In late August 1921, West Virginia’s coal country was the scene of what has often been called the largest armed insurrection in the United States since the Civil War. Fed up with years of mistreatment by their employers, an army of some 10,000 union miners marched on Blair Mountain in Logan County and clashed with 3,000 coal company supporters and police deputies. For nearly a week, the two sides waged a ferocious battle with rifles, machine guns and even bomb-dropping biplanes. By the time federal troops finally intervened in early September, roughly a million rounds had been fired and dozens of people had been killed.
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.