The Blair Mountain Story
Battle of Blair Mountain
The Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia, took place in September of 1921. It’s a little slice of Americana gone largely unnoticed in history. The battle was an armed insurrection of unionized coal miners struggling for better working conditions and an end to the tyranny of the coal industry. It was considered the largest conflict in American history since the Civil War and contributed significantly to the development of Labor laws we have today.
Up to 15,000 coal miners clashed with private detectives hired by coal companies in an effort to unionize. It was a mile stone in bettering the conditions of working people by legalizing unions. Blair Mountain was an important chapter in how our country’s labor and civil rights developed.
According to the National Park Service, the Battle of Blair Mountain was a bloody climax to when "the violence of the West Virginia coal-mining war of 1920-21 reached a level unparalleled in U.S. history."
Coal Was King
In the early 1900’s, coal was the major fuel for American industry. Work stoppages and strikes threatened the solvency of companies using coal. Steel companies, and railroads applied political and economic pressure to maintain order amongst the miners. Mine workers were forced to organize as a way to protect themselves from industry's arduous demands. Most residents of the area had been farmers and not accustomed to a rigidly set work schedule.
Coal mines strived to keep up with the insatiable demand for iron, steel, and railroad industries. Coal was important to the industrial growth of the nation. As large corporations began competing with one another, businesses increased production but allowed safety to take a back seat.
Mining accidents resulted in growing activism in Pennsylvania mines and other states as well. Around the turn of the century, coal strikes had become commonplace as a way to foster support for unions.
By 1921, southern West Virginia was primed for violence. Although more than half of the state's one hundred thousand miners had been unionized, labor leaders had failed to organize southern coalfields. The United Mine Workers of America thought they could improve working and living conditions for the miners.
Murder Of Sid Hatfield
The murder of Sid Hatfield, Police Chief of Matewan, West Virginia, and a hero of sorts to the miners, enraged coal miners across the state. As a teenager, he had worked in the coalmines, and knew their plight. Hatfield had stood up to Baldwin Felts detectives during the Battle of Matewan.
On 19 May, 1920, twelve Baldwin-Felts agents arrived in Matewan and had tried to bribe the mayor with 500 dollars to place machine guns on roofs in the town. He refused. That afternoon, the pack of detectives went to the Stone Mountain Coal Company property where they evicted a woman and her children at gun point.
As the agents were about to leave town, Sid Hatfield and a group of deputized miners confronted them and told the agents they were under arrest. They in turn replied they had a warrant for his arrest. The major was alerted. Upon inspecting the warrant he declared it to be bogus. At this point a gunfight erupted. When the smoke cleared, ten men lay dead.
Hatfield was consequently indicted on murder charges from the Matewan incident but was later acquitted. While standing trial for an unrelated incident Baldwin-Felts men shot and killed him on the McDowell County Courthouse steps. It was reported the unarmed Hatfield had been shot 17 times. It became the catalyst for the Battle of Blair Mountain.
These unionizing efforts were fiercely resisted by coal companies who enjoyed a great deal of political influence. Declaring martial law was a regularly used tool employed to subdue unrest. However, at the time, there wasn’t a National Guard in the state.
That meant local law enforcement, including so called deputies on the coal company’s payroll, wielded a lot of power. And they used it violently and with impunity against miners and their families. The governor often asked for federal troops in such disputes, but usually got little cooperation. No one wanted to set a precedent for using the Army in times of civil unrest.
The state managed to keep the Battle of Blair Mountain out of its history books for over half a century because they thought the publicity would damage the states’ and coal industry’s image.
Organizers of the District 17 United Mine Workers of America marshaled 600 armed miners near Charleston for a march to Mingo County to show their unity, gathering more as they advanced.
Coal companies retaliated by using every means at their disposal to block the union. They fired union sympathizers and then evicted them from their company owned homes. The UMW’s response was to set up tent colonies for homeless miners and their families. These tent cities quickly became a throng of idle and angry miners concentrated in a small area along the Tug River. By early May, 3,000 Mingo miners had joined the union. At the Stone Mountain Coal Company mine near Matewan, every worker became a member. And all were promptly fired and evicted.
It’s not known for certain exactly how large the miners' army became but educated guesses indicate at least 7,500, and may have been over 10,000. They meant to unionize the southern counties of West Virginia and oust the hired gunmen who terrorized the miners and their families.
However, Logan County’s anti-union Sherriff Don Chafin, whose pay check was greatly funded by coal companies, learned of the miners' intentions. Chafin began building another army to stop the march, many of whom were also being paid by coal companies. In the end, approximately 3,000 men were mustered.
The Blair Mountain site became the stumbling block which confronted miners wanting to bring union protection to miners of Mingo, Logan, Mercer, and McDowell counties. The ridge was a most unwelcoming location. Steep slopes, thick underbrush, heavy timber and rocky landscape made it an improbable site for a confrontation. But, on the other hand there were high points and huge rock formations which would make strong defensive positions.
The end of the battle began when federal troops arrived on September 3. The miners, many veterans of World War I, surrendered rather than fight the soldiers, considering them to be brothers. Despite all of the close range gun fighting there was little face-to-face combat. The underbrush was so thick few combatants ever actually saw the enemy. Total losses for the conflict numbered 16.
The miners didn’t win that battle, but their efforts eventually won the war. Their actions focused national attention on the mining situation and the UMWA was sanctioned in the 1930’s and became the nation's leader in organizing industrial workers.