Three battles that led to the biggest armed insurrection since the Civil War.
Have you ever heard of the West Virginia mine wars?
Maybe they were mentioned in your high school history class, or maybe they were skimmed over, or even left out entirely for one reason or another. Too often, these stories are deemed not "important" enough to warrant the time and attention they deserve.
But the West Virginia mine wars are critical to understanding the history of the labor movement in the U.S. — and soon a new museum will be open to tell the story.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, for example, was — and still is — the most violent labor confrontation in history, in which union-supporting coal miners fought against local government and a coal company-funded militia, eventually involving the U.S. Army.
So, what happened?
Be glad you weren't born into "Coal Country" West Virginia in the 1800s.
In the late 1800s in West Virginia, it wasn't easy to be a coal miner. For starters, mining wasn't just a job, it was a way of life — and a hard way of life. You lived in a company town, bought all your food and supplies at the company store, were paid in company money called "scrip," sent your kids to the company school, read the company paper, obeyed the company-employed police … on and on.
Because the coal companies controlled every aspect of the miners' lives, they could do whatever they wanted: pay as little as they felt like, teach what they felt like, and trap the miners in a cycle of bare-bones survival as they saw fit.
Tennessee Ernie Ford's "Sixteen Tons" paints a good picture of the life of a coal miner.
Not to mention, the job was rife with danger. Fatal accidents were frequent, and illnesses such as black lung disease claimed miners and their families alike.
As the decades wore on, the owners of these coal companies kept raking in the profits. The fledgling United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) started to gain a foothold in many parts of the country — and even in many parts of West Virginia — to fight for a better way of life.
But southern West Virginia stayed mostly non-union, and the coal companies were quite determined to keep it that way.
The stakes were high and so was the tension building between workers and their bosses. And that tension built and built until it eventually exploded into what is to this day the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War.
Typical mining family.
"BLOODSHED REIGNS IN VIRGINIA HILLS!"
That was the terrifying newspaper headline that described how those tensions erupted into violence during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912, near Charleston, West Virginia. It was the first major demonstration of the violence to come as the workers stood up for their rights.
Coal miners were fed up with the low wages and the poor working conditions — loading tons of coal for weeks, months, years on end in the cramped, dark mines, only to find themselves deeper in debt at the end of each day.
The miners demanded the right to unionize, the right to free speech and assembly (y'know, that bit in the U.S. Constitution!?), the right to be paid accurately and in real U.S. dollars rather than the company scrip. They were tired of being cheated out of their already meager wages. You see, being paid by the ton and having no access to scales, they had no choice but to take their earnings at the word of the company weigh men. “16 tons? Nah, that's only 12 today."
Coal coming out of a mine.
When nearly 10,000 miners finally went on strike, their protests were largely nonviolent. Until, that is, the mine operators called in the notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to break up the strike. Over 300 armed men descended on the area on behalf of Baldwin-Felts.
Beatings were common. Sniper attacks and sabotage were also used. Miners were forcefully taken from their homes and tossed into the street to live in tents. Inside these tents, people were starving.
Miners called it the “Death Special."
The tent colonies were soon subject to a new tactic from the company goons — a heavily armored train that the miners called the “Death Special" was sent through the tent colony, firing machine guns and high-powered rifles at tents.
In a Senate committee investigation that followed, reported by the Wichita Times, one woman described her encounter with the train:
Mrs. Annie Hill, who limped into the committee room, told how she shielded her three little children from the bullets by hiding them in the chimney corner of her little home at Holly Grove when the armored train made it appearance. She said she had been shot through the limbs and the bullet had gone through the Bible and hymnbook on her parlor table.
Martial law was declared. Mary Harris “Mother" Jones (a feisty union activist already in her 70s who had come to the area to help the miners) was arrested and imprisoned.
"If they want to hang me, let them. And on the scaffold I will shout, 'Freedom for the working class!'" — Mother Jones
After nearly 12 months, at least 50 people lay dead. The number grew when others succumbed to starvation and sickness from the near siege-like conditions in the tents and on the streets.
A miner's family in the tent colony, 1920.
A Massacre in Matewan
Six years later, unionized miners in other parts of the country were seeing huge victories — like a 27% pay increase. This inspired the miners around Matewan, West Virginia, to join the United Mine Workers of America in record numbers. By the spring of 1920, 3,000 Matewan miners had joined.
But the Stone Mountain Coal Company retaliated.
This time, the miners had key public officials on their side: both the mayor and Sheriff Sid Hatfield.
So when the coal company called in the Baldwin-Felts (or the “Baldwin Thugs," as the miners knew them), Sheriff Hatfield met them at the train station. After a brief verbal tussle, the Baldwin Thugs carried on, throwing six mining families and all of their possessions out of their homes and into the rain.
Word spread fast, and soon an enraged group of miners headed to the train station where Sheriff Hatfield had promised to arrest the Baldwin men.
The two forces came together on the steps of the Chambers Hardware Store.
The site of the showdown: Chambers Hardware Store, then and now.
When the dust settled, the mayor was shot, seven Baldwin-Felts detectives were killed, and two miners were dead.
Sheriff Hatfield — who claimed credit for the deaths of two Baldwin Thugs — became a hero. This was the first time the seemingly invincible "Baldwin Thugs" had been defeated, which gave the miners hope.
The 1987 John Sayles movie "Matewan" is a dramatic portrayal of the events leading up to the Battle of Matewan. In this scene, the white miners discussing the union get a surprise visitor in the form of an African-American miner and learn a valuable lesson. (Warning: racial slurs.)
In the spring of 1921, charges against Hatfield and his men were either dismissed or they were found not guilty. The enraged Baldwin-Felts crew swore vengeance, and just a few months later, they killed Sheriff Hatfield and his deputy on the steps of the county courthouse.
Nearly 2,000 people marched in their funeral procession. It wound its way through the town of Matewan and to the cemetery in Kentucky. As the rage built among the miners, it headed toward a final confrontation —the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Matewan was "a symbolic moment in a larger, broader and continuing historical struggle — in the words of Mingo county miner J.B. Wiggins, the 'struggle for freedom and liberty.'" — Historian David A. Corbin
"ACTUAL WAR IS RAGING IN LOGAN": The Battle of Blair Mountain
Another newspaper headline described the outbreak of violence, the culmination of decades of mistreatment by the mining companies and years of rising tensions. This was the Battle of Blair Mountain.
It was just after the Matewan Massacre, and thousands of miners began pouring out of the mountains to take up arms against the villains who had attacked their families, assassinated their hero, and mistreated them for decades. The miners wore red bandanas around their necks to distinguish themselves from the company men wearing white patches and to avoid getting shot by their own troops. (And now you know where the word "rednecks" comes from.)
The sheriff of Little Coal River sent in law enforcement to keep the miners at bay, but the miners captured the troopers, disarmed them, and sent them running. The West Virginia governor also lost his chance for a peaceful resolution when, after meeting with some of the miner's leaders, he chose to reject their demands.
The miners were 13,000 strong as they headed toward the non-union territory of Logan and Mingo counties.
A Blair fighter in 1921.
They faced Sheriff Chafin — who was financially supported by the coal companies — and his 2,000 men who acted as security, police, and militia. Chafin stationed many of his troops in the hills around Blair Mountain, West Virginia. From there, Chafin dropped tear gas and pipe bombs on the miners.
For a moment, it seemed like the confrontation might come to an end when a cease-fire agreement was made, and many of the miners began to head home. But the cease-fire broke when Sheriff Chafin's men were found shooting miners and their families in the streets of Sharples, West Virginia, just beyond Blair Mountain.
They never imagined it would come to this: Federal troops were called in to break up a strike.
"FIGHTING CONTINUES IN MOUNTAINS AS FEDERAL TROOPS REACH MINGO; PLANES REPORTED BOMBING MINERS," reported a New York Times headline shortly after Aug. 25, 1921, when the battle escalated to a new point in U.S. history — with tactics that have not been seen before or since.
On Aug. 30, President Warren Harding intervened, placing all of West Virginia under martial law. Harding sent 14 planes to West Virginia that were fully armed for combat but were only used for surveillance. According to Robert Shogan, "the Federal force that mattered most were the infantry units that began arriving ... [on] September 2, some 2,100 strong."
Blair fighters turning in guns.
The miners never made it through Chafin's lines — and it's hard to say what would've happened if they had. After 1 million rounds were fired, the miners retreated. It was time to go home and fight another day.
Over 100 people had been killed — about 30 on Chafin's side and 50-100 on the union miners' side. Almost 1,000 of the miners were indicted for murder and treason, and many more lost their jobs.
Federal troops standing with arms collected from the striking miners after surrender.
In the short-term, the defeat of the striking miners was devastating to the UMWA. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over the next several years. It took until 1935 — post-Great Depression and FDR's New Deal — for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.
But a single battle doesn't tell the whole story of the larger fight for justice.
In the end, the coal companies lost more than they gained. These bloody conflicts drew the nation's attention to the plight of the long-suffering mine workers, and unions began to understand that they needed to fight for laws that allowed them to organize and that penalized companies that broke the law.
These victories of conscience allowed a number of other unions, like the United Automobile Workers and the United Steelworkers of America, to flourish as well.
Each battle led to the next.
Each fight solidified the resolve and desire of the miners and their families to stand up for their rights to improve their lot in life.
For these brave workers, the American dream was something they had to fight for, something they died for, and something they wanted to pass on to future generations, despite the efforts of the coal companies to prevent them.
Many people have never heard these stories, but now, they can.
94 years after workers laid down their lives for the right to fair employment, their story is taking root inside the building that used to be the Chambers Hardware Store in downtown Matewan.
The first museum to tell the story of these brave people is opening this May.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum will open to tell the people's history of the mine wars — something all Americans can be proud of.