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The Battle of Blair Mountain

The Battle of Blair Mountain

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the result of years of bitter labor disputes between the miners and coal companies of southern West Virginia. Since the late 1800s, the coalfields of the state’s Mingo, Logan and McDowell Counties had operated under a repressive company town system. Workers mined using leased tools and were paid low wages in company currency, or “scrip,” which could only be used at company stores. Safety conditions were often deplorable, yet despite the efforts of groups such as the United Mine Workers (UMW), the mine operators had kept unions out of the region through intimidation and violence. Companies compelled their workers to sign so-called “yellow dog contracts” pledging not to organize, and they used armies of private detectives to harass striking miners and evict them from their company-owned homes.

The hostilities only ramped up in 1920, when the UMW finally started to organize workers in Mingo County. On May 19 of that year, members of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency arrived in the town of Matewan to evict union miners from houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. After catching wind of the detectives’ activities, Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and a pro-union sheriff named Sid Hatfield raised a small posse and confronted them near the local train station. A verbal argument quickly escalated into a gunfight, and when the smoke cleared, seven Baldwin-Felts agents had been killed along with Mayor Testerman and two local miners.

The so-called “Matewan Massacre” galvanized support for the UMW, which collected new members and organized a strike in the summer of 1920. The coal companies responded by bringing in non-union replacement workers, and over the next several months, the two sides engaged in a fierce guerilla war. “Murder by laying in wait and shooting from ambush has become common,” Mingo County’s sheriff wrote in May 1921.

The tipping point in the “Mine War” finally came on August 1, 1921, when Sheriff Sid Hatfield was shot dead by Baldwin-Felts agents as he entered the McDowell County Courthouse. The assassination outraged the miners, who considered Hatfield a hero for his involvement in the Matewan shootout. Within days, thousands of union supporters had flocked to the outskirts of Marmet, a small town located near the state capital of Charleston. Led by UMW organizers Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, they resolved to march on Mingo County to confront the coal companies and free the union men imprisoned in the area. Many of the marchers were World War I veterans, and they came armed to the teeth with military-issue Springfield rifles and shotguns. “It is time to lay down the bible and take up the rifle,” miner and Baptist reverend John Wilburn declared.

The miners’ route to Mingo required them to pass through Logan County, a coal company stronghold ruled by an anti-union sheriff named Don Chafin. Upon learning of the march, Chafin scraped together a 3,000-strong army of state police, deputies and citizen militiamen and prepared for a fight. “No armed mob will cross the Logan County line,” he proclaimed. Chafin and his supporters had soon constructed a network of machine gun nests and trenches around Blair Mountain, a 2,000-foot peak that stood directly in the miners’ path.

On August 24, the main body of coal miners set out from Marmet and headed south toward Mingo County. Keeney and Mooney made a last-minute attempt to call off the march after meeting with the War Department’s General Harry Bandholtz, who warned that any violence would prove disastrous for the union, but the proposed ceasefire collapsed when two miners died in a skirmish with Chafin’s forces. By August 28, some 10,000 union men had massed near the border of Logan County and begun trading gunfire with company supporters. To distinguish one another in the dense forests, many of the miners tied red handkerchiefs around their necks. They soon became known as the “Red Neck Army.”

The first heavy fighting in the Battle of Blair Mountain began on August 31, when a group of around 75 miners led by Reverend Wilburn stumbled across some of Chafin’s “Logan Defenders” on a wooded ridge. Each side asked the other for a password and received the wrong answer, prompting a shootout that killed three deputies and one miner. That same day, the main army of miners commenced a two-pronged assault on Chafin’s trenches and breastworks. Scores of union men streamed up the mountainside, but despite their superior numbers, they were repeatedly driven back by the defenders, who riddled them with machine gun fire from the high ground.

The miners made more progress when the battle was renewed on September 1. That morning, a detachment of union men assaulted a spot called Craddock Fork with a Gatling gun looted from a coal company store. Logan forces fought back with a machine gun, but after three hours of heavy fire, their weapon jammed. The miners surged forward and briefly broke the defensive line, only to be repulsed by a fusillade of bullets from a second machine gun nest located further up the ridge.

For the rest of the day, the hills and hollows echoed with gunfire as the union men repeatedly attacked the defenders’ lines. “Machine guns cracked up there so you would think the whole place was coming down on you,” miner Ira Wilson later recalled. At one point in the battle, the din also included the sound of falling bombs. Sheriff Chafin had chartered three private biplanes and equipped them with teargas and pipe bombs loaded with nuts and bolts for shrapnel. The planes dropped the homemade explosives over two of the miners’ strongholds, but failed to inflict any casualties.

In the end, the miners’ siege of Blair Mountain was only ended by the arrival of federal troops. A squadron of Army Air Service reconnaissance planes began patrolling the skies on September 1, and by the following day, General Bandholtz had mobilized some 2,100 army troops on the orders of President Warren G. Harding. Scattered fighting continued between the miners and the Logan Defenders until September 4, but most of the men welcomed the government intervention and laid down their weapons. Roughly 1,000 exhausted miners eventually surrendered to the army, while the rest scattered and returned home. It was later estimated that some one million rounds had been fired during the battle. Reports of casualties ranged from as few as 20 killed to as many as 100, but the actual number has never been confirmed.

The Battle of Blair Mountain is now cited as a pivotal chapter in American labor history, but in the short term, it proved to be a crushing defeat for the miners. The state of West Virginia charged Keeney, Mooney and some 20 other union men with treason, and hundreds of others were indicted for murder. Nearly all were later acquitted, but the legal battles emptied the UMWA’s coffers and hindered its organizing efforts. By the end of the decade, only a few hundred miners in West Virginia were still members. The union wouldn’t reclaim the coalfields until the mid-1930s and the Great Depression, when workers’ rights to organize were enshrined in New Deal legislation such as the National Industrial Recovery Act.

The Battle for Blair Mountain

I heard that many a time, at family reunions or other gatherings, as I grew up.

On the surface, it sounds, well. snooty. Or worse—condescending.

But I don’t think that’s how the members of my family of origin meant it. After all, I had great uncles who’d gone off to work as coal miners and send money to their families back home on tobacco farms in eastern Kentucky. And several aunts who married into coal mining families.

Tobacco farming in my family of origin meant subsistence farming for food plus a bottom of tobacco to sell off each year, if it had been a good year, for cash to get through the winter. I think what my kin meant was that as difficult as tobacco farming was, it was at least easier and safer than coal mining.

I was from the first generation in my family of origin, going back generation after generation, to be born outside Appalachia. My parents left behind tobacco farming for my father to work as a tool and die machinist, first in a union shop, and then on his own.

So, when I landed upon the story behind The Widows, and realized it was set in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, I was immediately drawn to the setting, though it was in a different part of the vast range of Appalachia.

The Widows was inspired by the first true female sheriff of Ohio, in 1925. Maude Collins was appointed sheriff after her husband was killed in the line of duty, and went on to win election as sheriff in her own right in a landslide in 1926.

But just as my protagonist, Lily Ross, is inspired by Maude—but becomes a character in her own right—the setting for The Widows is similarly inspired by the southeastern area of Ohio.

In real life, Maude was sheriff in Vinton County, which included buckwheat farms and a bit of coal mining, sometimes by individuals who happened on a seam or two, and mined out what they could for cash. As I researched the area, though, I learned about the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds,” about 70 mining communities in a microregion of southeastern Ohio, which had its heyday from the late 19 th through the early 20 th centuries. Counties included in the microregion abut Vinton, and so I decided to create a fictional county for Ohio, Bronwyn County, which takes in part of the geography of Vinton as well as coal mining territory.

Officers of District 17, UMW, say the bomb shown here was dropped from a plane which flew over their camps, coming from the direction of Logan. It was picked up by the miners during the march on Logan. The bomb is now on display at the offices of District 17 on Summers Street, Charleston. Charleston Gazette, 11 December 1921.

In so doing, I created a challenge for myself: learn as much as I could about the region and, in particular, coal mining in that area and in the era leading up to 1925.

My research led me to the story of the Battle for Blair Mountain, which took place August 25 – September 2, 1921, in West Virginia.

It’s the second largest civilian uprising in U.S. history—surpassed only by the Civil War. And the largest labor uprising in the U.S.

And yet, I’d never heard of it. When I’ve asked other people if they’ve heard of it, the answer is usually ‘no,’ unless the group includes someone who comes from a long line of coal miners.

Ten thousand or so coal miners—weary of unsafe and harsh working and living conditions, low pay, and triggered by the blatant murder of a pro-union mayor at the hands of hired guns working for coal company management—finally rose up. It was, as one of the books I read on the subject put it, an “undeclared war.” (The book is the excellent The Battle of Blair Mountain by Robert Shogan.)

As tensions mounted, the law and community members took sides—some officers of the law and shop owners supporting the miners, and some in favor of management. The battle lasted ten days, with more than 10,000 coal miners armed with rifles, battling 3,000 much better equipped strikebreakers, including police, and, ultimately, by order of President Warren Harding, federal troops, and even a U.S. Army bomber—the only time, per an NPR story on this historic event, that U.S. military air power has been used against U.S. civilians.

Sheriff’s deputies fighting in Blair Mountain.

In the end, about a hundred coal miners were killed in the battle. Nearly a thousand more were arrested. Defending the arrested coal miners nearly bankrupt and broke the back of the United Mine Workers union.

An interesting note: Mother Jones, the great female unionizer, warned against this uprising, sure that it would end in a bloody outcome for the miners. She turned out to be right. Mother Jones’ spirit was the inspiration for the feisty spirit of another character in The Widows, Marvena Whitcomb, a unionizer who lost her husband to a coal mining cave-in caused by poor safety practices.

Both Lily and Marvena, in 1925 Ohio, in a coal-mining region close to West Virginia would have been aware of the Battle for Blair Mountain.

In an early scene in The Widows introducing Marvena, she speaks with a miner, Jurgis, of Daniel, Lily’s husband and sheriff of Bronwyn County, and his desire to avoid bloodshed:

“I trust Daniel. He don’t want no Blair Mountain.”

Jurgis shudders at the reference to the bloody standoff between miners and management just four years before in West Virginia. It was legendary, and had nearly killed off unionization efforts across America.

Read an extended excerpt of The Widows on Criminal Element

It would take the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era before the Blair Mountain region of West Virginia could begin unionizing efforts anew in the mid-1930s.

Army train proceeding up Coal River toward Blair. The first troop train arrived at St. Albans from Ohio and immediately marched into the coal mine district. Other trains brought the infantrymen and equipment from the Fifth Corps Area of the Middle West. Charleston Gazette, 6 September 1921.

In the past decade or so, another battle has waged over Blair Mountain—its placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was at last listed in 2009, only to be de-listed after coal company legal teams fought the placement.

Finally, in the summer of 2018, Blair Mountain has again received this designation.

The Battle for Blair Mountain has a rich and complex history. Hopefully, with the site’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places, more citizens will learn about this fascinating and tragic part of U.S. history, triggered by complex social and economic issues that still play out today.

Learn more at these sites:

  • “The Battle Of Blair Mountain And The Bloody History Of American Coal Mining,” By Kellen Perry, https://allthatsinteresting.com/battle-of-blair-mountain-mine-wars
  • “Coal Reignites A Mighty Battle of Labor History,” by NPR staff, for All Things Considered: https://www.npr.org/2011/03/05/134203550/coal-reignites-a-mighty-battle-of-labor-history
  • “Blair Mountain Battlefield back on National Register of History Place,” by Kate Mishkin, Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/blair-mountain-battlefield-back-on-national-register-of-historic-places/article_98d954c4-4ea6-5881-b3e7-efb42ee8c1ff.html

JESS MONTGOMERY is the Literary Life columnist for the Dayton Daily News and Executive Director of the renowned Antioch Writers’ Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Based on early chapters of The Widows, Jess was awarded an Ohio Arts Council individual artist’s grant for literary arts and the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence at Thurber House in Columbus. She lives in her native state of Ohio.

The Battle of Blair Mountain Was the Largest Labor Uprising in U.S. History

In the first decades of the 20th century, desegregation seemed like a distant dream. Bombings, lynchings, and other acts of brutal racist violence were all too common, and schools and other public spaces were largely segregated by race. Yet deep in the coal mines of West Virginia, an integrated militia of coal miners was forming, and they had little in common except for their enemy: oppressive coal barons. White hill folk, European immigrants, and African Americans were fed up with life-threatening working conditions, terrible wages, crushing debt, and corrupt mine operators. They were the original rednecks, and their interracial coalition was ahead of its time.

Miners often wore red bandanas, earning them the nickname “rednecks.” By late 1921, they had organized for years through unions including the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). They’d led strikes, protests and smaller armed clashes against their employers, building up to what would become known as the largest labor uprising in U.S. history.

On August 25, 1921, anger boiled over and miners marched toward Mingo County, West Virginia. They were held up by a local sheriff, backed by hired local deputies, who defended key passes in the hills. They were told to “kill all the rednecks” they could, and the opposing forces fought for days at Blair Mountain in Logan County, according to West Virginia Mine Wars Museum director Kenzie New-Walker. The standoff lasted until September 2, when federal agents were called in. According to Chuck Keeney, historian and great-grandson of Blair Mountain leader Frank Keeney, the miners weren’t willing to fire on federal troops, because many were themselves veterans. They laid down their weapons and surrendered, thus ending the Battle of Blair Mountain. Although it would take several more years for coal miners to win the key labor victories they sought, the battle holds important lessons about organizing — particularly that even the biggest, most-entrenched bad guys can be toppled when the disenfranchised work together.

Teen Vogue spoke to descendents of the Battle of Blair Mountain and historians who study Appalachia to learn more about how this diverse coalition came together to fight for fairer conditions.

Keeney, author of The Road to Blair Mountain and a founding member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, says it’s difficult to know the exact demographic makeup of the miners at Blair Mountain. They took oaths of secrecy to protect one another from prosecution, and the coal companies controlled the narrative after the battle, according to Keeney. However, he says, the workforce was certainly more diverse than most places in the U.S. at the time to recruit workers, coal companies approached immigrants at Ellis Island, promising employees a house and a job. Keeney says many miners came from Italy and Poland but quickly realized the American dream wasn’t exactly as advertised. Seeking opportunities beyond sharecropping, freed slaves and their children also found work in the mines, as did Appalachian hill folk, who had few other options. The result was a diverse mix of miners with no cultural commonality besides their hazardous occupation. Keeney says that while coal company towns were segregated — miners were forced to live on company property and pay part of their wages as rent — work in the mines wasn’t always so.

“They all depended upon one another because it was incredibly dangerous work,” Keeney says.

Miners on Blair Mountain in 1921

Kenneth King, West Virginia Mine Wars Museum

The miners realized that in order to be successful, they needed to organize like they worked — together. Brendan Muckian-Bates, IWW press officer, says IWW was always integrated because the union understood their efforts were stronger that way. Muckian-Bates says the IWW formed from a coalition of more militant unions in 1905, believing aggressive tactics won more victories. Keeney says some miners did use militancy to make change in one memorable vignette he described miners forcing coal company cafeteria workers at gunpoint to serve them all — Black, white, and immigrant — in the same room long before desegregation was legalized.

“They had a firm understanding their movement couldn’t be done if they didn’t work across those lines,” Muckian-Bates says.

This intersectionality was incredibly important but also in direct opposition to U.S. law at the time, according to Tyler Parry, assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Parry says that after the reconstruction period following the Civil War, white America was afraid of empowered Black men who could vote and run for elected office. The backlash included segregation legislation that kept Black and white people apart, benefitting “large capitalist structures” because they tamped down revolts.

“Every time you would see a rebellion become successful, then crushed, you saw laws to separate people,” Parry says.

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In August 1921, up to twenty thousand miners with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) amassed in Charleston, West Virginia, many armed with hunting rifles. They aimed to march southwest, to Mingo County, to free striking miners and their families, whom the coal bosses, in collusion with the state, had imprisoned and were attempting to starve out.

But between the two groups of miners stood Blair Mountain, rising nearly two thousand feet above sea level. Atop the mountain, the local sheriff had dug in his own army of hundreds of deputies, armed with submachine guns and bombs, which were deployable via commandeered aircraft. The two sides battled for five days before federal troops put down the miners’ revolt. (“AIR FLEET ORDERED TO W. VA BATTLEFIELD / AVIATORS WILL DROP BOMBS ON MARCHERS” read the headline in the Washington Times.) It was the largest armed conflict since the Civil War and, to this day, the largest labor uprising in US history.

At the time, miners in West Virginia lived in an “industrial police state,” according to the historian Charles B. Keeney. They not only resided in company housing in company towns, where they purchased exorbitantly priced goods from company stores, but they and their families suffered under the scrutiny of mine guards, who represented the combined force of the coal industry and local government. Miners were subject to evictions, beatings, and even murder at the behest of the coal industry (“King Coal,” in the local parlance).

In opposition to this violent rule, miners sought to organize themselves into unions. Founded in Ohio in 1890, the United Mine Workers of America spread across West Virginia in the 1910s and early ’20s. Police state–like conditions, combined with many miners’ battle experience in World War I, triggered one of the most violent fronts of the Coal Wars — a series of conflicts that saw workers and owners battle for control of mines from Colorado to West Virginia. In 1921, miners in Mingo County were attempting to unionize when their leaders were imprisoned and their families starved to break the strike. When West Virginia’s governor refused to hear the appeal of local UMWA leaders and members, the Battle of Blair Mountain was all but set.

Keeney’s great-grandfather, Frank, was president of the UMWA in West Virginia and one of the leaders of the miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain. This legacy drew Keeney into a subsequent battle for Blair Mountain, beginning in 2011, to protect it as a site of historic significance. Once again, big business and the state joined to threaten the interests of working people in the form of their collective history, with King Coal poised to destroy the battlefield through mountaintop removal mining and the construction of an airfield for the West Virginia National Guard. Against these powers that be, Keeney and other activists formed a surprising alliance of environmental and labor organizations, which dogged the coal companies, state government, and federal agencies on the ground and in the courts for nine years — until Blair Mountain was finally listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke to Keeney about the 1921 labor uprising and 2011 preservation effort, both of which are detailed in his book, The Road to Blair Mountain: Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield from King Coal.

In The Road to Blair Mountain, you distinguish “redneck” as a pejorative from “red neck” as a term of empowerment. How were the miners at the Battle of Blair Mountain “red necks?”

I differentiate between the two to distinguish activism versus the contemporary stereotype. The use of the two-word “red neck” is connected to the history of the red bandana in labor and activist movements. Some workers during the 1877 Railroad Strike, which began in West Virginia, wore red bandanas as symbols of their union solidarity. Coal miners in the state later picked up the tradition and were commonly referred to by company mine guards as red necks.

In 1921, when someone said red neck, they didn’t imagine the quips of Jeff Foxworthy but someone who stood for unions and workers’ rights. In the American popular consciousness, the one-word version of the term became synonymous with a derogatory stereotype usually referring to rural whites.

Two coal miners sit in a sniper’s nest with a machine gun during the Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921. (Kinograms)

My book and activism endeavor to reclaim the term as intended by the white, black, and immigrant miners who stormed Blair Mountain a century ago.

The miners involved at the Battle of Blair Mountain were interracial. To what extent were they anti-racist in their aims?

The fact that the “Red Neck Army” of 1921 was integrated a generation before the US military is significant. Additionally, marching miners did force restaurant owners and company facilities to desegregate in the area they controlled — but I wouldn’t necessarily categorize them as anti-racist in the contemporary sense, as they did not call for a reevaluation of race relations in society. They simply were able to temporarily set aside racial differences and prejudices for an immediate common goal.

The unity of these miners, however, does offer a glimpse of what is possible when groups such as immigrants, blacks, and rural whites work together.

In your book, you describe the old mine guard system evolving into the current “mind guard system.” What was the former, and how did the latter spring from it?

The mine guard system refers to the industrial police state that existed in West Virginia from the 1880s to the New Deal. More than twice the percentage of coal miners in West Virginia lived in company towns than in any other state in America. Mine guards served as company police, strikebreakers, and spies in order to prevent unionization and establish coal-company control over the region.

During the 1930s, mine guards were abolished in Central Appalachia. Coal companies responded to this change of fortune by dominating local media and school curricula and by producing their own history textbooks. Such control over information enabled the industry to perpetuate a myth of coal as a great positive influence on the state.

With the decline of the United Mine Workers in the late twentieth century, the industry created the Friends of Coal, and bombarded the region with pro-coal propaganda. State politicians, bought and paid for by the industry, passed legislation to prevent the teaching of climate change in secondary schools and created the “Coal in the Classroom” program to paint the industry in a romanticized light.

I call it the “mind guard system.” This, combined with the economic hold of coal over the region, helps explain the worldview and voting patterns of many people who live in Central Appalachia.

The battle to preserve Blair Mountain faced opposition not only from the coal industry but the military-industrial complex. How did these interests intersect?

In 2009, the Blair Mountain battlefield was briefly listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The coal industry wanted to destroy the site with mountaintop removal mining, but state code forbids surface mining on places listed on the National Register.

The industry approached the National Guard with a plan to blast sections of the battlefield and use the blasted rock material to build crisscrossing runways for a drop zone and anti-terrorist training facility. They sold this concept to the state’s adjutant general and then-governor Joe Manchin. The state, in conjunction with the coal industry, then successfully petitioned to delist the battlefield from the National Register, apparently hoping that local patriotic sentiment and the promise of mining jobs would steer public opinion in their favor.

UMWA officials and members of the “Red Neck Army” display a bomb dropped on them during the Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921. (Charleston Gazette)

However, Friends of Blair Mountain (FOBM), the nonprofit organization I led, successfully stopped the operation and was able to get the battlefield back on the National Register. In my book, I detail how we accomplished this, as well as the surveillance, threats of violence, and other pressures placed upon myself and the members of our organization during this fight.

Success in preserving Blair Mountain involved aligning environmentalists and miners. Was there one tactic or strategy that you feel was most helpful in unifying those typically conflicting parties?

A decade ago, environmental groups and the United Mine Workers did not get along, to put it mildly. To be labeled an environmentalist in coal country was akin to being called a witch in colonial Salem.

The United Mine Workers were far more comfortable aligning themselves with a historic preservation group. Environmentalist groups, such as the Sierra Club, remained allies because an alliance with FOBM gave them credibility. FOBM managed to be the bridge between the two factions.

I believe our efforts in building a coalition are significant because real progress on climate change cannot be made without the support of industrial workers and the unions that represent them. For example, in 2017, when Trump green-lit the Dakota Access Pipeline, environmental groups balked while Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, praised the decision. As long as environmentalists and industrial workers remain divided, efforts to build an economy on renewable energy will be stifled, because many workers will not vote for politicians who they believe emphasize the environment over employment.

Are there any ways that you see the Battle of Blair Mountain resonating in current labor struggles, such as the ongoing strike by UMWA at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama?

As I’ve stated many times before, Blair Mountain isn’t who we were, it’s who we are. The wealth gap in the United States is the largest since the Battle of Blair Mountain. Unions are as weak as they were a century ago. In a variety of ways, the 2020s are shaping up to be quite similar to the 1920s.

Moreover, in the developing world, workers are experiencing conditions that created the armed insurrection of 1921. In similar fashion to coal mines a century ago, forced child labor is common in African mines that extract rare earth elements and gemstones. Company towns exist today in South America and East Africa that are every bit as oppressive as the coal camps of industrial West Virginia. Chinese corporations and fossil-fuel giants such as Exxon employ private company armies across the southern hemisphere. Union leaders in these countries are assassinated. In Peru, for example, over a dozen labor activists were murdered in 2018 alone.

In short, our failure to learn the lessons of Blair Mountain has led to a world that may see similar conflicts emerge in the future.

The Battle of Blair Mountain Is Still Being Waged

Carrying rifles and wearing red bandanas around their necks (further cementing the term “redneck” in the American vernacular), some 10,000 coal miners marched toward Mingo County, West Virginia, in August 1921, determined to put an end to the Mine Guard System and free their brethren who had been jailed under martial law. Blocking their path were the entrenched forces of local sheriff Don Chafin, dug-in with machine-gun turrets guarding key passes through the steep terrain. After days of fighting, which included bombs dropped from biplanes, the Battle of Blair Mountain ended when federal troops were dispatched. The Blair Mountain Battlefield, an important historical site that commemorates the fight for constitutional rights, and an archaeological trove of trenches, artifacts, and quite possibly human remains, could now be utterly destroyed by surface mining or timbering.

The largest armed uprising in American history since the Civil War, the Battle of Blair Mountain was the culminating event of the West Virginia Mine Wars, a series of conflicts between miners and coal operators spanning nearly a decade. In August 1921, an estimated 10,000 armed coal miners marched south from the state capitol at Charleston, West Virginia, towards the anti-union counties of Logan, Mingo, and McDowell. Their intent was to end the notorious Mine Guard System, which enabled the coal companies, backed by a private force of armed guards, to rule the coalfields as a police state in which the right to free speech, assembly, and other basic rights were forfeited as a condition of employment.

Eight in ten West Virginia miners then lived in unincorporated “company towns” without elected officials or independent police forces. Mine guards (nominally employed by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency) maintained order, installing machine-gun turrets and searchlights to help quell any rebellion. The miners and their families rented company houses—one-room hovels, always within walking distance of the mine were paid in company currency called “script” and bought goods at company stores with set prices. Company representatives even controlled the mail, often removing what they considered to be “subversive” (pro-union) literature.

As the miners marched south in late August, company forces, deputized and led by Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, set up ten miles of defensive positions north of the town of Logan along ridgelines stretching from Blair Mountain northwards to Mill Creek. The battle continued for four days before federal troops intervened and the miners, unwilling to fight U.S. soldiers, laid down their arms. In the aftermath, over 500 miners and their union leadership were arrested and charged with treason and murder. The battle has been called “Labor's Gettysburg” because of its significance to the history of unions and workers’ rights.

The battlefield covers nearly 1,700 acres and is heavily forested with steep slopes. Along ridgelines and at various strategic points, numerous defensive entrenchments, earthworks, and foxholes can be found. Bullet shell casings and buried guns are among the most common artifacts found on the battlefield, and some human remains may be buried there as well.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was perhaps the most forceful challenge to corporate power in American history, and the battle stands as a prime example of the sacrifices workers made and the struggles they faced in order to achieve union rights, benefits, living wages, safe working conditions, and pensions. It would take more than a decade after the battle for many of the miners’ objectives to be enshrined in law, but all workers in America now benefit from this early-twentieth-century struggle for workers' rights. Looking back today on the events of 1921, Cecil E. Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, sums up their significance this way:

Blair Mountain stands as a pivotal event in American history, where working men and women stood up to the lawless coal barons of the early twentieth century and their private armies and fought for their rights as Americans—and indeed​, the rights of working families all over the world. It is a place where we can all be reminded that workers in this nation were literally forced to fight for their rights, and that those rights must constantly be defended or they will be lost. Blair Mountain is a beacon for all those who support American ideals of democracy, fairness, and freedom, which is what the miners were fighting for.

On a regional level, the conflict helped foster Appalachian stereotypes relating to "hillbillies" and "rednecks." The mainstream media of its day and the powerful corporate interests blamed the violence on the backward, mountain culture of the miners, promoting an historical narrative that has shaped the way Americans view Appalachians and how Appalachians view themselves.

The threat to the historical battlefield has long been recognized. In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the site on its list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” On March 30, 2009, the Blair Mountain Battlefield, covering 1,669 acres, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its importance to labor history, social history, and politics, with 1921 as the period of significance. Soon after the listing, coal companies that held permits to mine the area sued West Virginia state officials who had supported the nomination. The companies also formally appealed the decision to list the battlefield in the National Register, and within nine months of having been listed in the Register, the site was delisted.

In September 2010, several groups, including the Sierra Club and the newly formed Friends of Blair Mountain (FOBM), filed a lawsuit challenging the delisting. U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton vacated the delisting on April 11, 2016, declaring it to be in violation of federal law. He then referred the matter back to the Keeper of the National Register, who is now deciding whether to relist the site.

There are currently three surface-mining permits that overlap onto the battlefield. Two of the permits are through Arch Coal (Bumbo No. 2 and Adkins Fork) and one is through Alpha Natural Resources (Camp Branch). To date, preservation efforts have kept these mining projects at bay. Because the archaeological resources are less than a century old, most of the artifacts and earthworks associated with the battle are found on the surface or within inches of it. This means that timbering also has an adverse impact on the battlefield. Timbering disturbances have been documented on the Camp Branch Permit, destroying areas of historical significance in 2009 and 2011. Currently, there are no active timber operations on the battlefield, but there are no legal protections for the site concerning timbering.

Much depends upon the forthcoming decision of the Keeper of the National Register. If the decision is for the battlefield to remain delisted, then Arch Coal may proceed with attempting to surface mine the Adkins Fork Permit. If the Keeper rules to relist the battlefield, then the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection will be further empowered to block certain mining permits, and there will be more time to work toward a permanent solution for the site.

How You Can Help

There has never been a complete archaeological survey of the battlefield. The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is raising funds to sponsor a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scan of the Nomination Area in order to identify the major zones of historical significance and promote the site’s value as a potential historical park. Identifying specific areas of significance and promoting the interpretation of the site will put public pressure on landowners to refrain from mining or timbering the battlefield. The museum is also working to create an educational program for West Virginia public schools to help ensure future stewardship of the site, whose history is not currently included in the curriculum. Preparing a detailed report on the battlefield's economic potential as a heritage-tourism destination is also an objective, one in harmony with recent efforts of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice to promote tourism as a way to rejuvenate the state's economy.

Donate to the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum to help create educational programs and sponsor a LiDAR scan of the battlefield.

Contact the following officials and ask them to help protect the Blair Mountain Battlefield, a nationally significant landscape that should never be forgotten.

Governor Jim Justice (e-mail)
Office of the Governor
State Capitol, 1900 Kanawha Blvd. E
Charleston, WV 25305
Office Telephone: (304)-558-2000 or 1-888-438-2731
Governor's Mansion: (304)-558-3588

State Senator Richard Ojeda (representing Logan County, West Virginia e-mail)
Room 213W, Building 1
State Capitol Complex
Charleston, WV 25305
Office Telephone: (304)-357-7857

If you listen to the podcast Dolly Parton’s America, you may have noticed a weird little etymological moment in the latest episode, “Dolly Parton’s America.” In the course of the episode, the host, Jad Abumrad, visits a history class at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville called, well, Dolly Parton’s America. (Yes, Abumrad makes clear, they did receive permission from the professor, Lynn Sacco, to name their podcast after her class.) Where do you think the term redneck came from? If you’re like me, this episode made you question your priors.

This episode is, in part, about external judgment of Appalachia and the South, and there is a discussion partway through with historian Elizabeth Catte, whose 2018 book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, is an instant classic on the topic. Starting around 27:30, Catte describes the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, in West Virginia, in which 10,000 to 20,000 coal miners looking for the right to unionize clashed with company enforcers, and then with the National Guard, over a deadly week of fighting. “It was the largest uprising since the Civil War, and one of the most significant labor uprisings in American history,” Catte says.

Then, in the originally published version of the episode (WNYC has since added clarifying narration and posted an editor’s note on the show page in response to Slate’s inquiries), Abumrad seems to cut away from the interview, to a summarizing comment: “And the kicker is, the people marching that day wore red bandanas around their necks, which is why they were known as rednecks. That’s where the term came from.” In what seems to be a cutback to the interview, Catte says “Mm-hm, yes, yeah.” The producer, Shima Oliaee, exclaims, “I thought it was about sunburn!” And then Catte moves on to discuss the origins of the word hillbilly.

I, too, was confused to hear this new version of an old bit of folk wisdom, and went to check up on it. The Oxford English Dictionary finds derogatory usages for redneck—when defined as “a poorly educated white person working as an agricultural laborer or from a rural area in the southern United States, typically considered as holding bigoted or reactionary attitudes”—much earlier than 1921: 1891, 1904, 1913. What gives?

I emailed Catte to ask if she had heard the episode she appeared in and what she thought of the way the interview had been edited. She wrote that she hadn’t had a chance to listen. But, she wrote, “it was not my intention to claim the mine wars as the origin of the term, but instead to periodize its transformation from a more generic epithet to something specific to group identity and union membership, particularly among coal miners, which is built into the way that many folks in Appalachia today reclaim the term.”

Abumrad, for his part, replied to an email inquiry by acknowledging the error. “I might not have used the right words,” he wrote. “The etymology is older and more complex and disputed. My main point was simply that poor white southerners are often labeled with slurs that historically could be read to mean the opposite of what we think they mean.”

This history of disputation around the uses of the term is what’s most interesting here, and it’s also what resists a “just-so” story about the word’s origins. Catte pointed me to a 2006 article by historian Patrick Huber in the journal Western Folklore that she said formed the basis for her own interpretation. Huber’s argument—that redneck, in the 1910s through the 1930s, sometimes meant “Communist,” or at least “a miner who was a member of a labor union,” especially one on strike—made it clear that this usage was a strategic reclamation of a word that had been used as a slur. Some union organizers, Huber found, used red bandanas and the term redneck as a way to culturally integrate groups of white, black, and immigrant miners—who were often set against each other by owners eager to divide labor’s power—into a single identity. Because miners often wore red handkerchiefs to protect their faces and necks from coal dust, the bandana was a symbol of labor that was universal among ethnicities and races.

Here is part of a union song collected by industrial folklorist George Korson, which dates to 1927:

Red Necks, keep them scabs away,

Red Necks, fight them every day.

Now any old time you see a scab passin’ by,

Now don’t hesitate—blacken both of his eyes.

At the same time, in a derivation that Huber calls “ambiguous,” coal operators occasionally used redneck when meaning to invoke the term red to denigrate union members. In this bizarre turn of the screw, redneck, in some specific times and probably only a few places, actually functioned as an anti-Communist slur.

This podcast episode isn’t the first time the “red bandana” etymology of rednecks has popped up in media over the past couple of years, as the coasts and big cities have become very interested (again!) in what’s going on in Appalachia. In Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore, in conversation with then–congressional candidate Richard Ojeda, notes that some strikers involved in the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike wore red bandanas, as well. “The bandanas have a special meaning, going back to the 1920s, when tens of thousands of coal miners went on strike, wearing red bandanas around their necks to identify themselves as pro-union, and thus popularizing the term redneck,” Moore says.

That “popularizing” does important work, but it seems Moore might have elided it in later public appearances. At a 2018 screening of the documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival, according to the Austin-American Statesman’s Charles Ealy, audience members received red bandanas upon entering the theater Moore then asked them to tie them around their necks. “He said,” a skeptical Ealy reported, “that the term redneck derived from members of labor unions in the coal industry who wore red bandanas to signify their loyalty.”

Is it picking nits, to call left-leaning media on this mistake? The “other” origin story makes for such a fun factoid, and clearly it’s more encouraging to audiences who may be worried about Trump supporters to hear that redneck has its definite origin in union activity. But it is, as always, more complicated than that. The part of the story that describes people’s purposeful reclamation of a negative term, in service of unity and empowerment, should also be told.

  • ASIN &rlm : &lrm B06XCHRKKK
  • Publisher &rlm : &lrm Basic Books (July 26, 2006)
  • Publication date &rlm : &lrm July 26, 2006
  • Language &rlm : &lrm English
  • File size &rlm : &lrm 1727 KB
  • Text-to-Speech &rlm : &lrm Enabled
  • Screen Reader &rlm : &lrm Supported
  • Enhanced typesetting &rlm : &lrm Enabled
  • X-Ray &rlm : &lrm Not Enabled
  • Word Wise &rlm : &lrm Enabled
  • Print length &rlm : &lrm 298 pages
  • Page numbers source ISBN &rlm : &lrm 0465077730
  • Lending &rlm : &lrm Not Enabled

Top reviews from the United States

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Having read Denise Giardina's fictional account of events surrounding the battle (Storming Heaven), having seen John Sayles' film "Matewan," and having viewed the account as offered in the West Virginia documentary of a few years back, I was hoping for some fairly extensive background into the conflict.

Some background is provided -- the book is not a waste for those who have some familiarity with the events. For those without fairly extensive knowledge, the book should prove an eye-opener. Yes, there was a time in this fair nation when corporations had rights and individuals -- human beings who suffered the ignonomy of not being rich -- did not. The economic schism we are plunging into presently existed before, and men whose only crime was demanding to be paid fairly for their work were treated as criminals and rebels.

Shogan provides some insight into the political world that allowed these injustices as well as a good account of the Battle and the events leading up to it. Again, not quite as much background as I had hoped for, but the book is more than good enough to make an impression. Valuable reading!

I was disappointed with this book after reading several of the academically oriented histories of the period that go into detail about the war particularly from the miners' point of view. I hope for more detail on the actual happenings of the battle, more focus on its aftermath. Shogan is a journalist who seems to have had a fascination with this incident for decades. However, it seems that his career as a Washington based reporter, has shifted too much of this story inside the beltway (of course before the beltway was conceived.)

Shogun spends too much time talking about the reactions of politicians in Washington and for that matter politicians in West Virginia. He will not only tell you what they did, but give you their entire life background. He does this with the union officials on a national level like John Mitchell and John L. Lewis without giving us much of a picture of what their roles were in the union strategy inside West Virginia or with the federal government.

Given the abundance of books that are much better researched about the general struggle for West Virginia coal in the first decades of the 20th Century, I had hoped that Shogan would not provide a rehash of what had already been written. Unfortunately, this is exactly what he did with anecdote and a general outline that appears to have been taken from other texts without much thought.

Likewise, I hoped that he would zero in and provide many more details about the actual battle, which is, after all the subject of his book, but there really isn't much in here that you can't find elsewhere, and elsewhere there is much more serious discussion of the struggle that led to the battle and the economics and politics and sociology of both miners and the coal bosses.

One wishes, someone outside the beltway and close enough to a coal camp had written this story, or even some military writer who is used to giving details of battles.

10,000 West Virginia coal miners once went to war with the local police, and dozens died

On the morning of May 19, 1920, a squad of seven private security agents arrived in Matewan, West Virginia, to evict a handful of families from their homes. Inside lived the wives and children of coal miners who were fired months earlier for trying to unionize. They were met by some of the best talent of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who were contracted by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to arrive in Matewan, remove the tenants from their homes, and catch the five o’clock train back to the city of Bluefield that same day.

News of the callous evictions spread quickly, arousing the anger of Matewan sheriff Sid Hatfield, a rugged and pugnacious man who sympathized with the miners’ struggle to unionize. In retaliation, he summoned the town’s mayor, Cabell Testerman, and requested a small militia of armed miners to stand by as he made way to confront the mercenaries.

Hatfield and Testerman halted the private detectives on the porch of a hardware store as they prepared to catch the train back to the city. The detectives, armed with pistols and carrying machine guns in suitcases, explained their right to evict the families from the coal company’s property, and presented Hatfield with a bogus warrant for his arrest. As the mayor reviewed the documents and proclaimed them invalid, Hatfield fatally shot a detective. In the ensuing fight, aided by surprise and Hatfield’s posse, 10 people were killed. Among them were Mayor Testerman and all seven of the Baldwin-Felts detectives, including a man named Charles Everett Lively and two brothers of company owner Thomas Felts.

At once, Hatfield became a hero to the miners and a villain to the coal companies. Despite the efforts of a crafty Baldwin-Felts agent who claimed that it was Hatfield who killed Mayor Testerman to make off with his widow, whom he indeed married two weeks later, the sheriff left his January 1921, trial an innocent man.

The gunfight marked the beginning of what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain.

T ensions continued building through the warmer months. On May 12, angry miners formed bands of guerrilla militias, firing upon buildings and passing trains. At least one person was wounded, and another, a prohibition officer, was killed. Then on August 1, as Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers went to testify about the blowing up of a coal tipple, detective Lively returned and assassinated the men in front of their wives on the stairs of the McDowell County courthouse.

Hatfield’s death exacerbated tensions in two significant ways. First, it gave the miners a martyr. Second, it consolidated power in the hands of Logan County sheriff Don Chafin, a polar opposite to Hatfield who was thoroughly in the pockets of the coal companies. His salary of $3,500 was generously multiplied 10 times over with supplements and bribes from the coal companies, who discovered the advantage of simply buying off the police in place of employing private agents.

Under Chafin’s direction, for instance, authorities were stationed at train stops to intimidate and even assault union leaders arriving to town. In one instance, Chafin himself pistol whipped a clerk from the state’s Department of Mines, whom he mistook for a union organizer. Sheriff Chafin paid the man $1,000 for the inconvenience.

In the weeks following Hatfield’s murder, leaders at the United Mine Workers of America assembled coal workers in Lens Creek, just outside of the state capital of Charleston, to protest the indignities that miners endured in their fight for better pay and working conditions. They rallied around the shared symbols of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers, and concentrated their anger about the many miners and union allies who were being fired, intimidated, jailed, beaten, and murdered — all while the law dealt empty punishments to the sheriffs and “Baldwin thugs” who were responsible.

Miners from all over the state came to Lens Creek. They came wondrously armed in ragtag fashion, carrying revolvers Winchester rifles, bayonets, belts of ammunition, and helmets from their service in the World War I. Many wore blue overalls, as well as the unifying mark of a red bandana around the neck.

The men were also unified along racial lines, as black miners who left behind a sharecropper’s life in the South marched in solidarity with their fellow white workers. Overall, the gathered miners were disorganized, but passionate, committed, and sensitive to the indignities the coal industry inflicted, encompassing everything from firings to company scrip to low wages. In three days, the assembly at Lens Creek blossomed from two thousand to as many as thirteen thousand. A fighting force had been assembled.

Meanwhile a panicked sheriff Chafin had begun hastily assembling, equipping, and training a volunteer army consisting of policemen, nearby residents, and nonunion miners. As far as the miners were concerned, Chafin was a marked man. Miners chanted that they would “hang Don Chafin to a sour apple tree.” In the aftermath of the battle, a member of the insurrection admitted that killing the sheriff was among the mob’s primary goals.

The teeming mass of miners made their way down to Logan County, commandeering vehicles and carriages to make the trip more efficient. Some 300 men pulled off the staggering feat of taking over a train by gunpoint to make their arrival. Some bands of miners looted weapons caches and coal company shops for food and provisions, roughing up a few company executives along the way.

The army of angry miners assembled in Logan County, ready for action. As a last ditch effort to prevent conflict between the two armies — now numbering 10,000 miners against 3,000 state authorities — Chafin had biplanes drop leaflets carrying a message from President Warren Harding, warning the miners to lay down their arms—to no practical effect.

As John E. Wilburn, a coal miner and amateur Baptist minister confessed, “The time has come for me to lay down my Bible and pick up my rifle and fight for my rights.”

T he landscape around Blair Mountain was wooded and rugged, making for a bewildering and hectic scene of battle. As the fighting began on August 25, both sides shot rounds liberally into the trees, targeting whatever seemed to move. Some estimates put the number of shots fired at a million rounds. “We’d just shoot at anything that moved,” said one union miner. “You were more likely to be shot in the back by your own troops than you were by the opposition.” Indeed, the first casualty on Chafin’s side was a policeman killed by the accidental discharge of a “friendly” rifle.

Though rounds were fired hastily and haphazardly, plenty hit their mark. The miners fared worst of all, in the end losing dozens of men to the government forces, who had both the higher ground and more sophisticated weaponry, including machine gun nests.

The battle raged for a week, until September 2, when federal reinforcements arrived. The final tally of the dead put the miners’ losses between 50-100 slain, with 10–30 lost on the government side. The fallout cast the miners in a generally unsympathetic light, and 985 were arrested for their role in the Battle of Blair Mountain, since referred to as the greatest armed uprising to follow the Civil War.

The aftermath proved an immediate hit to the miners’ cause, and enrollment in the United Mine Workers of America plummeted in the subsequent years. But the trend was temporary. The 1920–1921 coal wars in West Virginia served as an early trial for John L. Lewis, who would serve as UMW’s head for 40 years, leading labor through a series of substantial victories, especially during the implementation of the New Deal. The union allied with steel workers and other manufacturing professions, and continued to call for coal strikes. They were always publicly unpopular, perceived to be disrupting the economy or war effort, but they showed that the bargaining power of labor was undeniable—at least for the time being.


Coal mining in West Virginia Edit

West Virginia had only a few active coal mines during the US Civil War, with fewer than 1,600 miners in the whole state. [3] Coal mining would flourish, however, between 1880 and 1900, after competing railroad companies began carving routes through the mountains of Appalachia. West Virginia produced 489,000 tons of coal in 1869, 4,882,000 tons of coal in 1889, and 89,384,000 tons of coal in 1917. [3] The quick expansion of mining in West Virginia prompted many mining companies to construct company towns, in which mining companies own many, if not all housing, amenities, and public services. Miners were often paid in "coal scrip", paper notes issued by mining companies that could only be redeemed at company-owned stores in company towns. [3]

Mining is a dangerous profession overall, but between 1890 and 1912, West Virginia mines had the highest miner death rates in the country. During World War I, West Virginia miners faced higher death rates than even soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force fighting in Europe. [3]

Mining unions in West Virginia Edit

Some West Virginian coal miners joined the United Mine Workers (UMW) in response to wage reductions following The Panic of 1893. By 1902, UMW membership in West Virginia had reached 5,000 miners. [4] Union membership among West Virginia coal miners remained low, however, especially in southern parts of the state. [3]

UMW had a strong, if isolated, presence in the Paint Creek area, and most miners there were unionized. [5] In March 1912, Paint Creek UMW miners attempted to renegotiate their contracts for higher pay and automatic union dues. In response, a number of Paint Creek mines withdrew their recognition of UMW.

On April 18, 1912, union and non-union miners from Paint Creek, as well as 7,500 miners from the previously non-union Cabin Creek, Kanawha, and Fayette counties, went on strike. The UMW set up tent camps for miners and their families who had often been evicted without warning. [3] UMW Vice-President Frank Hayes and the well-known labor activist Mary "Mother" Jones even visited the state to pledge their support.

Mining companies in the Paint Creek area hired strikebreakers and armed guards to suppress the strike, including 300 agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Striking miners and their families were prohibited from using company bridges and roads, as well as utilities like running water. Company guards killed several miners over the first few months of the strike, and constructed a machine gun equipped armored train known as the "Bull Moose Special", which they used to fire upon the tent camps of striking workers. [3] Miners, with the support of Mother Jones and the Socialist Party of America, acquired weapons and retaliated against the mining company guards.

In September, 1912, West Virginia Governor William E. Glasscock declared martial law and sent 1,200 state troops to confiscate weapons and ammunition attempted to quell the rising tensions between miners and mining companies. The declaration of martial law reduced armed conflict in the winter of 1912-1913. [ clarification needed ]

In April, 1913, UMW officials presented the Paint Creek mining companies with a compromise deal, leaving out some miner demands but maintaining support for a 9-hour workday, accountability for miner compensation, and protection from backlash for union membership. [3] After nearly a full year of work stoppages and fighting, the mining companies accepted the UMW compromise, which was enforced by West Virginia state soldiers.

The Battle of Matewan Edit

On April 22 and 23, 1920, between 275 and 300 miners in Matewan, Mingo County joined the United Mine Workers of America. In retaliation, the Burnwell Coal and Coke Company fired all union-aligned miners and gave them three days to leave their company-owned residences. On April 27, 1920, Mingo County officials arrested Baldwin-Felts agent Albert C. Felts, who would later be involved in the Matewan shootout, for illegally evicting miners of the Burnwell Coal and Coke Company as punishment for union activity. Mingo County Sheriff G. T. Blankenship negotiated with miners groups that as long as only Mingo County officials enforced the eviction notices, the miners would peacefully comply. Miners in Mingo County continued to join the UMWA. A May 6, 1920 United Mine Workers meeting drew 3,000 attendees. By May 17, 1920, the UMWA set up a tent colony for evicted miners outside of Matewan.

On May 19, 1920, thirteen agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency returned to Matewan to evict miners from Stone Mountain Coal Corporation housing. [6] The Baldwin-Felts agents were challenged by Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and Matewan Mayor Cabel Testerman, who contested the agents' authority in the town. The Baldwin-Felts agents persisted, however, based on permission from a local justice of the peace. [4] Baldwin-Felts agents carried out their evictions under watch of a crowd of miners and their families. Hearing of the trouble stirring in Matawen, miners from surrounding areas armed themselves and made their way to the town in case of a larger conflict.

As the Baldwin-Felts agents were headed to the train station to depart Matewan, they were confronted once more by Police Chief Sid Hatfield and Mayor Cabel Testerman. Both Hatfield and Baldwin-Felts agent Albert Felts reported that they had warrants for the others arrest.

Accounts of the May 19th shootout itself differ. [7] Some reports indicate that Baldwin-Felts agents attempted to arrest Sid Hatfield, and shot Mayor Testermen when he intervened on Hatfield's behalf. Others indicate that Hatfield initiated the violence, either by firing himself or by signalling a prepared ambush. In either case, the shootout resulted in ten dead: Mayor Testerman, two miners, and seven Baldwin-Felts agents, including Baldwin-Felts Agency Chief Thomas Felts' younger brothers, Albert and Lee.

After the Battle of Matewan Edit

Support for unionization in Mingo County increased after the Matewan Shootout. By July 1, 1920, in the county had unionized and joined the UMW strike. Miners and mine guards engaged in several armed skirmishes over the closure of coal mines and access to rail routes in the summer and fall of 1920. The West Virginia government declared martial law and sent federal troops to quell the strike, but backed down under threat of a general strike of all union coal miners in West Virginia. [3]

Baldwin-Felts Agency Chief Thomas Felts hired a team of lawyers to prosecute a case against Sid Hatfield and fifteen other men alleged to have participated in the Matewan Shootout, specifically on the charge of murdering Albert Felts. All sixteen men were, however, acquitted by a Mingo County jury. Shortly thereafter, the West Virginia State Legislature passed a bill allowing criminal cases to be prosecuted with juries summoned from another county. Murder charges were renewed, only this time for the deaths of the other 6 Baldwin-Felts agents. [3] [4]

Sid Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers were also brought up on charges of destroying the Mohawk mining camp in McDowell County. On August 1, 1921, Hatfield, Chambers, and their wives traveled unarmed to the McDowell County courthouse to stand trial. Upon reaching the courthouse, Hatfield and Chambers were shot and killed by waiting Baldwin-Felts agents. Miners in West Virginia were outraged at the deaths of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers. In the weeks following the August 1st assassinations, miners organized and armed themselves across West Virginia.

Battle of Blair Mountain Edit

From August 20, 1921, miners began rallying at Lens Creek, approximately ten miles south of West Virginia state capital of Charleston. Estimates of total numbers vary, but on August 24, between 5,000 and 20,000 miners began marching from Lens Creek into Logan County, West Virginia. [3] [8] Many of the miners were armed, and some acquired weapons and ammunition from the towns along the march's path.

Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin had assembled a fighting force of approximately 2,000 county police, state police, state militia, and Baldwin-Felts agents to stop the approaching miners in the mountain range surrounding Logan County. On August 25, the miners began arriving in the mountains surrounding Logan, and fighting began between the two forces. Though Sheriff Chafin commanded fewer men, they were equipped with machine guns and rented aircraft, from which they dropped rudimentary bombs on the attacking miners. [3]

On August 30, 1921, President Warren G. Harding threatened to declare martial law in counties in West Virginia affected by the violence if the armed bands of miners did not disperse by noon on September 1. [9] A proclamation to declare martial law in the West Virginia counties of Fayette, Kanawha, Logan, Boone and Mingo was prepared and signed by the President, awaiting his order for it to be promulgated. [10] and troops of the 19th and 26th U.S. Infantry divisions were readied at Camp Sherman in Ohio and Camp Dix in New Jersey, respectively, to be sent by railroad to West Virginia. [11]

The union leaders ignored the order and 2,500 federal troops arrived on September 2, bringing with them machine guns and military aircraft armed with surplus explosive and gas bombs from the recently concluded World War I. [3] Facing a large and well equipped fighting force, the miners were forced to stand down. [12]

Though the battle ended in clear defeat for the pro-union miners, they gained some press support in the following years. [3] Approximately 550 miners and labor activists were convicted of murder, insurrection, and treason for their participation in the march from Lens Creek to Logan County and the ensuing Battle of Blair Mountain. Press support did not extend to union growth UMW membership in West Virginia dropped by about half between 1921 and 1924. [8]

The Matewan shootout is re-enacted annually in Matewan, West Virginia. [13]

John Sayles dramatized the events of the Matewan shootout in his 1987 film Matewan. [14]

A documentary named The Mine Wars was made about these events for PBS and was originally aired on the network January 26, 2016. Narrated by actor Michael Murphy, it used archival material and interviews to convey the story as part of their ongoing American Experience series. [15]

The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, located in downtown Matewan, offers artifacts and interpretations of the events. The building that houses the museum still bears the scars of bullet holes from the Matewan Massacre. [16]

Share Battle of Blair Mountain

In August 1921, armed coal miners from the Kanawha Valley and the southern counties of Boone, Fayette, Mingo, McDowell, and Logan gathered at Marmet in Kanawha County. The miners proposed to march to Logan and Mingo counties to rescue union miners who had been jailed or mistreated in attempts to unionize the mines. Their efforts brought on the most spectacular confrontation in West Virginia’s labor history, the culminating event in the era known as the Mine Wars.

While accurate figures are not available, sources estimate the number of miners who participated in the march at anywhere from 7,000 to 20,000. Many were veterans of World War I, and they organized themselves like an army division. The marchers had medical and supply units, posted guards when appropriate, and used passwords to weed out infiltrators. Marchers commandeered trains and other vehicles to take them to Logan County and confiscated supplies from company stores along the march.

State authorities, led by Governor Morgan, quickly organized a group of state police, volunteer militia companies, and coal company employees to keep the miners from invading Logan County. The opposing forces came together at Blair Mountain, near the Boone and Logan borders. The well-armed miners and their opponents battled along the ridge of Blair Mountain, resulting in several deaths. Like other statistics in this event, the exact numbers of killed and wounded are mere conjecture.

Morgan urgently requested federal intervention to end the bloodshed. President Warren G. Harding responded with 2,500 federal troops, including a squadron of bomber aircraft under aviation pioneer Gen. William ‘‘Billy’’ Mitchell. The federal troops quickly brought the conflict to an end, and the miners returned home. Several hundred miners and their leaders were charged with various crimes from murder to treason. Most were given minor sentences, but serious attempts were made to punish William ‘‘Bill’’ Blizzard, one of the march leaders, who was charged with treason. He was tried in Charles Town, Lewisburg, and Fayetteville before the charges were eventually dropped.

The armed march and the Battle of Blair Mountain resulted in little or no gain for union miners, but the hostilities created by labor strife from the early 1900s to the 1920s color labor relations in West Virginia to the present.

In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Blair Mountain as one of the country’s “Most Endangered Historic Places.” The National Park Service added Blair Mountain to its National Register of Historic Places in March 2009. Nine months later, however, the park service reversed its decision following a dispute about property ownership. Several groups—including the Sierra Club and the Friends of Blair Mountain—want the site protected from surface mining. They filed suit in an attempt to have the park service’s decision reversed. On June 27, 2018, the keeper of the National Register declared the removal erroneous and reinstated Blair Mountain’s listing.

e-WV presents West Virginia Public Broadcasting on the Battle of Blair Mountain

The new battle for Blair Mountain

Logan County, West Virginia (CNN) -- On a warm day in West Virginia, Kenny King is on his hands and knees, digging in the dirt. He's near the peak of Blair Mountain, searching for buried artifacts from a little-known battle that took place 90 years ago this month.

"It is a unique part of American history," King says, waving his metal detector over a hole in the ground. "No where else can you find an actual battlefield that is as big and extensive as maybe a World War I battlefield."

King, both prospector and amateur archeologist, is known locally as an expert on the infamous Battle of Blair Mountain, which unfolded over 10 days in 1921.

It was a seminal event among the Mine Wars, the fight to unionize the coalfields of southern West Virginia. For days, men marched and waged a battle that pitted more than 10,000 miners against an army of about 3,000 coal company supporters. It's considered the largest armed insurrection in this country since the Civil War.

"It wasn't just union versus nonunion, they were trying to make a better life for themselves," King says. "Better way of living, better treatment. Everything was controlled by the coal companies back then."

Now, there's another fight unfolding for the future of Blair Mountain, one tied to jobs, the environment and its history.

Heart of coal country

Blair Mountain stands in Logan County, right in the middle of some of the most productive surface mine sites in West Virginia. It's also a center of the debate about mountaintop-removal coal mining, which has blasted apart the tops of more than 500 mountains to create cost-effective access to rich coal seams inside.

Although the battlefield hasn't been mined, coal companies own much of the land where the battle occurred, and there's active mining within eyeshot.

Sneak peek: Battle For Blair Mountain

King is a mineral analyst, and like many who live in the area, his job depends on the coal industry. But standing on the ridge line of Blair Mountain, he looks through the trees and points out that mining is already encroaching on history.

"It's pretty disgusting what they're doing," King said. "What it really amounts to is they are destroying Appalachia. That is what we are we are mountaineers."

King is part of an effort to list the land on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Although placement on the list doesn't prohibit destruction, supporters say it would help to protect the site from future surface mining.

King and Harvard Ayers, a professor emeritus at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, began working on a formal survey of the battlefield in 2006.

In 2009, they thought their work had paid off -- the National Register recognized the 1,600-acre battlefield as worthy of preservation and placed it on its list of historic places.

"I have been an archeologist for 40 years and have found hundreds of sites. Only a handful would come close in importance to Blair, but none would equal it," Ayers said. "It is the most important archeological site I've ever been involved with."

But the celebration was short-lived.

"We popped the corks, everyone was on cloud nine till we heard seven days later that the state historic preservation office had asked that it be removed," Ayers said. "We were distraught and began to suspect monkey business."

The drive to preserve Blair Mountain continually runs into roadblocks, Ayers said, and he believes they're laid by the coal mining industry.

After the site was being recognized as eligible, West Virginia's State Historical Preservation Office said it had uncovered landowners who didn't want the site on the National Register. It said the application by King's group, the Friends of Blair Mountain, had overlooked them.

At that point, it became a numbers game. Ayers claims court records show the number of objectors remained low enough. Lawyers for the state did their own search and came up with still different numbers.

Randall Reid-Smith, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, said he was unable to consider the new information because it was outside the timeframe for comments.

Currently, Blair Mountain is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Reid-Smith said his office reviews projects without consideration for special interests, but agrees that coal beneath the battlefield complicated the issue.

"The coal industry actively opposed the listing of Blair Mountain," he said.

Two of the largest landowners on Blair Mountain -- Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources -- did not respond to CNN's questions about the issue.

In June, an Alpha spokesman said in a statement that the company does not plan to conduct mountaintop removal mining on the historic battleground, but that a commemoration shouldn't do away with "the legal rights of the many property owners and leaseholders in the area."

Since then, the Friends of Blair Mountain and other supporters have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Services, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places. The West Virginia Coal Association, a lobbying group, and the Department of the Interior have asked a judge to dismiss the case against the National Parks Services.

Blair Mountain preservationists also filed a petition with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, asking for the battleground to be declared "unsuitable for mining." The agency rejected the petition as "frivolous," because the area had already been mined or was part of previous rejected petitions.

Most recently, the Friends of Blair Mountain filed a suit challenging the state Department of Environmental Protection.

And, they've gone public with the fight.

Last June, a six-day march recreated the 1921 miners' march and culminated in a rally at the foot of Blair Mountain. Hundreds of environmentalists and history buffs came from West Virginia and beyond.

Coal supporters lined the route, too, in their own demonstration.

"I mean, if somebody were to say you could blow up half of Gettysburg if there were coal underneath it, would the American people stand for that?" said Chuck Keeney, a history instructor at a West Virginia community college and a great grandson of an organizer of the 1921 march. "I would hope not."

Back on top of Blair, far away from the legal wrangling, King points out trenches carved into the hillside. Some still remain.

Back in the 1920s, machine guns were used to defend the mountain from approaching miners. Shrapnel bombs were dropped on miners. The 10-day battle ended only after President Warren G. Harding sent in the U.S. Army and the miners -- many of whom were Word War I veterans -- surrendered, leaving behind weapons and ammunition.

"They had just fought for their country and didn't want to fight against their country," King said.

In the 20 years he has been exploring the mountain, King says he's found rifles, pistols and thousands of rounds of spent ammunition.

Although King and his team continue to uncover the history that is still buried on the mountain, they say time is running out. As long as the battlefield isn't recognized as a historic site, they fear coal companies could send bulldozers any day.

Even coal industry supporters agree Blair Mountain's story should be remembered, but how it's preserved is still a debate.

Last February, Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, said he supports preserving the mountain.

"That story cannot be told nearly as well if the mountain is not there," Roberts wrote in a commentary published in the Charleston Gazette. "Blair Mountain is as close to sacred ground as there is for the [mine workers union.] Though we may not physically own the mountain's land, its legacy is ours."

Former Logan County Commissioner Art Kirkendoll said a monument should be erected on the mountain to commemorate the battle, but the march last June used history to push a different agenda: the end of mountaintop-removal mining.

"Do you sterilize all the property because of past history?" Kirkendoll said. "I mean look at some of the battles that Confederate soldiers died in. A kid died you know, en route somewhere, are you supposed to just stop everything?"

Diann Kish, a local resident who turned out to protest the march in June, said the movement to preserve the mountain skews the intentions of miners who fought there.

"My granddaddy fought on Blair Mountain and he didn't fight for a mountain," she said. "He fought for coal and to help establish the union."

Kish and her neighbors said they plan to erect their own monument this month. It won't be on the mountain, but at a nearby lake built by a coal company.

"It will be dedicated to all miners, past, present and future," Kish said.

Since their march in June, the Friends of Blair Mountain opened a community center in an old church in the town of Blair, right at the foot of the mountain. They plan to make it a gathering point for local residents, tourists and visiting scholars seeking to learn more about the the battle and the area's Appalachian culture.

"The miners who fought on Blair Mountain fought for basic worker rights that are now enjoyed by all Americans," said Brandon Nida, a West Virginia native and University of California Berkeley student working to preserve the mountain. "The best way to honor them is to create new opportunities through sustainable industries like furniture manufacturing or ginseng," a root harvested by many locals.

While organizers acknowledge their march may have angered families who depend on mining for their livelihood, they hope their new center will open a dialogue within the community and help build something new.

"These are dying communities, or at least threatened by mountaintop removal mining," Keeney said. "If you are building things in the community, it makes it harder for coal companies to drive everyone out."