When you think of violent labor disputes, which come to mind? For some, it may be the infamous 1886 Haymarket Affair, 1912 Lawrence textile strike (famously known as Bread & Roses), 1894 Pullman Strike, or something as modern as the 1991 Justice for Janitors police riot. But not many will recall the Battle of Blair Mountain, a week-long civil war that took place in West Virginia during the late summer of 1921. Some 13,000 mineworkers took on 3,000 law enforcement officials, military personnel, and the usual local scabs. Rather than take oppression sitting down, these miners put on their hard hats and geared up for war. However, despite the numbers, the miners suffered a crushing defeat and what resulted was the near collapse of the United Mineworkers of America. But how did it all begin?
In the spring of 1912, West Virginian mineworkers, who all lived in small towns near their respective coal fields, attempted to negotiate contracts with the mining companies to give them higher pay raises and union dues that would be automatic. As you might expect, negotiations fell through, resulting in 7,500 workers going on strike throughout West Virginia. Even local supporters who were not mineworkers joined in. This caught the unwanted attention of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a private police force that was called to the task of using brutality, fear, and intimidation to break up strikes. To really send the message, the agents began evicting miners from their homes, for unionizing with the UMWA.
Eventually, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, co-founder of the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World, joined the strikers, but was later arrested for her involvement in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In the early months of the year-long said strike, the miners issued their own declaration of war against the West Virginian government. Several instances of guerilla-style conflicts began to explode in Kanawha County, WV. Things got so bad that WV Governor William E. Glasscock placed the region under martial law. After a year of bloody combat, more than 50 people were reported dead. The Paint Creek-Creek Cabin strike was the beginning of a 9-year labor conflict, now famously referred to as the West Virginia Mine Wars.
Fast-forward to 1920. The Baldwin-Felts agents were at it again, ransacking homes and evicting miners and their families at the Pocahontas Coalfield in the town of Matewan in Mingo County, West Virginia. This time around, they came face to face with Sid Hatfield, the Matewan police chief and beloved labor organizer. Unlike the vast majority of cops in West Virginia, Chief Hatfield was very outspokenly pro-union, using his position of authority to protect striking workers. He confronted the Baldwin-Felts agents and threatened to arrest them, prompting the agents to brag about their own arrest warrants against Hatfield.
Over the years, the circumstances of what happened next have been debated, but according to official court transcripts published in David Alan Corbin’s Gun Thugs, Rednecks & Radicals: A Documentary History of the West Virginia Mine Wars, an eyewitness testified that Cabell Testerman, the mayor of Matewan, said outright that the detectives’ warrants were “bogus,” triggering an angry Albert Felts, one of the heads of the Baldwin-Felts agency, to pull a firearm from his briefcase and shoot the mayor, who died of his wounds minutes later. Immediately after, Hatfield began firing, and a firefight between him and the agents ensued. When the dust settled, one miner, an innocent bystander, seven Baldwin-Felts agents and Mayor Testerman lay dead, while several other townsfolk were wounded in the crossfire.
Although Sid Hatfield was now hailed as a hero by local miners, a year and a half later on August 1st, 1921, he was ordered to stand before a judge for his involvement in what became known as the Battle of Matewan, also sometimes referred to as the Matewan Massacre. Accompanied by deputy Edward Chambers, they arrived at the McDowell County Court House and were greeted at the courthouse steps by several Baldwin-Felts agents. In a cowardly act of vengeance, the agents riddled Hatfield and Chambers with dozens of bullets, killing them instantly. None of the agents involved in the assassination of the chief and deputy were convicted of their crimes. In fact, the Baldwin-Felts agents almost never faced justice for their rampant human rights violations against strikers and their supporters. Their entire purpose was almost exclusively to pick on workers and civilian sympathizers.
Horrified and equally fuming at the brazen murder of their beloved fellow organizers, what followed in mid-to-late August were armed patrols by miners in West Virginia’s mountains. They open-carried rifles to ward off Baldwin-Felts agents and scabs looking for a fight. Soon, an estimated 13,000 miners began to march towards Logan County to protest the arrests of union members in the area. The miners were led by their de facto commander Bill Blizzard, a miner and union member. What stood in their way was Blair Mountain, where anti-union sheriff Don Chafin started setting up defensive positions along the mountain to keep the miners from marching further. The siege began on August 25th, but by August 29th, the Battle of Blair Mountain was in full swing as miners attempted to overtake the mountains and cross over into Logan County. They didn’t get far; the local gunmen and cops, nicknamed the Logan Defenders, had higher ground and simply shot down anyone in their sights. The Defenders went as far as using a plane to fly overhead and drop a homemade bomb on the miners’ position. One of the planes reportedly stalled in mid-air and crashed into the side of the mountain.
President Harding warned the local police that he would send federal troops into Logan County to stamp out the uprising once and for all, which he ended up doing on September 2nd, 1921. Bill Blizzard told his fellow miners to cease fire. Fearing incarceration for their involvement, many of the miners began to disperse and go home, the majority of them throwing away their weapons in the dense woods of West Virginia to hide their involvement. (More than one thousand guns and bullet casings have been recovered in the decades that followed and have since become collectors’ items.) The miners that weren’t fast enough to retreat, more than 900, were arrested and forced to hand in their firearms. Some were acquitted, while others were thrown behind bars, the last miner being released in 1925. 100 men had died, and it is speculated that a whopping one million rounds were fired between both sides.
This crushing defeat nearly ruined the United Mineworkers of America; countless tens of thousands of workers jumped ship, leaving a miniscule 10,000 or less members remaining by roughly the 1930s. Membership however began to climb once more after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the New Deal in 1933. By 1935, WV miners were fully unionized without incident. Today, the UMWA, led by Cecil Roberts, has more than 80,000 members, a far cry from the declining membership numbers in the early 20th century.
Historians cite the Blair Mountain siege as the largest and deadliest civil uprising since the American Civil War. Many Americans were reasonably disgusted that 3,000 cops and federal troops fired on their own citizens. The battle however sent waves across the country. Labor laws began to change to prevent another armed insurrection and conditions even began to improve for some coalfields. In 2009, the site of the battle was listed for preservation by the National Register of Historic Places. Despite many attempts by court judges to overturn this, Blair Mountain still to this day remains recognized as a historic landmark. In short, the battle may have dealt a blow to the unions, but the hasty response by the government and local politicians have kept similar incidents from taking place today, and the United Mineworkers of America has never been stronger than they are now.
Vince Ceraso is an activist and a card carrying member of the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World.