Mason County Memories… ‘War in the Coalfields, II’


By Chris Rizer - Special to the Register



Six years after the Paint Creek War ended, mine operators tried again in Logan and Mingo Counties. Their lobbyists pushed for the establishment of the WV State Police to protect the mines, the operators brought back the Baldwin-Felts thugs as private guards, and union miners were evicted from their company housing. Governor Cromwell brought in the military to keep the peace, but war still came to “Bloody Mingo.”

Evicted miners’ tent colonies were machine-gunned and destroyed, company stores were burned to the ground, and coal tipples and bridges were dynamited. While Baldwin-Felts agents were in Matewan on May 19th, 1920 to evict miners from their homes, Mayor C.C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield met them with warrants for their arrest. Accounts differ as to exactly what happened next, but by the time the smoke cleared Mayor Testerman, two miners, and seven Baldwin-Felts agents were dead, including Albert and Lee Felts. We’ll never know the full story because of what happened next.

Despite the likelihood that the notoriously trigger-happy Baldwin-Felts agents fired the first shots, Hatfield was charged with the murder of Albert and Lee by their brother and boss, Thomas Felts. He was quickly acquitted by a Mingo County jury, but after lobbying from Felts and the coal operators, the State Legislature rewrote the law, allowing criminal cases to be tried in other counties. Hatfield was then charged with the murders of the other Baldwin-Felts agents with a trial to be held in McDowell County, the coal operators’ seat of power in West Virginia.

Soon before the trial, he and his deputy Ed Chambers were also charged with shooting up the mining camp at Mohawk, an act many believe was actually carried out by the coal company’s guards to intimidate the miners. Anyhow, on August 1st, 1921, as Hatfield and Chambers climbed the McDowell County Courthouse steps, they were gunned down in cold blood by Baldwin-Felts agents.

His death set the coalfields on fire. Six days later, 5,000 miners rallied at the Capitol for justice, but Governor Morgan rejected them. Though urged not to march by Mother Jones, who feared a bloodbath, the miners resolved to free Logan and Mingo County from the coal operators and Baldwin-Felts thugs by force. And so, 13,000 miners led by Bill Blizzard set out from Marmet on August 24th armed with their personal squirrel guns, shotguns, and rifles. By the end of their march, the miners numbered 20,000 and were fully organized by World War I veterans in their ranks.

Meanwhile, Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin was determined to stop them at Blair Mountain. His force of county deputies, state police, deputized private citizens, mine guards, and Baldwin-Felts agents numbered only 5,000 strong, but they had fortified most of the 25-mile long ridge with machine guns emplacements and explosives, were supplied with the latest weaponry, and had recruited private pilots to drop surplus World War I bombs (including poison gas) on the miners.

When miners reached Madison, they were convinced to go home, only for reports of Chafin murdering several union miners and their families to turn them around. By August 29th, the Battle of Blair Mountain was in full swing, and despite Chafin’s bombers, the miners captured most of the ridge within three days and were preparing to continue into Logan. They were stopped on September 3rd by the arrival of another army.

On August 25th, General Harry Bandholtz came to West Virginia with orders from President Harding to enforce law and order, and he was in no way sympathetic to the miners’ cause. During a meeting that day with UMW leaders, he told them flat out, “These are your people. I am going to give you a chance to save them, and if you cannot turn them back, we are going to snuff them out like that (snapping his finger under Frank Keeney’s nose).” Keep in mind here that he was referring to hardworking U.S. citizens, men whose fight was not with the government but with corrupt and abusive coal barons.

On September 3rd, the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps arrived in Blair. Faced with 2,500 highly trained regular soldiers and a squadron of elite bombers, and believing that the miners would receive better treatment from the federal forces than they would the state, Blizzard called off the assault and ordered the miners to turn over their weapons.

985 of the miners were quickly rounded up and tried for treason in Charles Town, far from the coalfields. Though several were convicted on murder and conspiracy charges, all but one were acquitted of treason once juries were shown several of Chafin’s bombs and other examples of the mine operators’ violence. Despite the victory, the sheer cost of the battle and court cases crushed the UMWA in West Virginia, including right here in Mason County. It wasn’t until the Great Depression and New Deal that it began to recover.

Information from the WV State Archives, WV Encyclopedia, and Lon Savage’s “Thunder in the Mountains.”

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By Chris Rizer

Special to the Register

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.