It is called the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War, the largest armed confrontation between labor and management in the nation’s history. The battle on Blair Mountain in Southern West Virginia 100 years ago this week involved machine guns, aircraft and even a stolen Gatling gun.
Coal mine strikes had been occurring in West Virginia since the 1860s, and violent confrontations went back to at least to 1890 when an argument in Monongah between a striking miner and one who didn’t strike ended with the striker shot dead in what appears to have been self-defense (Fairmont Index, reprinted in Clarksburg Telegram Dec. 19, 1890).
Miners endured a form of indentured servitude. To have a job they had to live in company housing and were paid in script that was only good at the over-priced company store. Attempts to unionize brough clashes between miners one on side and strikebreakers, coal-company detectives and hired guns on the other. The 13-month Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike left 12 strikers and 13 company men dead. (National Park Service website, “Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Strikes).
All hands against them
Governor William E. Glasscock declared martial law and sent in the state militia. Miners welcomed them, assuming they would protect what they perceived as their rights. Instead, 200 strikers and leaders—including the sharp-tongued, profane friend of all laborers, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones—were arrested and tried by military tribunals, even though the U.S. Supreme Court in 1866 had ruled civilians could not be tried by military tribunals when civilian courts were available (Ex parte Milligan, 72 U.S. 2).
Government at all levels consistently sided with the mine owners and operators, as did law enforcement, the courts, most newspapers and numerous social institutions including churches. Unions and strikers were labeled socialists, Reds taking their orders from Moscow.
The 1917 October Revolution in Russia had installed a socialist regime, and many Americans feared the “godless commies” might take over the United States. America had flirted with socialism in the early years of the twentieth century; a handful of communities, including Adamston, Hendricks, Marshall, and Star City in West Virginia elected socialist city governments or mayors. An investigation after the incident at Blair Mountain, however, failed to find any connection between the strikers and socialists beyond supportive articles in socialist magazines.
In Mingo and Logan counties mine operators determined to keep unions out employed the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency as mine guards. In May 1920 a shootout in Matewan left seven Baldwin-Felts operatives and two miners dead, along with Mayor Cabell Testerman, a rare public official who was a friend to the miners. The town’s police chief, Sid Hatfield, was also sympathetic. He and several miners were tried for murder in the “Matewan Massacre,” but a local jury acquitted them.
“Smiling Sid” soon learned he had been indicted for a raid on the mining camp in Mingo County and would be put on trial away from his Matewan friends. On August 1, 1921, as he and his wife walked up courthouse steps for his hearing he was shot dead by Baldwin-Felts agents. A jury ruled the gunmen acted in self-defense.
March on Mingo
Scores of miners had been jailed in Mingo County for union-organizing activities, and the state supreme court denied their freedom on August 7. This, and anger over what miners regarded as the murder of Sid Hatfield, lit the fuse. On August 20 some 600 men were camped in a hollow near Marmet, not far from the state capital of Charleston in Kanawha County. By August 24 their numbers had risen to nearly 10,000 miners from across West Virginia plus a few hundred from out of state. They were going to free the miners in Mingo and put an end to martial law.
Accompanied by wives and daughters who came along to nurse the wounded, they began a 50-mile march to Mingo County. Detractors called them “rednecks” because their “uniform” was a red bandana. The word had been around for a while, but gained wider recognition through newspaper reports.
The miners were armed with shotguns, pistols and the Springfield M1903 rifles that many of them had used in the trenches of France during the Great War. They stole a 111-shot Gatling gun from the coal company at Gallagher and retrieved from hiding a machine gun and 10,000 rounds of ammunition stolen earlier from the Willis Branch mine.
To reach Mingo they had to go through Logan County, where mine operators paid Sheriff Don Chafin one-half to one cent on each ton of coal produced so he could hire a sufficient number of deputies; in 1923 that came to $61,500, according to The Battle of Blair Mountain; The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising, by Robert Shogan (Basic Books, 2004). Chafin, of course, kept a handler’s fee. He testified before a U.S. Senate committee that he estimated his wealth at $350,000, although his job as sheriff paid only about $3,500 a year.
Chafin had 15 miles of defensive works built and put out a call for volunteers. Merchants, lawyers, ministers, and others swarmed to his aid. Hundreds came from American Legion outposts. Even ROTC cadets from Charleston High School arrived to help beat back “the Reds.”
In addition to machine guns, rifles and ammunition provided by the mine operators, who also rented three aircraft, Chafin’s force received two machine guns, 400 high-powered rifles, 40,000 rounds of ammunition and three airplanes from Kentucky’s governor. U.S. Army biplanes arrived to provide reconnaissance but their crews were under orders not to attack. Earlier, Captain Billy Mitchell reportedly made the politically unwise remark that the way to break the strike was to drop teargas from airplanes and if that didn’t work, use artillery.
On August 26, after meeting with Army brigadier general Harry Bandholtz who had been sent to restore peace (i.e., stop the march), local union leaders Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney implored the marchers to disband. Governor Ephraim Morgan promised special trains would take the miners back to their home towns unmolested. Rather than fight the U.S. Army, most of the marchers departed. But the trains hadn’t arrived.
Pouring gasoline on a dying fire
Chafin picked this time to send a state police chief to serve warrants on several miners. Predictably, it resulted in gunfire, and word spread among the men waiting for the special trains that their opponents were killing women and children. It wasn’t true, but it spurred them to continue their march on Mingo and to kill some of Chafin’s men along the way. A Baptist minister and part-time miner urged a group of 75 men to “take no prisoners.”
The battle plan was to attack in two columns, one advancing south and west from Boone County, and the other going due west over Blair Mountain. There was little command control, however, and individual groups decided for themselves when they’d advance, fight, and retreat.
One column slowly worked its way among rocks and trees while under fire from the slopes above, but the column from Boone County attacked 600 volunteers and 300 Logan deputies at Mill Creek and another 300 deputies under war veteran Captain Ivan Hollingsworth supported by two machine guns. One of the guns jammed after three hours and the miners broke through, just four miles from the county seat of Logan. But Hollingsworth pulled his men back, had them construct hasty works and set the remaining MG to command the approach trail. Repeated attacks on the position were all repulsed.
Meanwhile, the operators’ rented aircraft dropped pipe bombs on a union headquarters and on a miners’ camp. The latter landed within feet of two women washing clothes but failed to explode. The other made a lot of noise but only cratered the ground.
On September 2 some 2,000 U.S. Army troops began arriving. Like an abused spouse believing “Things will be different this time,” the miners welcomed the army as they had the militia during the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek strike. On September 3, a reporter saw “a swarm of stubbly faced men” leaving the battle area “as fast as their flivvers could take them.”
The battle of Blair Mountain was over. The official Army history estimates the total combatants on both sides was between 10,000 and 20,000, but estimates of the the dead only range from 20 to 50. Political, legal and social forces continued to support mine owners and operators and to see organized labor as a threat to national stability and property rights. The affair at Blair Mountain set union organizing back several years and virtually ended it in West Virginia until the need for coal in World War II forced the government to make concessions to the United Mine Workers.
June 1914 socialist publication “Masses” depicting an attack on a Colorado miners’ camp by National Guard and company guards. Artist, John Sloane. LOC. LG-DIG-ds-10032.
Map of troop movements from New York Tribune, Sept. 3, 1921.