This Monday is Labor Day, and I hope you’re all taking advantage of the three-day weekend. I know I certainly will be! It’s become somewhat of a tradition for me to visit historic sites associated with labor history over the holiday weekend, and this year, being the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, will be no different. Outside of the Unions, few people remember or have heard of Blair Mountain, one of the largest battles on American soil since the Civil War.
It all started in “Bloody Mingo” in the spring of 1920. 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 more 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 UMWA 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, ending the ten-day Battle of Blair Mountain.
This Labor Day, remember the dead at Homestead, Lattimer, Paint Creek, Ludlow, Blair Mountain, and Bloody Harlan, as well as those killed in the disasters at the Monongah Mine, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and so many others. No root, no fruit.
Information from the WV State Archives, WV Encyclopedia, and Lon Savage’s “Thunder in the Mountains.”
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.