sid Hatfield, Fred Burgraff, and Mayor Cabell Testerman met with the detectives on the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store. It is still unknown whether it was Hatfield or the leading detective, Albert Felts, that shot Mayor Testerman first, though what followed was Sid Hatfield shooting Albert Felts. Later Thomas Felts (brother of Albert and Lee Felts who died in the battle) and the Baldwin-Felts spy Charles Lively spread rumors that Sid shot Mayor Testerman because he had feelings for his wife. The rumors were never confirmed, although he did marry her after Mayor Testerman's death. After the detective and mayor fell wounded, Sid kept firing, but Felts escaped. He took shelter in the Matewan Post Office, and Hatfield eventually found him there and shot him. When the shooting finally stopped, the townspeople came out, many wounded. There were casualties on both sides. Seven Baldwin-Felts Detectives were killed, including brothers Albert and Lee Felts. One more detective had been wounded. Two miners were killed, Bob Mullins, who had just been fired for joining the union, and Tot Tinsley, an unarmed bystander. The wounded mayor was dying, and four other bystanders had been wounded.

Aftermath[edit]

Section of Matewan's flood wall commemorating the Battle of Matewan

Governor John J. Cornwell ordered the state police force to take control of Matewan. Hatfield and his men cooperated, and stacked their arms inside the hardware store. The miners, encouraged by their success in getting the Baldwin-Felts detectives out of Matewan, improved their efforts to organize. On July 1 the miners' union went on another strike, and widespread violence erupted. Railroad cars were blown up, and strikers were beaten and left to die by the side of the road. Tom Felts, the last remaining Felts brother, planned on avenging his brothers' deaths by sending undercover operatives to collect evidence to convict Sid Hatfield and his men. When the charges against Hatfield, and 22 other people, for the murder of Albert Felts were dismissed, Baldwin-Felts detectives assassinated Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers on August 1, 1921, on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse located in Welch, West Virginia.[5] Of those defendants whose charges were not dismissed, all were acquitted. Less than a month later, miners from the state gathered in Charleston. They were even more determined to organize the southern coal fields, and began the march to Logan County. Thousands of miners joined them along the way, culminating in what was to become known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. The Matewan Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 27, 1993.

In fiction[edit]

The battle was the subject of the 1987 John Sayles film Matewan. Terror of the Tug, a 2000 play by Jean Battlo, covers the violent events that occurred directly afterward.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Col, 1925.
  2. ^ The Battle of Matewan, www.matewan.com
  3. ^ Matewan Massacre, West Virginia Culture.org
  4. ^ The Battle of Matewan!, Mongomery College website
  5. ^ Kilkeary, Desmond. "The Hatfields and the Baldwin-Felts." Chaparral. May 2005.

External links[edit]