It’s August 1921, and West Virginian coal miners have taken up arms against the police and mine owners. This will lead to the most violent episode of the Coal Wars: the Battle of Blair Mountain. https://youtu.be/ZcEWndZlAe4
Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the Great War. The First World War had a profound effect on the lives of working people in the United States thanks to the wartime economic boom. After the war, the newfound confidence of workers and unions clashed with company owners as government took a back seat. These opposing visions of how industrial America should be led to the largest armed conflict in the US since the Civil War in 1921. So in this episode, we’ll take a look at the West Virginian Coal Wars and the Battle of Blair Mountain, and it all happened exactly 100 years ago.
The First World War changed the face of US labor relations starting in 1914. Before then, unions were relatively weak because there was a surplus of labor. But once war broke out, the economy was so busy producing goods for home and exporting to Britain and France that worker influence grew. Unions like the American Federation of Labor gained lots more members. The AFL had 3 million members in 1917, a tenfold increase since 1900. Its largest and most powerful affiliated union was the United Mine Workers of America.
Once the US joined the war in 1917, the government got more involved in labor relations to ensure wartime production. For a while, President Woodrow Wilson was seen as a champion of unions, and union leaders like AFL founder Samuel Gompers were optimistic about the future:
“We are no longer journeying in the wilderness, We are no longer in the season of mere planting. We are in the harvest time.” (Dubofsky 171)
By 1919, things had begun to change. Wilson’s wartime policies were ending and the government withdrew from labor relations. Company owners struck back at the unions, and there were more and more strikes – 3000 in 1919 alone.
So American unions had gained some power during the war, but once it ended tensions with owners increased. One of the flashpoints was the coal-rich state of West Virginia.
West Virginia had so much coal it was nicknamed the El Dorado of Appalachia, and it was known as a difficult place for unions. Mining towns were isolated and locals fiercely independent, which limited union growth.
This meant that mining companies had extensive political and economic power, which they justified by saying it was necessarily to combat the coal industry’s boom and bust cycles. The companies wanted to keep costs down which resulted in poor living conditions and dangerous working environments for miners.
Union leaders like Samuel Gompers compared the situation to Tsarist Russia:
“Until some limitations are placed upon the absolutism of these absentee coal operators in West Virginia, the government of West Virginia will continue to be Russianized and the people can be naught but serfs. Organized labor has forced these conditions and perversions of justice upon public attention and now demands that the wrongs be righted.” (Corbin)
Many mining towns were so-called ‘company towns,’ where the mining company controlled civil and commercial life. Workers were often paid in vouchers that could only be used in company stores. This practice kept cash within the company, and allowed them to offset any wage increases with price increases.
Owners also forced workers to sign yellow-dog contracts banning them from joining unions. If they did join, they might be thrown out of the company-owned housing. A company lawyer explained the system like this:
“It is like a servant who works in your house. If the servant leaves your employment, if you discharge him and you ask him to get out of the servant quarters. It is a question of master and servant.” (Shogan)
With these conditions in mind, the United Mine Workers began organising in West Virginia in 1912, resulting in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912-13. Company enforcers fired into strikers’ homes, martial law had to be declared, and union supporter Mother Jones became a well-known figure.
The 1912-1913 strike in West Virginia made clear that violence was becoming the norm in Appalachian labor relations. And violence in West Virginia often meant the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.
Baldwin-Felts Detectives Incorporated was a private security firm founded by William Baldwin and Thomas Felts. By the time of the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike, they were America’s top union busters.
The agency hired a mix of men, including former police, soldiers, criminals and miners. They worked as mine guards, informants, and were sometimes deputized within local police forces. Journalist Harold E. West wrote that in spite of appearances, they were under no illusions about their work:
“[They] are in the mines for a definite purpose. They understand what that purpose is and they have no hesitancy about “delivering the goods.” They seem to have no illusions about their work. It pays well and if brutality is required, why, brutality “goes.” Whenever possible they are clothed with some semblance of the authority of the law, either by being sworn in as railroad detectives, as constables or deputy sheriffs.” (Corbin)
To union miners and leaders, Baldwin-Felts soon became the face of the hated evictions and the major barrier to unions in West Virginia. By 1919, around half of West Virginia’s mines were unionized, but few of these were in the southwest, including Mingo County.
When miners went on strike in 1919, the non-union mines in Mingo simply continued to produce coal. Troops arrived and the strike was ended, but the United Mine Workers now felt the town of Matewan was ready for unionization.
Unlike many towns, Matewan had kept some independence from the mining companies, and the town mayor, sheriff, and police chief were union-friendly. Police Chief Sid Hatfield had quite a reputation: miners saw him as a champion of their cause, and mine companies thought he was a thug.
By May 1920 3,000 of the 4,000 miners in Matewan were unionised. Many of the miners were on yellow-dog contracts, so the mine owners sent 13 Baldwin-Felts agents, including brothers Albert and Lee Felts, to eviction them.
On May 19th, Sid Hatfield and the mayor tried to arrest the Baldwin-Felts group. But Albert Felts said he had a warrant to arrest Hatfield. At a later Senate Hearing, Hatfield gave his version of what happened next:
“Felts told him that he could not take any bond, and the mayor asked him for the warrant, and he gave the warrant to the mayor and the mayor read the warrant and said it was bogus, it was not legal, and then [Felts] shot the mayor. Then the shooting started in general.” (Corbin)
Most eyewitnesses backed Hatfield’s account, although others suggested he fired first, and may have even shot the mayor. In any case, Albert and Lee Felts were killed in the firefight, along five of their men, and two miners.
The clash between the union-busters of Baldwin-Felts and Sid Hatfield and the miners in May 1920 became known as the Matewan Massacre. This incident now galvanized the union movement.
After the Matewan incident, union membership increased in 1921, and miners went on strike. When the mine operators brought in strikebreakers, the miners harassed them. As more and more homeless miners went on strike, they gathered in tent colonies. Unions provided basic food, shelter, and medical services, but conditions were grim. Journalist Neil Burkinshaw, described a typical miner colony:
“Huddled under canvas that flapped and strained at the guy ropes, in the high winds I found hundreds of families gathered about pitifully small fires. In most cases the tent dwellers were living on the bare frozen earth, the most fortunate having simply a strip of oil cloth or carpet as floor. Several children have died of pneumonia and it was pitiful to see any number of new-born babies there - and worst, many women pregnant.” (Shogan)
The mine companies said such accounts were exaggerated.
In May 1921, skirmishes between armed strikers and strikebreakers broke out along the Tug River. West Virginia governor Ephraim Morgan called on President Warren Harding to intervene, but Washington said the problem was a state matter.
Since West Virginia had no national guard units, Morgan had to rely on volunteers, police, and Baldwin-Felts. These forces began raiding union territory to make arrests. Meanwhile the government also went on a legal offensive and put Sid Hatfield on trial for conspiracy in the anti-union town of Welsh, which increased tensions with workers.
So by the summer of 1921 there was violence between miners and mine companies in Mingo County, and the Hatfield trial was ongoing. On August 1, Baldwin-Felts agents ambushed Hatfield on the steps of the courthouse and shot him dead in front of his wife. The murder ignited a powder keg in West Virginia.
Capitalising on the outrage, on August 20, 1921, West Virginia District 17 union leaders Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney organised a rally in Charleston. 5000 miners, many of them armed, arrived for the rally, but they didn’t all have the same goals. Some wanted to march on the Mingo County jail, while others wanted to go to Logan County to throw out the town’s anti-union sheriff, Don Chafin.
Keeney and Mooney were frustrated, and stepped back from their roles:
“I wash my hands of the whole affair. I’ve interfered time and again to stop such enterprises. I seem to have halted them only temporarily. This time they can march to Mingo, as far as I am concerned.” (Shogan)
More radical miners like Bill Blizzard now took control of the movement. They stole weapons from company stores, including at least one Gatling gun. Many of the miners were veterans of the Great War, as journalist Heber Blankenhorn reported:
“A man says: ‘I got five children. I worked once in Logan. I thought this thing over a long time ‘fore I started. Now I ain’t going back.’ He thoughtfully weighs some long brass cartridges in his hand. Four others in the group do the same. The five kinds of heavy cartridges are all different, but each gun looks spotlessly well kept. One youngster in uniform even wears his overseas cap. ‘Does this look like [the] Argonne?’” (Corbin)
To reach Mingo, the 9000 miners would have to pass through Sheriff Chafin’s Logan County. To meet them, about 3000 anti-union forces began to gather on the western side of the Spruce Fork Ridge and its dominating height of Blair Mountain. Chafin put them to work building breastworks and trenches on the two peaks overlooking the Blair Mountain Gap. The anti-unionists also brought up three private planes and armed them with home-made bombs.
So in August 1921 police, strikebreakers, and miners were preparing for armed conflict, and it wouldn’t be long in coming.
On the 25th, Governor Morgan again asked Washington for help, so President Harding sent General Harry Bandholz to investigate. He interviewed leaders on both sides, and told Mooney and Keeney that despite stepping back he held them responsible for what he saw as the miners’ excesses. Bandholz issued them an ultimatum:
"These are your people. I am going to give you a chance to save them, and if you cannot turn them back, we are going to snuff them out like that. This will never do, there are several million unemployed in this country now and this thing might assume proportions that would be difficult to handle." (Laurie)
Keeney and Mooney urged the marching miners to turn back by appealing to their patriotism to obey the government. By the 27th, thousands of miners had agreed, and were waiting for trains to take them home.
But on that very same day, Chafin sent 290 police into the town of Clothier to carry out arrests. A group of miners ambushed them before they arrived. On the 28th, rumors spread that police had shot women and children in the firefight, and angry miners who planned to go home now returned to the march. Some historians say that Chafin’s raid was a case of terrible timing, while others argue it was calculated to provoke the miners.
The angry miners moved into positions around Blair Mountain, and Governor Morgan issued a desperate plea to President Harding:
“Danger of attack on Logan County by armed insurrections is so imminent that legislature cannot be assembled in time to eliminate probability of clash and bloodshed. Number of insurrectionists constantly growing and immediate action in my opinion is vital.” (Shogan)
Harding now gave the miners his own ultimatum on August 30: they were to leave within 48 hours or face the United States Army.
But that evening, 70 miners crept onto the high ground near Blair where they came across three drunk deputies. In the ensuing fight, two deputies and one miner were killed.
The next day the battle began in earnest. The police and anti-union forces were well dug in, with numerous entrenched strongpoints equipped with machine guns. The miners tried to outflank the toughest positions, especially at Blair and Crooked Creek, but machine-gun and rifle fire forced them back. Private aircraft dropped makeshift gas and nail bombs on the advancing miners, but all missed their targets.
The miners did make a small breakthrough near Baldwin Fork, which got the miners to within 6 kilometres of Logan, but they couldn’t get any further. Despite their superior numbers, the miners lacked communications, organization, and overall strategic direction. Still, by September 1, the defenders were critically low on ammunition.
But September 1st was also the day the President’s ultimatum expired. Air force planes appeared above Blair Mountain to signal the imminent arrival of federal troops, and the miners pulled back – though many hid their weapons to avoid surrendering them. By the 3rd, a ceasefire was agreed and the army took control of the area, practically without firing a shot. Despite over 1 million shots being fired, an estimated 20 to 100 people were killed. One captain on Bandholz’s staff described the whole battle as one big “comic opera”.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was over, and it was time for US authorities to pick up the pieces and figure out how things had gotten so out of hand.
Athough Bandholz had originally blamed the miners, he now put the blame on Chafin:
“It is believed that the withdrawal of the invaders as promised by Keeney and Mooney would have been satisfactorily accomplished but for the tardy sending of trains and particularly but for the ill-advised and ill-timed advance movement of State constabulary on the night of August 27, resulting in bloodshed.” (Shogan)
The mine owners and Governor Morgan now started a political counterattack. They linked United Mine Workers to international socialism and asked the army to arrest the ring leaders, which Washington refused. FBI reports did not back up these claims – there were radical groups, but they reacted to events in West Virginia rather than leading them:
“All the radicalism seems to find vent in State issues and the radical elements have been almost completely absorbed in this struggle [. . .] little or no interest has been manifested in radical issues having a national or international application. Their minds and lives are fully occupied with the struggle immediately at hand [. . .] teachings and propaganda are directed almost solely against the coal operators of the State, rather than against capitalistic interests everywhere.” (Fagge 45)
Many miners considered themselves patriots, with a non-class-based Americanist ideology. Some historians suggest they were not necessarily opposed to the capitalist ideals of the American dream, but simply wanted its rules applied fairly to workers. As journalist Robert Shogan concluded:
“In the end the West Virginia miners accepted that system and the middle-class ethos undergirding it because they believed in the rule of law and the promise of the democratic process. That was why they turned away from revolting against the government, and why many of them waved American flags as they marched off after their defeat.” (Shogan)
The Battle of Blair Mountain marked the high point of the United Mine Workers of America’s power in the 1920s. Some leaders even claimed that if the army had not intervened, they would have reached Logan and beyond. In reality, the union was shattered. Strikes and legal battles had emptied its coffers, the post-war drop in demand for coal weakened it further, and the public was unsympathetic. After Blair Mountain, District 17 membership plummeted from 50,000 in 1921 to just 600 in 1932.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was not only a clash of arms, it was a clash of visions of American society. The victory of mine owners seemed complete in 1921, but a decade later the New Deal would see the return of organized labor to West Virginia.
- Dubofsky, Melvyn & McCartin, Joseph A. Labor in America: A History, (Chichester : John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2017)
- Corbin, David, Gun Thugs, Rednecks, and Radicals: a Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, (Oakland, CA : PM Press, 2011)
- Fagge, Roger, “"Citizens of this Great Republic": Politics and the West Virginia Miners, 1900-1922”, International Review of Social History, Vol. 40, No. 1 (1995)
- Hutton, T.R.C. “The Appalachian “Gunmen of Capitalism” in Hild, Matthew & Merrit, Keri Leigh (eds.), Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, (Gainesville, FL : University Press of Florida, 2018)
- Laurie, Clayton D, “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, Volume 50, (1991) http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh50-1.html
- Nida, Brandon, “Demystifying the Hidden Hand: Capital and the State at Blair Mountain”, Historical Archaeology, Vol. 47, No. 3 (2013)
- Shogan, Robert, The Battle of Blair Mountain: the Story of America's Largest Labor Uprising, (New York : Basic Books, 2006)