Battle of Blair Mountain

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Battle of Blair Mountain
Part of the West Virginia Coal Wars
Blair Mountain Fighting.jpg
Sheriff's deputies during the battle
Date August 25 to September 2, 1921
Location Logan County, West Virginia, United States
Result Victory for law enforcement and military
Parties to the civil conflict
Striking coal miners
United Mine Workers
Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency
Logan County Sheriff's Department
West Virginia State Police
United States Army
Lead figures
Don Chafin
William Eubanks
Casualties
Deaths: 50–100 killed
Arrests: 985
Deaths: 10–30

The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of the largest civil uprisings in United States history and the largest armed rebellion since the American Civil War.[1] For five days in late August and early September 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers, called the Logan Defenders,[2] who were backed by coal mine operators during an attempt by the miners to unionize the southwestern West Virginia coalfields. The battle ended after approximately one million rounds were fired,[3] and the United States Army intervened by presidential order.[4]

Background[edit]

Child Labor in American coal mines, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, 1906

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the result of economic exploitation of workers during a period of social transformation in the southern West Virginia coalfields.[5][6] Beginning in 1870–1880, coal operators had established the company town system.[7][8] Coal operators paid private detectives as well as public law enforcement agents to ensure that union organizers were kept out of the region.[7] In order to accomplish this objective, agents of the coal operators used intimidation, harassment, espionage and even murder.[7] Throughout the early 20th century, West Virginia coal miners attempted to overthrow this system and engaged in a series of strikes, including the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912, which coal operators attempted to stop through violent means. Mining families lived under the terror of Baldwin-Felts detective agents who were professional strikebreakers under the hire of coal operators. During that dispute, agents drove a heavily armored train through a tent colony at night, opening fire on women, men, and children with a machine gun.[9] They would repeat this type of tactic during the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado the next year, with even more disastrous results.[10]

By 1920, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) organized most of West Virginia. The southern coalfields, however, remained non-unionized bastions of coal operator power. In early 1920, UMW president John L. Lewis targeted Mingo County for organizing. Certain aspects of Mingo made it more attractive to union leaders than neighboring Logan County, which was under the control of the vehemently anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin and his deputized army.[11] Mingo's political structure was more independent, and some politicians were pro-union. Cabell Testerman, the mayor of the independent town of Matewan was one supporter of the union cause. He appointed 27-year-old Sid Hatfield as town police chief.[11] As a teenager, Hatfield had worked in the coalmines and he was sympathetic to the miners' condition. He also was a member of the famous Hatfield family of the Hatfield and McCoy feud. These men provided union organizers an opportunity to gain a foothold, and unionizing accelerated rapidly in the county.[12]

In response to the organizing efforts, coal operators used every means to block the union. One of their primary tactics of combating the union was firing union sympathizers, blacklisting them, and evicting them from their homes. Their legal argument for evictions is best stated by S.B. Avis, a coal company lawyer; "It is like a servant lives at your house. If the servant leaves your employment, if you discharge him, you ask him to get out of the servants' quarters. It is a question of master and servant."[13][14] The UMW set up tent colonies for the homeless miner families, and soon a mass of idle and angry miners was concentrated in a small area along the Tug Fork River.[15] Even with the coal operators' suppression, by early May 3,000 out of 4,000 Mingo miners had joined the union.[11] At the Stone Mountain Coal Company mine near Matewan, every single worker unionized, and was subsequently fired and evicted.[9]

On May 19, 1920, 12 Baldwin-Felts agents arrived in Matewan, including Lee Felts, and promptly met up with Albert Felts who was already in the area. Albert and Lee were the brothers of Thomas Felts, the co-owner and director of the agency. Albert had already been in the area, and had tried to bribe Mayor Testerman with 500 dollars to place machine guns on roofs in the town, which Testerman refused.[16] That afternoon, Albert and Lee along with eleven other men set out to the Stone Mountain Coal Company property. The first family they evicted was a woman and her children, whose husband was not home at the time. They forced them out at gunpoint, and threw their belongings in the road under a light but steady rain. The miners who saw it were furious, and sent word to town.[17]

As the agents walked to the train station to leave town, Sid Hatfield and a group of deputized miners confronted them and told the agents they were under arrest. Albert Felts replied that in fact, he had a warrant for Sid's arrest.[18] Testerman was alerted, and he ran out into the street after a miner shouted that Sid had been arrested. Hatfield backed into the store, and Testerman asked to see the warrant. After reviewing it, the mayor exclaimed, "This is a bogus warrant." With these words, a gunfight erupted and Sid Hatfield shot Albert Felts. Mayor Testerman fell to the ground in the first volley, mortally wounded. In the end, 10 men were killed, including Albert and Lee Felts.[18] 3 of the men were from the town, the 7 others were from the agency.

This gunfight became known as the Matewan Massacre, and its symbolic significance was enormous for the miners. The seemingly invincible Baldwin-Felts had been beaten by the miners' own hero, Sid Hatfield.[19] Sid became an immediate legend and hero to the union miners, and became a symbol of hope that the oppression of coal operators and their hired guns could be overthrown.[20] Throughout the summer and into the fall of 1920, the union gained strength in Mingo County, as did the resistance of the coal operators. Low-intensity warfare was waged up and down the Tug River. In late June, state police under the command of Captain Brockus raided the Lick Creek tent colony near Williamson, West Virginia. Miners were said to have fired on Brockus and Martin's men from the colony, and in response the state police shot and arrested miners, ripped the canvas tents to shreds, and scattered the mining families' belongings.[21] Both sides were bolstering their arms, and Sid Hatfield continued to be a problem, especially when he converted Testerman's jewelry store into a gun shop.[22]

On January 26, 1921, the trial of Sid Hatfield for killing Albert Felts began. This trial was in the national spotlight, and it brought much attention to the miners' cause. Hatfield's stature and mythical status grew as the trial proceeded. Sid Hatfield posed and talked to reporters, fanning the flames of his own stature and legend. All men were acquitted in the end, but overall the union was facing significant setbacks.[23] Eighty percent of mines had reopened with the importation of replacements and the signing of yellow dog contracts by ex-strikers returning to mines.[24] In mid-May 1921, union miners launched a full assault on nonunion mines. In a short time, the conflict had consumed the entire Tug River Valley. This "Three Days Battle" was finally ended by a flag of truce and the implementation of martial law.[25] The enforcement of martial law was from the beginning decidedly against the striking miners.[26] Miners in the scores and hundreds were arrested without habeas corpus and other basic legal rights. The smallest of infractions could mean imprisonment, while those on the other side of this 'law and order' were immune.[27] The miners responded with guerrilla tactics and violence against this oppressive state-sanctioned system.[27]

In the midst of this tense situation, Sid Hatfield traveled to McDowell County on 1 August 1921 to stand trial for charges of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their two wives.[28] As they walked up the courthouse stairs, unarmed and flanked by their wives, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the stairs opened fire. Hatfield was killed instantly, while Chambers' bullet-riddled body rolled to the bottom of the stairs. Over Sally Chambers' protestation, one of the agents ran down the stairs and shot Chambers once more in the back of the head point blank.[29] As Sid and Ed's bodies were returned to Matewan, word of the slayings spread through the mountains. The miners believed that Hatfield was slain in cold blood, and it soon appeared the assassins would escape punishment.[30]

Hatfield's death enraged the miners, and they began to pour out of the mountains to take arms. Miners along the Little Coal River were among the first to militarize, and began actions such as patrolling and guarding the area. Sheriff Don Chafin sent Logan County troopers to Little Coal River area, with the end result the troopers were apprehended, disarmed, and sent fleeing by the miners.[31] On 7 August 1921, the leaders of the UMW District 17, which encompasses much of southern West Virginia, called a rally at the state capitol in Charleston. These leaders were Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, who were veterans of previous mine conflicts in the region. Both were local, and were well read and articulate. Keeney and Mooney met with Governor Ephraim Morgan, and presented him with a petition of the miners' demands.[32] Morgan summarily rejected these, and the miners became even more restless. Talk began to spread of a march on Mingo to free the confined miners, end martial law, and organize the county. But directly in the way stood Blair Mountain, Logan County, and Sheriff Don Chafin.[33]

The battle[edit]

At a rally on August 7, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones called on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties and set up the union by force. Accused by some of losing her nerve, she rightly feared a bloodbath in a battle between lightly armed union forces and the more heavily armed deputies from Logan County. Yet, feeling they had been lied to again by West Virginia's Governor Morgan, armed men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain, near Marmet in Kanawha County on August 20, where four days later up to 13,000 had gathered and began marching towards Logan County. Impatient to get to the fighting, miners near St. Albans, in West Virginia's Kanawha County, commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners as the 'Blue Steel Special', to meet up with the advanced column of marchers at Danville in Boone County on their way to Bloody Mingo. During this time, Keeney and Mooney fled to Ohio, while the fiery leader Bill Blizzard assumed quasi-leadership of the miners. Meanwhile, the reviled and anti-union Sheriff of Logan County, Don Chafin (1887–1954),[34] had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. Chafin was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association, creating the nation's largest private armed force of nearly 2,000.

The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of August 25. The bulk of the miners were still 15 mi (24 km) away. The following day, President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers. After a long meeting in the town of Madison, the seat of Boone County, agreements were made convincing the miners to return home. However, the struggle was far from over. After spending days to assemble his private army, Chafin was not going to be denied his battle to end union attempts at organizing Logan County coal mines. Within hours of the Madison decision, reports came in that Sheriff Chafin's men were deliberately shooting union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, West Virginia, just north of Blair Mountain—and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. Infuriated, the miners turned back towards Blair Mountain, many traveling in other stolen and commandeered trains.

A group of miners display one of the bombs dropped by Chafin's airplanes.

By August 29, battle was fully joined. Chafin's men, though outnumbered, had the advantage of higher positions and better weaponry. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from the fighting in World War I were dropped in several locations near the towns of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect during treason and murder trials following the battle. On orders from the famous General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance, an early example of air power being used by the federal government against US citizens.[citation needed] One Martin bomber crashed on the return flight, killing the three members of the crew.[35][36] Sporadic gun battles continued for a week, with the miners at one time nearly breaking through to the town of Logan and their target destinations, the non-unionized counties to the south, Logan and Mingo. Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin's side and 50–100 on the union miners' side, with hundreds more injured. By September 2, federal troops had arrived. Realizing he would lose a lot of good miners if the battle continued with the military, union leader Bill Blizzard passed the word for the miners to start heading home the following day. Miners fearing jail and confiscation of their guns found clever ways to hide rifles and hand guns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Collectors and researchers to this day are still finding weapons and ammunition embedded in old trees and in rock crevices. Thousands of spent and live cartridges have made it into private collections.

Following the battle, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia. Though some were acquitted by sympathetic juries, many were also imprisoned for a number of years, though they were paroled in 1925. It would be Bill Blizzard's trial where the unexploded bomb was used as evidence of the government and companies' brutality, and ultimately resulted in his acquittal.

In the short term, the battle was an overwhelming victory for management. UMW membership plummeted from more than 50,000 miners to approximately 10,000 over the next several years, and it was not until 1935 — following the Great Depression and the beginning of the New Deal under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — that the UMW fully organized in southern West Virginia.

Legacy[edit]

In the long-term, the battle raised awareness of the appalling conditions faced by miners in the dangerous West Virginia coalfields, and led directly to a change in union tactics in political battles to get the law on labor's side via confrontations with recalcitrant and abusive managements and thence to the much larger organized labor victory a few years later during the New Deal in 1933. That in turn led to the UMWA helping organize many better-known unions such as the Steel Workers during the mid-thirties. To some degree, it is important also to note that this defeat had major implications for the UMWA as a whole. After World War I, as the coal industry began to collapse, union mining was no longer financially sustainable. Because of the defeat in West Virginia, the union was undermined in Pennsylvania and Kentucky also. By the end of 1925, Illinois was the only remaining unionized state which could compete, in term of soft coal production, with the others listed.

In the final analysis, management's success was a pyrrhic victory that helped lead to a much larger and stronger organized labor movement in many other industries and labor union affiliations and umbrella organizations like the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Future of site[edit]

In April 2008, Blair Mountain was chosen for the list of protected places on the National Register of Historic Places. This decision was contested by the state of West Virginia, and the listing was placed under review. As of mid-2010, "[s]ubsidiaries of two of the United States' largest coal producers — Arch Coal, Inc., and Massey Energy Company, ... — hold permits to blast and strip-mine huge chunks of the upper slopes and ridge of Blair Mountain, removing much of the mountaintop," the National Geographic reported. Starting in the summer of 2006, Kenneth King, a local avocational archaeologist led a team of professional archaeologists to further investigate the battlefield. King and the teams initial survey "mapped 15 combat sites and discovered more than a thousand artifacts, from rifle and shotgun shell casings to coins and batteries [and] little sign of disturbance" to the site, challenging earlier surveys conducted by Arch.[37] Currently, preservation efforts are being led by the Blair Mountain Heritage Alliance, which is located in Blair, WV and which runs the Blair Community Center and Museum. In addition, in the summer of 2011, a march commemorating the 90th anniversary of the march which traced the 50-mile march of the miners.[38]

In October 2012, a federal district judge ruled that a coalition of preservation groups did not have standing to sue to protect the historic site. [39] On August 26, 2014, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted 2-1 to overturn the ruling and returned the case.[40]

In fiction[edit]

The Blair Mountain march, as well as the events leading up to it and those immediately following it, are depicted in the novels Storming Heaven (Denise Giardina, 1987) and Blair Mountain (Jonathan Lynn, 2006). The first part of The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart (Glenn Taylor, 2008) concerns the relationship between the book's main character and Sid Hastings, his involvement in the Matewan massacre and the ensuing battle. John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan depicts the Matewan Massacre, a small part of the Blair Mountain story. Diane Gilliam Fisher's poetry collection, Kettle Bottom, published by Perugia Press, also focuses on the events of the Battle of Blair Mountain, from the perspective of the miners' families.

In music[edit]

Tom Breiding's "Union Miner" from "The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields" (2008) accurately depicts events surrounding the Battle of Blair Mountain from the perspective of a coal miner preparing to march. "Union Miner" can be heard at virtually every event sponsored by the United Mine Workers of America today. Tom Breiding has provided the music for the UMWA's "Fairness at Patriot" campaign (2013-14), the UMWA centennial commemoration of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado (2014), the inauguration of UMWA officers (2014), and various other Mine Workers events. "The Unbroken Circle: Songs of the West Virginia Coalfields" can be found at http://www.tombreiding.com

"Miners' Rebellion" (2012) by alt country band The Miners tells the story of the Battle of Blair Mountain. The song is contained on The Miners debut EP also entitled Miners' Rebellion.

When Miners March (2007) contains 16 recently written songs (not music from the 1920s) from the audiobook When Miners March — The Battle of Blair Mountain.

"Battle of Blair Mountain" (2004) is a song by folk singer David Rovics and can be found on his album Songs for Mahmud.

The song "Battle of Blair Mountain" (2010) written by Louise Mosrie and Mike Richardson can be found on Louise Mosrie's album Home (Zoe Cat Music/BMI).

The song "Red Neck War" by Byzantine is based on the Battle of Blair Mountain and can be found on the group's 2005 album ... And They Shall Take Up Serpents (Prosthetic Records). The song "Black Lung" by The Radio Nationals (band) is also based on this conflict.[citation needed]

Blair Pathways (2011) is a multimedia project, including a CD and maps, tracing the history of the Blair Mountain area and its labor disputes. It contains music by a number of traditional artists, including Riley Baugus and Tim Eriksen.

Folk punk band My Life in Black and White released the song "Bombs on Blair Mountain" on their 2009 album Hold the Line.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Kinder 2005, p. 149.
  2. ^ Patel 2012.
  3. ^ Ayers, Rothrock and King 2007
  4. ^ Proclamation 1606, August 30, 1921
  5. ^ Blizzard 2005.
  6. ^ Nida 2010, p. 3.
  7. ^ a b c Corbin 1998.
  8. ^ Savage 1990.
  9. ^ a b Shogan 2004, p. 18.
  10. ^ McGuire & Reckner 2003.
  11. ^ a b c Shogan 2004, p. 13.
  12. ^ Savage 1990, p. 12.
  13. ^ Corbin 1982
  14. ^ Shogan 2004, p. 16.
  15. ^ Savage 1990, p. 18.
  16. ^ Savage 1990, p. 16.
  17. ^ Savage 1990, pp. 20–22.
  18. ^ a b Savage 1990, p. 21.
  19. ^ Savage 1990, p. 26.
  20. ^ Savage 1990, p. 28.
  21. ^ Savage 1990, p. 60.
  22. ^ Savage 1990, p. 50.
  23. ^ Shogan 2004, p. 98.
  24. ^ Shogan 2004, p. 81.
  25. ^ Savage 1990, p. 53.
  26. ^ Savage 1990, p. 57.
  27. ^ a b Savage 1990, p. 58.
  28. ^ Shogan 2004, pp. 154–156.
  29. ^ Shogan 2004, pp. 157–158.
  30. ^ Savage 1990, p. 73.
  31. ^ Savage 1990, p. 75.
  32. ^ Shogan 2004, pp. 164–165.
  33. ^ Shogan 2004, p. 166.
  34. ^ The Herald-Dispatch: Funeral Rites Thursday For Colorful Don Chafin. August 10, 1954
  35. ^ Laurie, Clayton D. (1991). "The United States Army and the Return to Normalcy in Labor Dispute Interventions: The Case of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, 1920–1921". West Virginia History (West Virginia Archives and History) 50: 1–24. Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  36. ^ Torok 2004, p. 48.
  37. ^ Pringle, Heather, "Coal Firms to Strip-Mine Historic Battlefield?", National Geographic, June 2, 2010. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
  38. ^ Polsgrove, Carol (June 14, 2011). "Berkeley Grad Student Plays Leading Role in West Virginia March on Blair Mountain". Berkeley Daily Planet. Retrieved January 18, 2013. 
  39. ^ Ward, Ken (Oct 2, 2012). "Judge Rules Against Groups in Blair Mountain List Case". Coal Tattoo. West Virginia Gazette. Retrieved Sep 15, 2013. 
  40. ^ Nyden, Paul J. "Federal appeals court says groups can sue over Blair Mountain". wvgazette.com. The Charleston Gazette. Retrieved 30 August 2014. 

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°51′45.35″N 81°51′22.57″W / 37.8625972°N 81.8562694°W / 37.8625972; -81.8562694