West Virginia…coal country. It is a land thick with mystery, dark forests of imagination, phantasm and superstition. It’s people are the descendants of Scots-Irish folk, inheritors of a clannish Gaelic tradition, which still echoes in a cultural memory, in their flaming red hair, their thick, brogueish accents and fighting spirit. They are the soul of American defiance, defined. These are the men and women of coal country…and in their country, the ghosts of its people.
A couple of days ago, we published a story titled “The Real, Bloody and Amazing Story of Labor Day.” In it, we explored the origins of the labor movement and unionization in the United States, and the brutal corporate oppression that led up to the Haymarket Massacre and the Pullman Strike. These keystone events in our history were born of deadly working conditions, slave wages and exploitation by corporate interests. And both ended the same way: Local police sided with the corporate interests, the corporations hired mercenaries under the guise of “private security,” and the mass death of striking laborers began. Even after the government was called to back the corporations (via local police), the corporations were, themselves, later found to be at fault.
These two events led directly to the establishment of Labor Day not only in the United States, but of the International Labor Day practiced in over 80 countries. But that wasn’t the end of the story…far from it. Especially in the darkly wooded mountains of West Virginia.
Here almost 30 years later, lay the scene of the largest and bloodiest civilian uprising since the Civil War — one that would forever change the fate of a nation. Today, we know it as “The Battle of Blair Mountain.”
Blair Mountain is in Logan County, about 11 miles from the city of Logan, in the Southwest corner of the state. This area, like much of West Virginia, Kentucky and Illinois, was a powerhouse of coal production during the First World War. Back then, machines were hugely inefficient, and the United States and others burned millions of tons of the stuff in the course of killing each other.
But by 1920, the demand for coal had plummeted — down almost 60 percent from its wartime peak. During they heyday of coal, corporations routinely employed child labor, convict labor, and paid low wages to miners working in one of the deadliest trades in the country.
They built whole towns around their mines…company towns, where the miners paid rent to live in company houses, and were themselves paid in company-issued currency called “scrip.” The modern day equivalent might be something like Disney Dollars, usable only in the stores and in the operations owned by the company. They were, in effect, paying the miners to pay them to live there — a sort of indentured servitude. The classic song “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Williams laments the practice:
“You load sixteen tons, and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go…I owe my soul to the company store.”
West Virginia’s coal companies wielded absolute power in the region, and defended it with absolute force, splitting the population as much as possible to prevent unionization. The legendary Hatfield/McCoy feud was based in just such a split. But still, unions did manage to pop up here and there — often, quickly put down using brute force from hired mercenaries, who burned miners out of their homes, killed them publicly or simply evicted them and their families to die in the freezing West Virginia winter.
And that’s where the Battle of Blair Mountain started.
The Matewan Massacre aka The Battle of Matewan
May 20th, 1920 in Matewan West Virginia — The people of Matewan were unionizing, joining the United Mine Workers of America, in an effort to end the long hours, horrid working conditions and company scrip pay policy used by the Stone Mountain Coal company.
Stone Mountain saw the writing on the wall; only a few months before, another union had lobbied for the end of scrip and a 27 percent pay increase. So they hired a mercenary group of notoriously brutal thugs called the Baldwin-Felts Detectives to send a message.
On that day, a group of Baldwin-Felts men entered a coal camp just outside of town. Each carried a briefcase, and inside that briefcase was a surplus WWI submachine gun. They proceeded to forcibly evict legal and paying tenants from company-owned homes in the camp, without notice or warning. The police chief, Sid Hatfield (yes, of that Hatfield family) found the Felts when they came back to town, and intercepted them at the train station.
He attempted to arrest them for the illegal convictions and brutality, some anti-union men later said using a fake warrant. Armed townspeople gather around the group of men, waiting. The mayor of the town Campbell Testerman (siding with the union) stood between them. Felts opened fire with his machine gun, killing Testerman; Sid fired back, also reportedly hitting Testerman in the crossfire. One of the Felts men fell.
The other Felts attempted to flee, but Hatfield chased the leader of the gang into a post office, and shot him dead. At the end of the shootout, seven Felts men lay dead, the mayor lay dying and two townspeople (bystanders caught in the crossfire) were dead as well. The Felts had wounded dozens of townspeople with their machine-gun fire.
And Sid Hatfield…he became a hero of the union movement. The man who had faced down the invincible Baldwin-Felts thugs, and put a bullet in the head of their leader.
But Matewan’s hero was soon to become what all great heroes do…a martyr.
The Three Days Battle
One year later, Sid Hatfield had been acquitted of all charges for killing the Felts. But his trail fanned the flames of union fervor in the area, and those beaten down by corporate brutality began flocking to his side. A movement gathered, with the now near-mythical Sid Hatfield at its center.
But the union movement as a whole was faltering. By May of 1921, 80 percent of mines had re-opened using former striking workers under “yellow-dog” contracts. Miners began launching full-scale assaults on non-union mines, blowing up mining equipment and sabotaging operations wherever possible.
The conflict engulfed the entire Tug Valley, and was finally ended under a flag of truce and implementation of martial law. But the state-sanctioned martial law system was a ploy engineered by coal companies; miners by the hundreds were arrested on false charges and minor offenses, denied habeas corpus and other basic legal rights. One detective was quoted as saying:
“Forget habeas corpus…we’ll give ’em post-mortem.”
The miners struck back, reigniting violence against the state-sanctioned corporate thugs. Mining equipment was blown up, and West Virginia erupted into flame and smoke. Somewhere along the line, Sid Hatfield was charged with blowing up a coal tipple. He arrived at the McDowell county courthouse to face the court.
He found Baldwin-felts detectives waiting at the top of the stairs. without warning, Sid Hatfield and his accompanying deputy Ed Champers were gunned down. One Baldwin-felts man chased Chambers’ body to the bottom of the stairs, and put a bullet in the back of his head for good measure.
Death waited anew at Blair Mountain.
The Battle of Blair Mountain
August 20th, 1921 — Over 10,000 armed men begin their march toward Logan County. Many arrived with the main group on a “commandeered” train called “The Blue Steel Special.” A man named Bill Blizzard led the massive miner army against the company mines in Logan County, and the anti-union forces that awaited them there. They were led by the reviled and corrupt Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, on the payroll of the County Coal Operators Association.
The miner army gathers.
The “Logan County Defenders” were only 2,000 strong; still the largest private force ever assembled in American history, though far outnumbered by the miners. But Chafin had a trump card. His forces held the high ground, had prepared defensive fortifications and perhaps most importantly: were using surplus WWI military hardware. These included heavy machine guns, mortars, artillery, explosive shells and the kind of poison gas bombs that made Hell of the trenches in Europe.
All courtesy of the County Coal Operators Association.
One of the actual machine guns used by the anti-union forces at Blair Mountain.
Battle was joined on August 25th, with the first few skirmishing soldiers advancing some 15 miles ahead of the main union army column. A bloodbath ensued, but not without the anti-union forces taking losses of their own.
Chaffin made a phone call…to President Warren G. Harding. “Law enforcement is under attack!” he said “Help us!”
Miners manning a machine gun emplacement captured from anti-union troops
And help Harding did, threatening to send federal troops supported by (yet again) WWI surplus Martin MB-1 bombers to decimate the lightly armed miner army. The leaders of the two groups met in Madison, and carefully negotiated a truce. The miners would return home, and all forces would de-escalate. The miners turned around and began to trudge home, boarding their stolen trains for a return trip.
But Chafin still thirsted for blood. He wanted his war…and so did his corporate sponsors.
Within hours of the Madison decision, Chafin began gunning down union supporters in nearby Sharples. None were spared, not even the families caught in the crossfire. He waited for word of the killings to reach the retreating trains of the union army.
They took the bait.
In a red haze of rage, the miner army turned its trains around, headed for Chafin’s forces on the slopes of Blair Mountain. They did not know that Chafin had specifically selected this battleground well in advance, and had prepared its defenses well. Blair Mountain had become a thousand-foot corporate fortress — a privatized military death trap.
The miner army surged up the mountain, with shots fired down from above, and machine gun emplacements spraying high-caliber death through the trees. Planes circled above — privately owned and flown in on the company’s behest to bomb the miner army.
Explosives landed all around the army, with 100-pounds shells exploding in its midst. The air became thick with smoke, cordite and blood, obscuring insidiously palls of poison gas drifting down the mountainside.
High above circled a military Martin MB-1 bomber — an Army plane flown in from Maryland. The plane, sent in by Harding, provided reconnaissance reports to the anti-union ground forces and private bomber planes. This may be the first recorded incident of the government using air power against its own citizens.
Chafin’s private army, firing downhill at the miners from a machinegun emplacement.
Battle raged for the next week, and at one point the miners came very close to capturing their objective: the county seat of Logan. But repeated offensive bombings from above and the arrival of about 1,000 federal troops on September 2nd turned them back.
U.S. Army Troops camped at Blair
Bill Blizzard gave the command to call off the attack, knowing that, while they would likely succeed in capturing the town by sheer weight of numbers, the death toll among the miners was sure to reach into the thousands. Harding’s bombers, they’d learned, were inbound.
The miners retreated, effectively ending the Battle of Blair Mountain. Chafin reported 50 dead, and the miners 150 to 200 dead. The number of seriously wounded is unknown, though it’s estimated to have been more than 2,000 on the union side, and 400 to 500 on Chafin’s.
Over one million rounds were fired in the conflict.
A Pyrrhic Victory, and a New Deal
In the short-term, the Coal Association had won the day. Using a combination of illegal weaponry, corrupt law enforcement, private mercenaries and co-opted federal assistance, West Virginia’s corporate interests maintained their grip on power.
Almost a thousand miners were captured and jailed for conspiracy to commit murder and accessory to the same. Most were convicted, but paroled four years later. Bill Blizzard himself faced charges, but he had a bit of evidence the company didn’t expect: one of its own bombs, which failed to explode on impact. The company and government, which had always denied use of the bombs, instructed the prosecutors to drop Blizzard’s case.
The unexploded bomb used as evidence in Blizzard’s case.
Following the Battle of Blair Mountain, union membership plummeted from 50,000 to only 10,000 miners. The movement was gutted, and business went back to usual. For a little while.
While the Coal Association had beaten the miners militarily, “Blair Mountain” became a rallying cry for union organizers and labor activists nationwide. It was West Virginia’s Thermopylae, and the men who fought and died there were canonized as heroes of the oppressed. This became a particularly strong notion following the onset of The Great Depression — itself caused by the very corporate greed and exploitation the miners fought against.
By 1933, the awareness and subsequent coalition of unions nationwide created by Blair Mountain led directly a tremendous growth in union power. By 1935, under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the unions of Southern West Virginia had reorganized, stronger than ever before. Today’s unions owe much, if not everything, to these brave coal miners. And that is a tremendous legacy in itself.
But more so is this: These newly strengthened national unions are generally agreed to have been the deciding factor in FDR’s election. Without Blair Mountain, the unions of the nation would not have united. Without the incredible power of union influence, there would have been no President FDR…and, thus, no New Deal. Hence no social security, no welfare, food stamps, no FDIC, Federal Housing Authority or SEC. Even the Glass-Steagal Act, which for so long protected America from destruction by bank, would not have existed if not for The New Deal.
And we owe it all to a bunch of red-headed miners, who once charged up a mountain in West Virginia, to fight against immeasurable odds, far superior firepower and the mountain itself. All for this simple right to organize, and stand up for each other. We owe them a debt, never likely to be repaid.
“It is better to die on your feet, than live on your knees.” — Che Guevara
Epilogue — The Fight for Blair Mountain Continues
Today, the historic battleground of Blair Mountain is in a new fight…a fight for its very existence. The mountain itself sits atop a massive supply of soft coal, accessible only by a deplorable mining practice known as “mountaintop removal.” Which is exactly what it sounds like.
This practice has been leveling some of the most scenic peaks of the Appalachians for decades now, and filling its deep valleys with the rubble and remnants of these irreplaceable landmarks. Mountaintop removal is, quite literally, flattening our history.
Right now, two of America’s largest coal companies, Arch Coal and Massey Energy (one of the biggest polluters in the world) have leases on Blair Mountain — and they want their coal. But in 2008, Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, owing to its incredible historic significance. The coal companies fired back the next year, bribing their way through Washington to have Blair Mountain removed from the registry one year later.
Conservationists fought back, petitioning a federal district judge in 2012 to protect the site once again. That judge threw the ruling out of court, on the basis that said groups did not have the standing to sue to protect the site. Blair Mountain, it seemed, was doomed once again, to fall to the grasp of corporate interests, and the government stooges they paid to keep it.
On August 26th of this year, just four days ago as of this writing, conservation groups brought the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the district of Columbia. The appeals court ruled in a 2-1 decision that the groups did have standing to protect the site as a national treasure. They maintained that:
“…the mining companies’ obvious intent to conduct mountaintop removal mining on the Battlefield was enough to demonstrate that destruction of the historic resources was imminent, and that depriving citizen groups of the right to enjoy the site would result in “concrete and particularized injury.”
So, Blair Mountain is once again safe…for now. If history teaches us anything, though, it’s that the people who want will always want more, no matter the cost to anyone else. No degree of death, destruction or corruption is beyond them, and the political winds are ever shifting. Monuments to the resilience of a people, no matter their size, are but grains of dust within them.
The Battle for Blair Mountain is never won.
It is as eternal as the ghosts of its people.
Author’s Note: I hope you enjoyed reading this account of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and have come to appreciate its tremendous importance the way I have. While driving a truck over the road, I had the opportunity to regularly visit a good friend and his family in their home town of Logan…which, as you know, sits in the shadow of Blair Mountain. While taking my home time in Logan, I was told the story of the battle by the daughter of a man who lived it…my friend’s mother.
In the middle of the story, she removed from a small, ancient box something wrapped in yellowed linen. It was a bullet, its case browned by time. She removed it from the box and set it in my hand as though it were made of glass. “That came from my Daddy’s gun,” she said. “He saved it for himself.” I didn’t ask her to clarify. I just handed the heavy round back to her. I wish I’d known then what I know now about the battle, and how it changed all of our lives forever. Maybe today, I could appreciate the weight of the history I’d held in my hand.