A neglected chapter in West Virginia labor history

BOOK REVIEW

During late August 1921, an army of 10,000 armed and angry coal miners marched across West Virginia. Their goal was to liberate Mingo County in the southwest corner of the state, and thereby end the violent reign of coal mine operators in that county who were using a private army of detectives to brutally suppress union organizing.

Logan County, another major coal mining county, lay directly in the path of the marchers. Logan was also the site of an equally brutal anti-union drive being carried out by county deputy sheriffs who were on the coal company payrolls. Just outside the town of Logan at the Blair Mountain range, the miners’ army collided with another armed force organized by coal company owners, and the two sides fought a large-scale pitched battle for several days.

Despite being the second largest armed insurrection in American history (exceeded only by the Civil War), the Battle of Blair Mountain is one of labor’s most neglected episodes. Robert Shogan, author of “The Battle of Blair Mountain,” blames the neglect on what he calls a “dominant middle-class” perspective that “discourages attention to struggles to achieve economic and social justice, if they threaten the sanctity of property values and the maintenance of law and order.” The author concludes, “As a result, the significance of class conflict in the making of America is overlooked and misunderstood.”

Shogan views the Blair Mountain battle as a culminating event in the historical development of the struggle between coal mine owners and miners in West Virginia. The author carefully reconstructs the history of the years leading to Blair. The West Virginia mine operators, backed by powerful railroad and steel interests, had continued to hold out against union organizing. Even the modest success of organizing some coal mines in central West Virginia only led to the hard-fought and violent Painters Creek–Cabin Creek strike of 1912–13. Shogan explains that this conflict “brought no genuine peace but rather an uneasy truce to the coal fields of West Virginia.”

The author notes that by 1920, the level of hostility between the owners and miners had reached its peak. Shogan points out that probably the most important pre-battle event took place in May of that year in the small miners’ town of Matewan near the Kentucky border. Private detectives from the Baldwin-Felts security firm shot it out with deputized citizens of the town. Seven detectives and three townspeople, including the mayor, died as a result. The Baldwin-Felts agents had been harassing striking coal miners and evicting them from company housing, and townspeople intervened to stop it. (Matewan was the subject of an excellent 1987 movie directed by John Sayles.) Shogan views Matewan as the beginning of “a chain reaction of violence that would rock the government of West Virginia to its foundations.”

A local jury later acquitted Matewan’s pro-union police chief, Sid Hatfield, as well as 22 miners of murder charges arising from the gun battle.

Baldwin-Felts exacted its revenge in August 1921, when three of its agents gunned down Hatfield and close friend Ed Chambers on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in Welch. (The murderers were later acquitted in that anti-union county). Hatfield and Chambers were treated like martyrs when their bodies were returned to Matewan for a massive procession and funeral attended by thousands. The story of the murders swept the coal fields. Shogan says that “the miners hardly needed a call to arms. Events spoke for themselves.”

Following the murders in Welch, armed groups of miners rapidly formed outside of the capital, Charleston. Most of the marchers were war veterans and many wore their army uniforms from World War I — some even brought gas masks. The military experience was evident. The marchers wore red bandanas around their necks and hence the term — “rednecks.” During the course of their march, they commandeered trains and motor vehicles for transport.

Reaching the Blair Mountain range between them and the town of Logan, they were confronted by an armed force of 3,000 vigilantes, strikebreakers, county deputy sheriffs, and American Legion members fighting from fixed positions in the mountains. The two forces fought a pitched battle for several days with unknown casualties and deaths. Federal troops dispatched to the battleground intervened between the opposing armies and ended the battle.

The miners took the heaviest losses, and organizing in the state was set back. They would not recoup their losses until the labor battles of the 1930s. However, attempts by the state government to prosecute the marchers ultimately failed. And federal attempts to disarm the miners resulted in only 400 rifles being turned in.

Shogan has memorialized a brave struggle waged by West Virginia coal miners. The Blair Mountain uprising, he notes, “demonstrates that middle-class mythology to the contrary, class conflict does exist in America.”