20th - 21st Century American History American History Magazine Games Mining People Social History

A Powder Keg Ready to Blow

By Robert Shogan
9/14/2018 •
American Historical past Journal

Coal miners toiling within the bowels of the earth stored American business buzzing within the early 1900s. Their struggle for higher working and dwelling circumstances led to the nation’s largest armed rebellion because the Civil Warfare.

It was a tableau that had final been seen within the wooded hills of the Meuse-Argonne, in the course of the U.S. Military’s last massive push towards the kaiser’s legions: platoons of doughboys, rifles on the prepared, marching into battle. But this was not 1918, on the shell-torn fields of France. This was 1921, within the Kanawha River valley of southern West Virginia. And the troops on this advancing pressure, some 10,000 robust, have been not members of the military whose uniform many nonetheless wore, however long-oppressed coal miners whose desperation to save their union had pushed them to take up arms towards the coal operators who dominated West Virginia. Expeditionary Drive (AEF). They posted sentries, reduce telegraph and phone strains, despatched out reconnaissance patrols and used passwords and codes. Wives and daughters sporting nurses caps bearing the insignia of United Mine Staff (UMW) locals marched together with the lads, prepared to have a tendency to the casualties they knew would come.

The miners had vowed to drive out the despised firm mine guards from the state, free the union organizers who crowded the jails of Mingo County and break The miners had discovered their classes nicely within the American  the facility of the mine operators, as soon as and for all. However to attain Mingo, the insurgents had to cross Logan County, the stronghold of Sheriff Don Chafin, the mine house owners’ most potent ally. That meant conquering Blair Mountain, the formidable ridge that was the bulwark of Chafin’s protection. As they marched, the miners chanted:

Each little river should go down to the ocean
All of the slaving miners and our union shall be free
Going to march to Blair Mountain
Going to whip the corporate
And I don’t need you to weep after me

Almost day by day through the last week of August, entrance web page headlines in newspapers throughout the nation advised the story of the most important armed rebellion on American soil because the Civil Struggle. Class warfare, lengthy solely a Marxist daydream, now verged on actuality, etched in blood and bullets. The time had come for American staff to rush to the barricades.

Or so it appeared. To know why that second didn’t materialize right into a full-fledged revolt, one wants to comply with the path of violence that led to Blair Mountain from its beginnings, greater than a yr earlier. That was within the little Mingo County mining city of Matewan on the Tug River, smack up towards the Kentucky border, the place on Wednesday morning, Might 19, 1920, seven males carrying Winchesters and pistols arrived on the Norfolk & Western’s No. 29 practice.

All seven have been hirelings of the Baldwin-Felts detective company, personally chosen by its chief, Tom Felts, who had written to his brother, Albert, in Matewan that “they had been tried and can be relied on.” Baldwin-Felts prospered by doing the bidding of the coal corporations, serving as their personal police drive, harassing and threatening miners suspected of wanting to be a part of the union or the much more heinous offense of making an attempt to arrange their fellow staff. Tom Felts was sending these males to Mingo County as a result of (as in the remainder of southern West Virginia) the coal corporations, whose product fueled the nationwide financial system, and the UMW, the nation’s strongest labor union, have been at one another’s throats.

With the output of the wealthy nonunion coalfields in southern West Virginia threatening its existence, the UMW had launched a determined organizing drive to deliver the southern mines to heel. The operators fought again with the court-sanctioned authority of “yellow dog contracts,” pledges coerced from staff to not be a part of a union. Anybody who joined the UMW was fired, and Baldwin-Felts brokers have been deployed to roust the fired miners and their households from their company-owned houses. Quickly after practice No. 29 pulled into Matewan, the coming detectives, their ranks bolstered by cohorts already available, set out to implement these evictions. Albert Felts hoped to end in time to make the 5:15 practice again to Bluefield.

He and his males had not been at their work lengthy once they have been interrupted by a gaggle of townspeople led by Matewan’s Mayor Cabell Testerman and its police chief, Sid Hatfield. Each have been union supporters, however of the 2, Sid Hatfield most nervous Albert Felts. Hatfield, simply 27, already was acknowledged as a harmful gunman. Partially he owed his fame to the identify he shared with the household recognized for the infamous feud with one other mountain clan, the McCoys. That vendetta had lengthy since died down, however Two-Gun Sid, as he was dubbed, was a pressure to be reckoned with. His physique was lean and arduous, his eyes slender, his mouth taut; his vest often flapped open over two revolvers in his belt.

Felts claimed that the evictions had been approved by a decide, however he had no such order with him. “Well, you don’t pull anything like that around here and get away with it,” Testerman stated. The mayor turned on his heel and led the others away. When the Baldwin-Felts brokers arrived on the depot to catch their practice later within the day, Hatfield, Testerman and a posse of rapidly recruited deputies have been ready for them. Many conflicting accounts have been later provided as to what occurred subsequent, however there was little question concerning the consequence. A gun battle erupted within the middle of Matewan and 20 minutes later, 10 males have been lifeless: Testerman, two miners and 7 detectives, amongst them Tom Felts’ brothers, Albert and Lee.

The echoes of the gun battle had hardly died down earlier than union leaders pushed to benefit from the chance it introduced. For years their organizing efforts in southern West Virginia had been stymied not simply by the heavy-handed techniques of the Baldwin-Felts operatives but in addition by the intimidating shadow the detective company forged. However now the our bodies littering the road at Matewan Station served to undercut that aura of invincibility.

Within the quick wake of what was turning into often known as the Matewan Bloodbath, miners flocked to the union fold. By July 1, 1920, greater than 90 % of the Mingo County miners had sworn allegiance to the UMW. Inspired, District 17, the West Virginia department of the UMW, referred to as a strike to pressure the mine house owners to come to phrases. As an alternative, the operators stored the mines open with trainloads of strikebreakers from everywhere in the South and from New York and Chicago. Additionally they introduced in additional guards.

In retaliation, miners blocked the railroad tracks and ambushed the strikebreakers. They dynamited mines and the railroads serving them and shot it out with mine guards and state police. With manufacturing crippled, Democratic Governor John Cornwell invoked martial regulation in November and referred to as for assist from Washington. President Woodrow Wilson despatched in federal troops who occupied the troubled area into the early winter of 1921.

Towards this turbulent background, Sid Hatfield and 22 miners went on trial in January for the shootout in Matewan. After 44 days Hatfield and his codefendants have been acquitted by a Mingo County jury, and the police chief returned residence to a hero’s welcome. “It’s good for a man to have so many friends,” Hatfield informed the host of hometown well-wishers. In his aid, nevertheless, he forgot what number of enemies he had. The subsequent summer time, Hatfield was indicted for conspiracy within the persevering with mine violence in Mingo County and was ordered to stand trial within the staunch anti-union bastion of neighboring McDowell County. Hatfield’s buddies requested Governor Ephraim Morgan, Cornwell’s successor, to give Hatfield particular safety on the trial, however Morgan refused. On August 1, 1921, as Sid Hatfield, his good friend Ed Chambers and their wives have been strolling up the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, each males have been gunned down by Baldwin-Felts detectives. Tom Felts had taken his revenge.

These have been the photographs heard ’spherical West Virginia. Hatfield’s funeral in Matewan drew the most important crowd that city had ever seen. In his eulogy, union lawyer Sam Montgomery took inspiration from the driving rain that soaked the mourners: “Even the heavens weep with the grief stricken relatives and bereaved friends of these two boys.”

The miners had no time for tears. A week after the slayings, lots of massed outdoors the state Capitol in Charleston and introduced Governor Morgan with a broad vary of proposals for improved working circumstances and curbs on the facility of the mine house owners. Ten days later, on August 17, Morgan flatly turned down every little thing the miners had requested for, thus ending hopes of a peaceable decision of their grievances. Inside the subsequent week union males from throughout West Virginia started gathering close to the little city of Marmet, simply outdoors Charleston. Many wore their World Struggle I uniforms, others merely donned blue bib overalls, however almost all tied round their necks a purple bandana, which quickly turned the hallmark of the rebel military. They introduced with them a mind-boggling assortment of weaponry: .22-caliber chook weapons, double-barreled shotguns, the Springfield rifles that many had carried in France and each number of handgun. Their guards patrolled the roads and shooed away strangers. However amongst themselves they spoke brazenly of marching on Mingo County, liberating the union organizers held within the county jail in Williamson and bringing an efficient finish to the martial regulation that had been reinstated by Governor Morgan. All that stood of their approach was Logan County and Sheriff Don Chafin, the mine house owners’ righthand man, who vowed firmly, “No armed mob will cross the Logan County line.”

To again up that pledge, Chafin referred to as for volunteers, and scores of Logan’s strong residents responded. Chafin’s deputies descended on the strikebreakers’ camps with the rallying cry “Anyone who doesn’t come fight is fired.” To equip his forces, Chafin stripped the county armory and native hardware shops of weaponry, turning Logan into an arsenal that boasted not solely machine weapons and rifles but in addition a squadron of three biplanes parked on an area baseball area. Beneath the path of the deputies, the volunteers felled timber, hauled lumber to erect breastworks, dug trenches and blocked roads.

Chafin’s preparations, nevertheless, have been under no circumstances adequate to relieve Governor Morgan’s nervousness. On Thursday, August 25, as The New York Occasions reported that an “army of malcontents, among whom were union miners, radical organizers and not a few ex-servicemen” was marching on Mingo, the governor appealed immediately to President Warren Harding. On the president’s behest the Warfare Division dispatched Brig. Gen. Harry Bandholtz, who had been Common John “Black Jack” Pershing’s provost marshal common within the AEF, to Charleston. Bandholtz’s orders have been clear: Make the miners go house.

Bandholtz arrived earlier than daybreak on August 27 and summoned the 2 prime leaders of the UMW within the state: Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney. The overall minced no phrases. “You two are the officers of this organization and 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 this out just like that,” he stated, snapping his fingers of their faces. A lot of the nation was struggling by means of exhausting occasions, as Bandholtz and the union leaders nicely knew. The overall was nervous that the workingman’s distemper, so palpable in West Virginia, may unfold. “There are several million unemployed in this country now and this thing might assume proportions that would be difficult to handle,” he advised the union leaders.

Having little selection, the 2 union males set about making an attempt to perform Bandholtz’s orders. In Washington, nevertheless, the Conflict Division was taking no possibilities. An infantry detachment at Ohio’s Camp Sherman was ordered to maintain itself in readiness. The Military Air Service, forerunner of the Military Air Corps, was advised to decide if Kanawha Subject, outdoors Charleston, might function a base for air operations. That was all it took to convey Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, commander of the First Provisional Air Brigade, to the scene. The 42-year-old Mitchell, who had been the highest U.S. airman in Europe throughout World Conflict I, had already demonstrated the aptitude for controversy that he would exhibit once more within the Mountain State. Quickly he was strutting round Kanawha Area sporting a pistol, spurs and his row of fight ribbons and discoursing on how air energy might be a potent weapon for suppressing civil disturbances. “All this could be left to the air service,” he advised a reporter. “If I get orders I can move in the necessary forces in three hours.”

When a reporter requested how he would deal with plenty of males underneath cowl in gullies, the overall responded: “Gas. You under- stand we wouldn’t try to kill people at first. We’d drop gas all over  the place. If they refused to disperse, then we’d open up with artillery preparation and everything.”

Whereas Mitchell beat the drums for air energy, Keeney and Mooney have been desperately assembly with teams of union militants, trumpeting Bandholtz’s ominous warning. Earlier than night time fell, that they had an encouraging report for Bandholtz. In response to the pleas of their leaders, the miners have been abandoning their march. Bandholtz relayed the excellent news to Washington and headed again there himself. However he prudently urged his superiors to hold their powder dry. He trusted Mooney and Keeney to hold their phrase, however as he informed Washington, he had little confidence in Governor Morgan’s capability to keep order, including that “the state had made only a feeble attempt to check the growth of the insurgent movement or to keep [in] reasonable touch with its progress.”

Positive sufficient, exhausting on the heels of Bandholtz’s warning, a state police captain itching for a struggle and heading a pressure of 300 state troopers and deputies triggered a skirmish with armed miners. Earlier than it was over, at the least one miner was lifeless, each side have been nursing wounded and the truce that Bandholtz had so rigorously nurtured was obliterated.

By Monday, August 29, the purple bandana military was again to full power and on the march once more. The insurgents had the pure benefit of the built-in organizational construction offered by their union. Every UMW native shaped its personal contingent, usually headed up by the native leaders who served as subject commanders. However Keeney and Mooney, dealing with homicide indictments for earlier skirmishes, had fled the state. Taking cost of their absence was Invoice Blizzard, the top of a District 17 subdistrict. Though nobody questioned Blizzard’s dedication to the trigger, some questioned about his judgment. Mooney described him as “all fire and dynamite, hot headed and irresponsible.”

At rapidly thrown-up barricades in Logan County, Chafin’s defenders braced to meet the onslaught. The sheriff ’s drive had been enlarged by outpourings from everywhere in the state—many, just like the armed miners they confronted, have been former World Conflict I doughboys. They introduced with them high-powered rifles, ammunition and even a machine gun. The defenders’ ordnance was bolstered by contributions from one other devoted foe of the UMW, Kentucky Governor Edwin P. Morrow, who despatched 40,000 rounds of ammunition, 400 rifles, two machine weapons and three airplanes.

The union forces’ assault plan was a basic pincer technique. One column, to the north, would attempt to flank Blair Mountain, whereas a second, southern column would head due west up and over the mountain. If all went properly, they might meet in Logan and dance on Don Chafin’s grave.

However the miners quickly discovered one of many oldest guidelines of warfare: The inherent disadvantage in making an attempt to seize a mountain is that the defenders maintain the excessive floor. Chafin’s well-armed troops on the dual crests of Blair Mountain might maintain the miners pinned down on the graded street that adopted the move between the crests.

The miners’ southern column, their firepower bolstered by a Gatling gun, scored a short lived breakthrough. However Chafin’s defenders, led by a World Struggle I captain, drove them again with machine gun hearth. At one level about 50 miners charged straight forward, trying to overrun the ridge the place the machine gun was positioned. Heavy hearth drove them again, nevertheless, carrying 5 of their wounded comrades.

Furthermore, Chafin didn’t restrict his protection to floor warfare. He despatched up the biplanes he had chartered, purportedly for reconnaissance, armed with tear fuel and pipe bombs. However all of the missiles aimed on the miners fell broad of the mark.

Because the hours wore on with bitter preventing however little progress, the miners realized that Bandholtz’s endurance had been strained previous the breaking level and federal troops would quickly be on the best way. They launched a ultimate effort to break by way of the defenders’ strains and attain Logan. “Attack was pushed desperately,” reported one native journalist from his vantage level in a machine gun nest on the protection ramparts. “The enemy seemed to have no sense of fear whatever and advanced over the crest of the hill in the face of machine gun and rifle fire.” In actuality the defenders gave nearly as good as they acquired. “We couldn’t fire a shot but what they would rake our line from top to bottom,” one of many miners advised reporters. To that determined rebel, the defenders appeared in a position to volley again 100 rounds for each shot fired at them.

It was the final gasp of the miners’ riot. Because the insurgents have been falling again on their very own strains, the U.S. army presence had arrived within the type of the Military Air Service. By late Thursday afternoon, September 1, 14 twin-engine de Havilland and Martin bombers had landed at Kanawha Subject. However for all Common Billy Mitchell’s bellicose speak, the planes—absolutely armed for fight—have been assigned solely reconnaissance missions and Mitchell himself was ordered to keep behind. The infantry, some 2,100 robust, moved within the subsequent day. By Sunday afternoon, September four, it was clear the rebellion was over. About 1,000 miners had surrendered formally. Hundreds extra merely drifted away and disappeared. Solely 400 weapons have been turned in by the insurgents; many have been hidden within the woods the place their house owners might declare them when wanted.

Those that surrendered have been loaded onto streetcars and shuttled by means of the capital to close by St. Albans. Whereas hundreds of curious residents lined the streets, the as soon as defiant rebels leaned out the home windows, laughing and shouting on the crowd, some waving American flags. Many appeared to take satisfaction that that they had not yielded to the coal operators and their native allies, however had as an alternative pressured the federal authorities to put down their insurrection. “It was Uncle Sam that did it,” one shouted.

The exact demise toll for the Battle of Blair Mountain was by no means firmly established, however estimates vary from fewer than 20 to greater than 50, remarkably low figures contemplating that the official Military historical past of the incident estimated the variety of forces on each side to be between 10,000 and 20,000. Combatants had to reckon with the late summer time underbrush that clogged the hills and hollows that made up the battlefield. They typically fired with out figuring out precisely what they have been capturing at. As one Bluefield volunteer described it to his native paper, “Someone spies the dark shadow of an armed man stealing along the road and let’s go at it.”

However the actual significance of the battle was greatest reckoned by its financial and political penalties. With the union-organizing drive throttled, the state introduced treason fees towards Blizzard and a slew of different miners. They have been tried in Charles City, Jefferson County, in the identical courthouse that had been the stage for the treason trial of John Brown, the abolitionist zealot whose raid on the federal arsenal at close by Harpers Ferry helped ignite the Civil Struggle. In contrast to Brown, Blizzard was acquitted and a lot of the expenses towards the others have been dropped. However the state had completed its objective. The West Virginia UMW’s treasury was drained because of the strike and the next authorized battles. Nor was there a lot hope of assist from nationwide headquarters, which confronted nationwide opposition to unionism and a glut of coal created by the top of World Warfare I.

The Battle of Blair Mountain illustrates the facility of the American dream with its promise of justice, equality and alternative. A deeply held religion in that credo helped to encourage the West Virginia miners’ insurrection towards the coal operators and their excesses. However it didn’t happen to the troopers within the pink bandana military to maintain the nationwide authorities liable for the injustice that they had suffered. The federal government was a part of what they believed in. It was not solely the power of the federal intervention however what it represented that sapped the fervor and the fury from the rebels and led them to lay down their arms. “We wouldn’t revolt against the national guv’ment,” one miner advised Common Bandholtz when he arrived in strife-torn West Virginia.

The mineworkers’ riot died on the rugged street to Blair Mountain, however its spirit lived on, and the miners’ religion within the promise of their nation was ultimately justified. Years after the weapons of West Virginia fell silent, with the assistance of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the mineworkers lastly gained the best to manage and gained an final victory for the 10,000 who marched in America’s forgotten civil struggle.


Initially revealed within the April 2007 concern of American Historical past. To subscribe, click on right here. 

20th – 21st Century, American Historical past, Mining, Individuals, Social Historical past

Sponsored Content material: