Battle of Blair Mountain
The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of the biggest civil uprisings in United States history and the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War. For five days in late August and early September 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, between 10,000 and 15,000 coal miners confronted an army of police and strikebreakers backed by coal operators during a struggle by the miners to unionize the southwestern West Virginia coalfields. Their struggle ended only after approximately one million rounds were fired, and the United States Army intervened by presidential order.
For more detail on the renewed controversy, see Blair Mountain.
Since the 1980s, labor and environmental activists have been working to protect the historic site of the Battle of Blair Mountain from destruction by mountaintop removal mining. The movement to protect the site has included the campaign to list the site on the National Register of Historic Sites. The site was listed in 2009 but subsequently removed from the list by the National Park Service in January 2010 in response to political pressure from the coal industry. In September 2010, four groups filed a federal lawsuit to return the site to the registry.
On June 6, 2011, activists began a 5-day march on Blair Mountain in West Virginia to draw attention to a historic labor battle and try to prevent the destruction of the historic site - Blair Mountain - through mountaintop removal mining.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was the result of a generation of social transformation and extreme exploitation in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Beginning in 1870-1880, coal operators had established a system of oppression and exploitation based around the company town system. To maintain their domination and hegemony, coal operators paid "private detectives" as well as public law enforcement agents to ensure that union organizers were kept out of the region. In order to accomplish this objective, agents of the coal operators used intimidation, harassment, espionage and even murder. Throughout the early 20th century, West Virginia coal miners attempted to overthrow this brutal system and engaged in a series of strikes, such as the West Virginia Mine War of 1912-1913 (also known as the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913), and 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. These agents took part in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Mine War, where they drove a heavily armored train called the Bull Moose Special through a tent colony at night, opening fire on women, men and children with a machine gun. They would repeat this type of tactic during the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado the next year, with even more disastrous results.
By 1920, most of West Virginia had been organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). 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. 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 sheriff. As a teenager, Hatfield had worked in the coalmines, and was sympathetic to the miners' condition. He also claimed to be a member of the notorious Hatfield family of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, but was not. These men provided union organizers an opportunity to gain a foothold, and unionizing accelerated rapidly in the county.
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.” 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. Even with the coal operators’ suppression, by early May 3,000 out of 4,000 Mingo miners had joined the union. At the Stone Mountain Coal Company mine near Matewan, every single worker unionized, and was subsequently fired and evicted.
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 founder 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. To the miners, 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. 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. 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.
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. Eighty percent of mines had reopened with the importation of replacements and the signing of yellow dog contracts by ex-strikers returning to mines. 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. The enforcement of martial law was from the beginning decidedly against the striking miners. 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. The miners responded with guerilla tactics and violence against this oppressive state-sanctioned system.
In the midst of this tense situation, Sid Hatfield traveled to McDowell County on August 1, 1921 to stand trial for charges of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their two wives. 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. The miners’ hero was dead. As Sid and Ed’s bodies returned to Matewan, word of the slayings spread through the mountains. For the miners, Hatfield was slain in cold blood and it seemed the assassins would escape punishment.
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. 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 Ed 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. 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.
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, West Virginia 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. Meanwhile, the reviled and anti-union Sheriff of Logan County, Don Chafin (1887–1954), 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 miles 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.
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, a rare example of Air Power being used by the federal government against US citizens. One Martin bomber crashed on the return flight, killing the three members of the crew. 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 many 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.
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 into 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.
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). In April 2008, Blair Mountain was chosen for the list of protected places on the National Register of Historic Places. This decision has been contested by the state of West Virginia, therefore this nomination is currently under review.
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), Blair Mountain (Jonathan Lynn, 2006). John Sayles' 1987 film Matewan depicts the Matewan Massacre, a 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.
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 "Red Neck War" by Byzantine is based on the Battle of Blair Mountain and can be found on their 2005 album "...And They Shall Take Up Serpents" (Prosthetic Records). The song Black Lung by The Radio Nationals is also based on this conflict.
- Chuck Kinder, Last Mountain Dancer: Hard-Earned Lessons in Love, Loss, and Honky-Tonk, Da Capo Press, 2005, page 149
- Ayers, Rothrock and King 2007
- Bill Kovarik, "The Battle Over Blair Mountain Rages On," The Appalachian Voice Online, June 8, 2010
- Bill Kovarik, "Mountaintop Removal Protest Echoes Historic Labor Battle," Earth Island Journal Blog: The Environmentalist, June 2, 2011
- Blizzard 2004
- Nida 2010, page 3
- Corbin 1981
- Savage 1990
- Corbin 1998
- Shogan 2004, page 18
- McGuire and Reckner 2003
- Shogan 2004, page 13
- Savage 1990, page 12
- Corbin 1982
- Shogan 2004, page 16
- Savage 1990, page 18
- Shogan 2004,page 13
- Savage 1990, page 16
- Savage 1990, pages 20-22
- Savage 1990, page 21
- Savage 1990, page 26
- Savage 1990, page 28
- Savage 1990, page 60
- Savage 1990, page 50
- Shogan 2004, page 88
- Shogan 2004, page 81
- Savage 1990, page 53
- Savage 1990, page 57
- Savage 1990, page 58
- Shogan 2004, pages 154-156
- Shogan 2004, pages 157-158
- Savage 1990, page 73
- Savage 1990, page 75
- Shogan 2004, page 164-165
- Shogan 2004, page 166
- The Herald-Dispatch: Funeral Rites Thursday For Colorful Don Chafin. August 10, 1954
- The United States Army and the Return to Normalcy in Labor Dispute Interventions: The Case of the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars, 1920-1921, by Clayton D. Laurie
- Torok, George D. (2004). A guide to historic coal towns of the Big Sandy River Valley. Univ. of Tennessee Press, p. 48. ISBN 978-1-57233-282-9
Books cited above
- Blizzard, William C. When Miners March Gay, WV,: Appalachian Community Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-9764706-0-1
- Ross Ballard When Miner March — The Battle of Blair Mountain audiobook ISBN 978-0-9717801-7-0
- Corbin, David, ed. The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Martinsburg, W.Va.: Appalachian Editions, 1998. ISBN 978-0-9627486-0-8
- Lee, Howard B. Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia's Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents of Its Coal Fields. Morgantown, W.Va.: West Virginia University Press, 1969. ISBN 978-0-87012-041-1
- Savage, Lon. Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0-8229-3634-3
- Shogan, Robert. The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America's Largest Union Uprising. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-8133-4096-8
Related SourceWatch Resources
- Audio Documentary of famous book When Miners March
- When Miners March by William C. Blizzard
- HistoryPodcast and transcription: "The Battle of Blair Mountain" Accessed January 13, 2008
- Official Matewan, WV Tourism Website at VisitMatewan.com
- Friends of Blair Mountain to help preserve this important part of American history
- The Battle for Blair Mountain (2010) for information on past and present conflicts at Blair Mountain
- Zinn Education Guide: Teaching Guide for Blair Mountain