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The West Virginia Coal Mine Wars

The violence of the West Virginia coal-mining war of 1920-1921 reached a level unparalleled in US history. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the expansion of railroads and development of coalfields fundamentally and permanently changed the social and economic fabric of the central Appalachian Mountains. These changes included major economic and social relocations and dislocations that often sparked violence. While conflicts arose in other states, such as Pennsylvania, only in West Virginia did they lead to a concentrated insurrection.

West Virginia presented a special case. Its creation as a war measure by Abraham Lincoln often raised doubts as to its legal legitimacy. Although created and ruled by Republicans, by 1871 Democrat "redeemers" had gained control of the state. They purposefully rewrote the state constitution, adding provisions that fatally weakened its power to respond to a crisis of any kind. It reduced government to a bare minimum of budget and bureaucracy and emasculated the office of governor. The government lacked the power to battle against the temptations offered by companies interested in the state's resources, causing much of the political system to fall into the pockets of these corporations.

Coal mining in Appalachia presented special problems to those who attempted it. Much of the coal lies in the Appalachian Plateau, seemingly a misnomer because of the deeply eroded maze of narrow and winding valleys that compose it. Transportation in and out proved difficult and sometimes dangerous. Other mining areas, such as those in the Central Competitive Field of the Midwest, proved more fortunate as their mines lay in more accessible regions. Due to the overhead involved in mining coal in West Virginia, naturally the companies there paid much lower wages. The complete isolation also encouraged companies mining in West Virginia to take more liberties with their miners' civil rights.

A coal miner in West Virginia generally lived in a company town. He woke up in a company bed situated in a company house. He washed himself with water drawn from a company well and ate breakfast prepared with food bought at the company store. Everything consumed or used by his family came from the company, purchased on credit. The credits used during the pay period only rarely failed to add up to less than the paycheck (paid not in United States currency, but company script.) In debt from his first day on the job, the entire system was geared towards keeping him and his family that way.

The miner had free speech, but what happened after he spoke could give him serious trouble. Many companies employed the firm Baldwin and Felts to provide mine guards. These guards dispensed retribution against "rabblerousers" and "outside agitators" who came in talking about unions. One town even featured a Gatling gun mounted upon the front porch of a company official's home. Companies figured that they could increase their control by importing miners from a variety of areas such as Russia, southern Italy, and Austria-Hungary. They came from countries with oppressive systems; also living in a strange country with different customs and languages increased their isolation. In fairness, company towns ran the spectrum from benevolently paternalistic societies to absolutely dictatorial rule. Increasingly the system turned its aims towards preventing unions from organizing the region.

The United Mine Workers of America felt compelled to unionize Appalachia after the turn of the century. The Central Competitive Field companies agreed to unionize if the unions could force Appalachian mines to pay their employees the same wages as those in the CCF. The union would lose its credibility if it failed to compel the organization of the Appalachian fields. Before World War I, the northern and central part of the state succumbed to the tide of unionization. These areas lay relatively close to population centers such as Charleston and Morgantown which also contained press outlets and the state government. Also, the B&O railroad in the north and the Kanawha River flowing through the coalfield east of the state capital rendered arguments about transportation and access meaningless. Severe violence occurred at Paint Creek, twenty miles east of Charleston, in 1913 as companies tried to force the union out of an area. They failed and the union remained in place. This left a rump of non union counties in the southwestern coalfields: the most isolated part of the state, known for sporadic violence and lawlessness ever since the Civil War.

The years after World War I did not just see violence in West Virginia. The Ku Klux Klan reemerged as a social and political power that spread violence in many areas of the nation. The twenties also witnessed the violence in Tennessee, Washington DC and elsewhere. West Virginia's difficulties, therefore, did not occur alone but as a trend of rising tension throughout the country. However, West Virginia's problems required the repeated intervention of federal forces due to the large numbers of people involved and the feebleness of the state's coercive power.

During World War I, the UMWA made significant gains as American coal production geared to extremely high levels to support the war. All coal operators could afford generosity. In the postwar period, the union concentrated upon not only maintaining wartime concessions but also expanding their influence. They trained their guns upon the Mingo-Logan County stronghold of anti-unionism. Coal companies in these counties responded by mobilizing the forces at their disposal.

Coal companies called upon powerful allies to help maintain control. In addition to the Baldwin-Felts agents, coal companies also enjoyed the benevolent cooperation of county sheriffs and their departments. Logan County Sheriff Don Chaffin could call upon a force of nearly 500, mostly paid for from coal company treasuries. Vigilantes from the middle classes took up arms and joined small detachments of state police and National Guardsmen.

The union targeted Mingo County first with a strike as it detected massive discontent amongst the miners. In 1920-1921, guerilla warfare broke out on a scale more often associated with Central America than the US. Miners and company men ambushed and killed each other on a regular basis in a fashion much like their Civil War ancestors. Many corpses showed signs of mutilation. At the governor's request, the War Department dispatched regular troops on four separate occasions.

The last of the four deployments occurred after an event known as the Matewan Massacre. In May, 1920 Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and Chief of Police Sid Hatfield ( a relation of the famous "Devil Anse" Hatfield from the Hatfield and McCoy feud.) attempted to restrain Baldwin and Felts agents from carrying out eviction orders a few miles out of town. On May 19, when the agents executed the evictions anyway, Testerman and Hatfield met them at the train station as they returned to town. History does not record who fired the first shot, but the mayor fell in the first exchange of gunfire. Suddenly rifle shots rained down upon the Baldwin and Felts agents from several buildings in town. Nine men died, including six detectives, and it provided even more impetus to the general level of violence in the area as civil rule broke down completely.

Guerrilla skirmishing escalated across southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky in the summer of 1920 as the UMW struck for recognition, higher wages, and other elementary demands. At its peak, the magnitude of the armed forces arrayed in one place on each side of this struggle surpassed that in any previous North American labor dispute.

Commencing on August 19 in Marmet, an army of approximately 6,000 miners and their allies set forth, heavily armed, on a march to aid their comrades in Logan and Mingo counties. To resist this invasion, coal operators marshaled a force of roughly 2,000 sheriff's deputies and private agents. The operators also enlisted military power. After declaring the march an insurrection, West Virginia’s Governor received federal assistance.

President Warren Harding dispatched more than 2,000 U.S. Army troops as well as aircraft from the 88th Light Bombing Squadron. When the combatants approached Logan County at the end of August, the total number of belligerents had swelled to at least 10,000. For a week, fighting raged along several miles of battlefront on Blair Mountain. The army of sheriff’s deputies, state militia, state police, and private mine guards resisted the miners with an armament that included machine guns and poisonous gas.

On August 31, 1920, workers underwent aerial bombardment for the first time in the history of U.S. industrial relations. Finally, the coal operators' superior firepower and the authority of a presidential proclamation ordering the miners to disperse repelled the invaders. This defeat contributed to the larger defeat of mining unionism in the expanding area of coal production south of the Ohio River in the years after World War I.

Interestingly enough, the courts waited for federal forces to restore order before investigating the incident, rather than imposing martial law as the Constitution would have allowed. The first half of 1921 featured bands of armed men firing into several towns, killing (according to the estimate of union leader Frank Keeney) over one hundred people.

In August of 1921, as Hatfield went to Welch, the county seat of McDowell County, to appear for reasons unrelated to the incident a Baldwin and Felts agent assassinated him in broad daylight on the courthouse steps. The unwillingness of the civil authorities to bring Hatfield's killer to justice created an impression in the minds of coal miners in many parts of the country that American law and justice no longer existed in those counties.

Thousands of miners gathered in Marmet, a village on the Kanawha River ten miles upstream from Charleston, later that month. At that time, the main roads and railways from the Charleston area to Logan and Mingo Counties departed into the hills from that point. Labor leaders such as "Mother" Jones begged and even lied to the miners to prevent violence. However, the miners arrived and organized along military lines (many of them having served in the First World War.) They created a system of communication and passwords that no participant ever revealed, even to historians many decades later. In addition, to distinguish themselves from people uninvolved they wore red kerchiefs around their necks (perhaps providing the origin of the word "redneck.") They also assembled commissary wagons and brought along clergy and medical personnel.

No one has ever ascertained the total number of people involved. Some estimates go as low as 5,000, others as high as 15,000. Whatever their number, they presented a fearsome sight to the state and local authorities who predictably appealed to President Warren G. Harding for assistance. Governor Ephraim Morgan even hinted at possible Bolshevik influence amongst their ranks. Harding hesitated, claiming that the United States Army could not function as a police force and that the state should be able to contain the problem. Morgan imposed martial law and directed local vigilance committees and state police to enforce it; these organizations bore a tremendous bias against the unionizers and this prevented the miners from taking any confidence in state measures.

At first the March on Logan, aimed to "liberate" Mingo County, but quickly its attention turned towards Logan County and its infamous sheriff, whom they threatened to hang from a sour apple tree. As the miners set off, some walked, some took automobiles, but many commandeered trains. They soon passed into hapless Boone County with a total law enforcement contingent of three. State police and National Guard shadowed the marchers but lacked the strength to confront them directly.

Finally, the President sent General Henry Bandholtz who arrived on August 25. Bandholtz came with encouraging words from Harding as well as threats that the state UMWA leadership would assume responsibility for any trouble the marchers caused. The union leaders met the marching miners at the Boone County seat of Madison and addressed them in a baseball field. This meeting successfully convinced the miners to call off the march and they began to arrange for transportation to take everyone home.

Foolishly, state police descended upon nearby Sharples in force to apprehend a large number of union miners whom they accused of interfering with police business. A firefight broke out that left two miners dead and filled the miners at Madison with rage. Violence became an inevitability. Headlines appeared at the top of the New York Times as they sent veteran war correspondents to cover the unrest. Logan County mobilized to stop the invaders by fortifying a twenty to thirty mile long ridge marking the border between Boone and Logan Counties, paying special attention to passes. One section of the ridge, called Blair Mountain, would give the engagement its name. Logan County sent to the barricades between 1200 and 1300 men armed with rifles, machine guns, and whatever else the people could bring to the fight. One airplane with homemade bombs even took part briefly. The battle lasted four days as the miners unsuccessfully tried to force the passes.

Federal forces finally ended the battle. The Secretary of War ordered Brigadier General Billy Mitchell (later called the father of the United States Air Force) and his 88th Light Bomber Squadron to Charleston complete with chemical weapons and the authorization to use them. Luckily, the Martin MB-2 bombers encountered technical problems and air power never became necessary. The 2,100 troops from Fort Thomas, Kentucky proved decisive because the miners chose not to confront federal power. No accurate count of losses amongst the union marchers ever was made, but the Logan County defenders only lost three killed and forty wounded.

The resulting trials of hundreds of miners for treason against the state never resolved the fundamental issues for which the miners fought. It did attract national scrutiny, especially from the government. However, nothing changed as people's attention drifted elsewhere. The coal operators maintained their right to run their mines as they wished and the union did not offer them a serious challenge again in that decade. Only in the 1930s did President Franklin D. Roosevelt get legislation passed that outlawed many of the company practices that caused such consternation.

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Page last modified: 11-10-2017 10:53:09 ZULU