The Battle of Blair Mountain: the largest civil uprising since the Civil War
When 10,000 miners went on strike and 3,000 company thugs were hired to murder them and anyone who stood with them.
By 1921, little had changed for several decades in the coal mining country of West Virginia. The coal companies ruled over this area like a medieval fiefdom, having almost total control over workers’ lives. They issued company scrip to shop at company stores, evicted workers from company housing if they went on strike, brutally crushed union attempts to organize the mines, and murdered union organizers. They hired goons to intimidate miners and spies to infiltrate union organizing effort. The United Mine Workers of America struggled to maintain a hold in West Virginia; in fact the UMWA throughout Appalachia had a rollercoaster of a membership for decades, with numbers skyrocketing after rare victories and collapsing after the inevitable oppression that followed.
Such a widescale rebellion took place in the aftermath of an event far more famous thanks to the John Sayles film detailing it, the Matewan Massacre, when Baldwin-Felts thugs got into a gun battle with the worker-sympathetic law enforcement officers of the town of Matewan. In 1921, the coal industry got their revenge on Mingo County sheriff Sid Hatfield, who had participated at Matewan, by murdering him on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch. That was on August 1. On August 7, the UMWA issued a petition of workers’ demands, including the arrest of Hatfield’s murderers, to West Virginia governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan rejected them out of town and workers’ anger grew.
On August 20, armed men began gathering in Kanawha County, outside of Charleston and by August 24, 13,000 miners had arrived fully armed and ready to demand justice. While alarmed politicians began working toward compromise, Logan County sheriff Don Chafin wanted blood. Supported by the Logan County Coal Operators Association, Chafin hated the UMWA and wanted to eliminate them from his country entirely, preferably with the maximum shedding of blood. The coal operators provided Chafin a hired army of 3000 people to oppress the miners. On the request of Governor Morgan, President Warren Harding had sent General Henry Bandholtz to West Virginia on August 25. Bandholtz told union leaders the army would “snuff them out” if they did not end the march, leading many prominent UMWA figures, including Mother Jones to urge the end of the action to prevent fatalities. Although on August 26, many of the miners agreed to return to their homes, Chafin wanted to his pound of flesh. His men began shooting union members as they returned to their homes, with families caught in the crossfire.
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