When it comes to battlefields, we all know Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, Gettysburg, Ft. Sumter, and more recently, Pearl Harbor and Ground Zero. But there’s a much lesser-known historical battle site that’s right in our backyard, and its tale is as tragic and compelling as any of the other ones found on the History Channel. It took place at the summit of Blair Mountain, in Logan County, WV 90 years ago, and was no less a battle for freedom and the heart and soul of America as any of the others.
Blair Mountain was an important battle in the “Mine Wars” – a series of battles fought between unionized workers and industry titans whose stranglehold on southern West Virginia manifested in the form of “company towns” where workers were entirely dependent on the mine owners for everything from housing to groceries and supplies. This led to massive exploitation of the workers, and disregard for mine safety standards that were being established in the coalfields and counties in the northern part of the state, thanks to the United Mine Workers of America.
If You Say “Organizer,” You’d Better Be Talking About A Date Book
Attempts up to this point to unionize the mine workers had been met with resistance and outright hostility by mine owners and local law enforcement. While law enforcement was still nominally under the jurisdiction of the state and federal governments, they were, for all intents and purposes, “company men.” In addition to friendly sherriffs, mine owners employed private detectives to intimidate, coerce, and sometimes engage in violence with union-sympathetic miners. A family could find itself out of work, out of a home, and with no possessions for simply talking to an organizer.
S.B. Avis, a coal company lawyer, is quoted as explaining it thusly:
“It is like a servant lives at your house. If the servant leaves your employment, if you discharge him, you ask him to get out of the servants’ quarters. It is a question of master and servant.”
That’s right. These people weren’t employees, they were servants. Union organizers already in the southern counties established “tent cities” for these displaced miners and their families.
The Golden Rule Of Law
The “rule of law” was a weak joke in most of the southern counties. Logan County Sherriff Don Chafin received a tidy $32,000 annual under-the-table “salary” from the Logan County Coal Operators Association to keep the unions out of the county. The Baldwin-Felts detective agency used strike-breaking and union-busting tactics that included nighttime raids on the tent cities of displaced workers still in the area. Miners had begun to unionize in greater numbers, and the coal companies’ response was to fire them immediately and evict their families, while they brought in replacement workers forced to sign illegal contracts promising not to unionize.
Stone Mountain Coal used the detectives to forcibly evict families at gunpoint, and used a false warrant to arrest the sheriff of the neighboring (independent) town of Matewan when he came to the family’s aid against the detectives. In an already tense situation, gun violence broke out and the sheriff, Sid Hatfield, shot one of the Felts brothers and brought national attention to the area. In retaliation, when Hatfield went to trial, the Baldwin-Felts detectives opened fire on the McDowell county courthouse steps, killing Hatfield and his friend instantly, and in cold blood.
You Might Be A Redneck If…
Long before Jeff Foxworthy made it funny, the redneck was a force to be reckoned with. Blair Mountain is cited as one of the main origins of the term “redneck.” Prompted by the increasing tensions and the escalating violence against unionizing miners and their families, the UMWA leaders spoke out against the mine company reign of government-sanctioned terror. Knowing the violence could only get worse, the UMWA leaders met with the governor, but Governor Morgan’s rejection of their petition seemed to be the last hot match on an already-smoldering powder keg.
On August 24, 1921, an army of unionized miners began a march into Logan and Mingo Counties. In a show of solidarity, they wore red bandannas around their necks and carried their own Winchesters. By the time the “Redneck Army” reached the mountain, they were around ten thousand strong. Numbers estimate from as little as 7,000 to as high as 13,000, and the army picked up many groups of disgruntled and displaced miners on the way down from Charleston. One group even commandeered a freight train car to get them to the standoff faster.
Fire On The Mountain
Meanwhile, on the mountain, Sheriff Don Chafin had commandeered and deputized 2,000 men – the largest private army in the US – to blockade the miners. The following morning, President Warren G. Harding intervened and negotiated with organizers to convince the miners’ army to return home, underscoring his wishes by the willingness to flyby US Army planes and use federal troops in a show of force. This would have have defused the situation. Frank Keeney spoke to the men and promised them that they could not win a fight against the US Army if it came down to it. But Keeney didn’t know that Chafin’s army had headed down into the valley looking for ringleaders, and a shootout erupted. Rumors reached the main miner force that Chafin’s army was opening fire on the women and children of miners in the nearby town of Sharples, and all hell broke loose.
The battle went on for a week. The miners pushed the sheriff’s army back, and the sheriff responded by conscripting more men from other counties, even freeing prisoners in exchange for fighting in the anti-union army. At the end, he resorted to hiring private pilots to drop homemade bombs on the miners. It took 2000 federal troops and a squadron of US military bombers to finally end the battle. Organizer leader Bill Blizzard carried the presidential order to cease and desist back to the miners. Some scattered, many hid their guns, and to this day, archaeologists are still finding hidden weapons, spent and fresh rounds, and artifacts from the battle.
Estimates on the high end put casualties at 30 for the sheriff’s army, and maybe 50 to 100 for the miners, but hundreds more were injured, and almost a thousand men were indicted on charges including murder, conspiracy, and treason. Many were acquitted, but some served jail time.
So much of the beautiful state I once called home is tied up in a dysfunctional, symbiotic relationship with the coal under its landscape, and it’s heartbreaking to see the same suffering that still goes on today. Great strides have been made in both mine safety and arbitration, but we still have a long way to go. Because while the unions still speak for the workers, the mountains have few to speak for them.
The Battle For Blair Mountain ended with the surrender of the miners to the US Army, and with that defeat, it would be a dozen more years before unions came to the southern coalfields. But come, they did. The unions began using more legal challenges to make the voices of workers heard. Frank Keeney, then-president of UMWA District 17 and a chief organizer, rallied his fellow coal miners.
“One day there will be no more tent colonies, no more gunmen, because right now you people are going through what you are.”
The mountaintop where the battle took place is still owned by two large mining companies with plans to extract the coal from underneath it through Mountaintop Removal. Efforts to save the historic site have met with resistance from the mine companies. The group leading the fight to preserve the mountain points out that the coal can still be extracted from the mountain via traditional means without disturbing the archaeological site (and providing 25% more jobs than MTR). With Blair Mountain’s 90th anniversary here, the mountain, like the hardy people of the region, is still fighting.
Links For Proud Rednecks and Coal Miners’ Daughters
appalachianhistory.net – The Original Redneck – Written in 2009 when Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Unfortunately, thanks to protests from the site’s owners, the mountain was removed at a later date. Also, if you’re at all interested in Appalachian history, this is a great place to get lost in. I’m jus’ sayin’ is all…
Friends of Blair Mountain – Dedicating to preserving this important historic and archaeological site.
Brandon Nida & Michael Jessee Adkins’ academic work – just…wow. This is why the site needs to be preserved.
Wikipedia Entry – Battle of Blair Mountan Well-researched and concise