by Al Simpson
In this article we’ll discuss one of the largest, best organized and most well-armed labor insurrections in U.S. history: the Battle of Blair Mountain. As you’ll see, brutality, open cynicism, and treachery on the side of the bosses were not in short supply, while workers displayed courage, daring and unity.
The Period Before the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a strike for November 1, 1919 in all the soft (bituminous) coal fields. They had foolishly agreed to a wage agreement to run until the end of World War I, and since the war was over, they sought to capture for themselves some of the industry’s wartime gains. Even though the war was over, the federal government invoked wartime measures that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. Ignoring a court order not to strike, 400,000 coal workers walked out. The coal operators claimed that Bolshevik leaders had ordered the strike and were financing it, and some of the bosses’ press echoed this lie. After a 5-week strike the miners received a 14% raise, much less than what they wanted.
During and after the 1919 strike, the bituminous coal operators aggressively pursued their aims. They opened non-union mines and employed scabs to run them. They switched production to the scab mines, where wages were lower, and cut the amount of work the union mines would get.
In response to organizing efforts, coal operators used every means to block the union. One of their primary tactics was to fire union sympathizers, blacklist them, and evict them from their homes. Many of the evicted miners’ families went into tent colonies where they got some shelter but hardly any food. These tent colonies would be attacked from time to time by company goons.
The Mine Operators Push Racism
The mine operators tried to foment racism by having segregated quarters for the miners. But the miners worked together and were around each other for many hours almost every day, so racism did not keep them apart. Plus, the living quarters were not that far apart, so there was constant contact of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The UMWA fought against racism because of the interracial character of the workforce and because of the constant threat that racism would eat away at the workers’ most important weapon: solidarity. This was unusual as the American Federation of Labor was focused on organizing skilled, white workers in craft unions. But by 1902, the UMWA had 20,000 black members, between ten percent and fifteen percent of the total membership[i].
The Battle of Blair Mountain
The goals of the West Virginia coal miners during 1920-21 were simple. They just wanted to organize a unionand have it recognized by the mine owners. But things went steadily downhill for the UMWA in 1920.
In mid-September, the efforts of coal operators to import strikebreakers caused rioting at Williamson, WV. Federal troops were summoned to protect the scabs and their families as they arrived at the train station and to escort the scabs to work. The presence of federal troops allowed coal operators to reopen several mines with the use of scabs. Coal operators also obtained court injunctions that forbade the UMWA from interfering with mine operations.
By January, 1921, eighty percent of mines had reopened as non-union mines. In these non-union mines, the operators forced all employees to sign yellow-dog contracts as a condition of employment. A yellow-dog contract (also called a yellow-dog clause of a contract, or an ironclad oath) is an agreement between an employer and an employee in which the employee agrees, as a condition of employment, not to be a member of a labor union. In the United States, such contracts were, until the 1930s, widely used by employers to prevent the formation of unions, most often by permitting employers to take legal action against union organizers. In 1932, yellow-dog contracts were outlawed in the United States under the Norris-LaGuardia Act.
At first, the union miners would picket or otherwise disrupt the scab mines – this included industrial sabotage such as dynamiting coal tipples. The coal operators countered by employing armed thugs and private detectives to deter the miners and murder individual militant organizers. With eighty percent of the mines being non-union and with sustained attacks by cops, private detectives and hired thugs, the very existence of the union in West Virginia was imperiled. The union had to make a stand.
In mid-May, 1921 union miners launched a full-scale assault on non-union mines. The battle started on May 12 along the banks of the Tug river with striking miners shooting at the state police, deputies and coal company officials. Union men blew up the company’s power plant. Union snipers also fired at nonunion miners. The employers’ side in the battle included nonunion miners, West Virginia State Police and Kentucky National Guardsmen. The conflict quickly consumed the entire Tug River Valley. Thousands of shots were fired from rifles, pistols, and even machine guns. Bullets flew right through homes as families cowered in fear. Bridges and coal tipples were dynamited. Businesses and schools closed. The “Three Days Battle” was finally ended on May 14 with a truce and the imposition of martial law. From the beginning, the miners perceived the enforcement of martial law as completely one-sided. Hundreds of miners were arrested; the smallest of infractions could mean imprisonment, while those on the side of “law and order” were immune from punishment.
The bosses committed some of the most heinous violence. On August 1, 1921 Sidney Hatfield traveled to McDowell County to stand trial on the charge of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their wives. As they walked up the courthouse stairs, unarmed and flanked by their wives, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the stairs opened fire. Hatfield was killed instantly. Chambers was bullet-riddled and rolled to the bottom of the stairs. Despite Sally Chambers’ protests, one of the agents ran down the stairs and shot Chambers once more in the back of the head at point blank range. Word of the murders spread through the mountains. The miners were angry at the way Hatfield and Chambers had been killed, the moreso because it appeared that the murderers would face no punishment. They began to pour out of the mountains and take up arms. Miners along the Little Coal River were among the first to militarize and began actions such as patrolling the area. Sheriff Don Chafin sent Logan County troopers to the Little Coal River area, where armed miners captured the troopers, disarmed them and sent them fleeing. Thousands of miners embarked on the now famous Miners’ March through Logan County.
On August 7, 1921, Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, who were leaders of District 17 of the UMWA, which encompasses much of southern West Virginia, presented the miner’s demand for union recognition and collective bargaining rights to Governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan summarily rejected the demands. When rank-and-file miners heard about this, they became more restless and began to talk of a march on Mingo, in southern West Virginia, to free imprisoned miners, end martial law, and organize the county. But directly in the way stood Blair Mountain, Logan County, and anti-union sheriff Don Chafin.
According to historian Clayton Laurie, President Warren Harding now felt compelled to send federal troops, having concluded that Governor Morgan and county officials were themselves part of the problem. As the reader has already seen, the governor and the local officials were inflexible in denying even the smallest union demands. In addition, they forced the union to use violent methods because the authorities and the company agents would respond to union activity with violence.
At a rally on the same day, August 7, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones called on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties. where she feared that the lightly armed union forces were no match for heavily armed Logan County deputies. Nonetheless, armed union men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain on August 20. Four days later an estimated 13,000 had gathered and began marching towards Logan County. Impatient to get to the staging area for the fight, miners near St. Albans, commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners the Blue Steel Special, to meet up with the advanced column of marchers. Meanwhile, the anti-union sheriff Don Chafin had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. He was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association as he created the country’s largest private armed force of nearly 2,000. Since the anti-union forces had set up operations near the top of the mountain, they had a strategic advantage. The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of August 25, while the bulk of the miners were still 15 miles away.
Whenever there was a cease fire, a decision by the miners to return home, or a truce, Chafin’s men would launch an attack on the miners or commit atrocities, thus restarting the fighting.
On August 8th, President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers. After a long meeting, the miners were convinced to return home. But there was a lot more fighting to come. Within hours of the decision, there were reports that Chafin’s men had shot union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, just north of Blair Mountain—and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. This infuriated the miners and they turned back toward Blair Mountain, many traveling in commandeered trains. On August 24, the main body of coal miners headed towards Blair Mountain. They weren’t too particular of how they got there, as Lon Savage wrote in Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21:
They commandeered every form of transportation: automobiles, trucks, teams of horses and mules and trains….Near Charleston WV, they halted a truck with a piano in the back, set the piano out on the road and loaded it with miners and forced the driver to take them to Blair…Black miners pushed into Jim Crow restaurants and demanded food, and it was served.
Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, leaders of UMWA district 17, 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. The proposed ceasefire they negotiated 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 began 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.”
By August 29, the battle was fully engaged. Chafin’s men, though outnumbered, had the advantage of higher positions and better weaponry. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. Teargas and pipe bombs loaded with nuts and bolts for shrapnel were dropped, but inflicted few casualties. At least one of the bombs did not explode and was recovered by the miners and was used months later during treason and murder trials that were held in the aftermath of the rebellion. On orders from General Billy Mitchell, army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance.
The heaviest fighting in the Battle of Blair Mountain began on August 31, when a group of around 75 miners ran into some of Chafin’s so-called “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 started a two-pronged assault on Chafin’s trenches and breastworks, earthworks thrown up to breast height to provide protection to defenders firing over them from a standing position. 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 liberated from a coal company store. Logan forces fought back with a machine gun, but after three hours of heavy fire, their machine gun 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.
The Importance of Racial and Ethnic Solidarity
The union understood the importance of diversity in leadership of the struggle. Black miners served in a wide range of union political positions, which cemented strikers’ solidarity. This does not mean that black miners did not still face significant discrimination, but there was a large amount of progress as many racial lines were crossed. One of the earliest committees formed to prepare for the Miners’ March had three officers: one black, one white, and one Italian immigrant. Throughout the campaign black miners served as commanders and logistics officers, and an armed black miner even led a group of white miners during the heavy fighting at Blair Mountain.
The UMWA was also able to assimilate many different immigrant groups to a substantial degree. They were offered positions of authority and respect as union officers. In this way and more, the miners wove the interests and concerns of immigrant families into their struggles.
Women were fundamental in demanding change in coalfields society. They wrote militant songs for the movement, prepared and sustained families during long and brutal strikes, served as prominent union activists, and in some cases fought alongside men. They also helped keep the scabs out. In the tent cities, women kept pots and pans on the floor to deflect bullets.
The Fight Continues
Intermittent gun battles continued for a week, with the miners at one time nearly breaking through to the town of Logan and their target destinations, the non-unionized counties to the south, Logan and Mingo. Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and 50–100 on the union miners’ side, with hundreds more injured or wounded.
By September 2nd, federal troops arrived. Realizing that the miners would lose if the battle continued against the military, Bill Blizzard passed the word for the miners to start heading home the following day. Miners fearing jail and confiscation of their guns found clever ways to hide rifles and handguns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Nearly one million rounds had been fired.
After the battle, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder and treason against the State of West Virginia. Though some were acquitted by sympathetic juries, others were imprisoned for years. The last was paroled in 1925. At Bill Blizzard’s trial, the unexploded bomb was used as evidence of the government and companies’ brutality, and he was acquitted. The strike-related trials bankrupted the UMWA in southern West Virginia. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over several years. It took until 1935 for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.
Strikes are Never Completely Lost
Strikes are never completely lost because of the organizational techniques the workers learn and the bonds they form. They learn how to run a strike – what works and what doesn’t and crucially, the workers also learn about who they can trust and whom they can’t. These techniques, bonds and lessons would serve the miners well in the years to come.
The Big Picture:
The UMWA has been attacked and bankrupted several times, so this was nothing new. It was just another phase in their struggle. It reflects what the bosses can get away with in different historical periods. The story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, shows the desperate lengths that the bosses and their government will go to preserve profits and stop workers from organizing. The miners countered this with their most powerful weapon, solidarity across racial and ethnic barriers.
Observe that the miners were subject to arrest for just about anything they did, but the persons on the bosses’ side could do anything they wanted to, including murder, with impunity. Why did all levels of government back the coal operators and never the miners? Why is this? Let’s get further insight into what was going on.
People talk about the state, but it isn’t well defined. We are not talking about the states that comprise the United States. What we mean here is a collection of institutions and agencies that enforce the rule of the ruling class, the capitalists, over the working class. The job of the state is to maintain profits, markets, access to raw materials and to prevent rebellion by workers. Ultimately, the capitalists stay in power using force, via the military, the police and many other agencies. Periodic voting only allows us to choose which representatives of the state we wish to empower.
We should keep in mind that we are supposedly guaranteed certain rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, no arbitrary searches without a warrant, due process of law and so on. But nowhere are American workers guaranteed the right to survival; that is, a job, income, food, shelter or health care. Whatever we have above the minimum that must be given in order to keep the working class in minimal working condition has been won through struggle, strikes or other mass actions. Even then, it will be taken back as soon as possible, by busting unions, raising prices, raising taxes or by other means.
The cops are the first line of defense for the capitalist rulers. Yes, they solve crimes, but their primary function is to protect the bosses. What you see on television are shows that depict the cops as heroes, regular men and women, and hints that they are part of the working class. But if the cops are so wonderful, then why do so many people hate and fear them? Why do the cops kill so many people, especially people of color, and always seem to get away with it? These are good questions. The answer is that the cops are NOT part of the working class. They are part of the state apparatus that oppresses the working class. Cops are professional strike breakers and racist murderers.
Let’s get back to the question of why the cops and other persons who represent the capitalists can get away with anything. Notice that in all the crimes described in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the bosses’ side used of the weapons of war including conventional bombs, chlorine gas bombs, machine guns, and so on, but there was never any thought of punishing any state actors, no matter what their crimes. This is endemic to class society. Their behavior today is no different; only the details have changed.
Today, we must continue to remember the lessons of Blair Mountain. Our strength comes from the unity of all workers, no what their national origin or color of their skin. The agents of the state – the politicians, federal or local police, armed forces and courts – will always oppose the workers when bosses’ profits are threatened. Whether a particular struggle is won or lost, we are ahead when we learn to rely on ourselves and understand how the system works.
List of Refences
- Vendées : It is also remembered as the place where the peasants revolted against the Revolutionary government in 1793, A guerrilla war, known as the Revolt in the Vendée, led at the outset by peasants who were chosen in each locale, cost more than 240,000 lives before it ended in 1796 (190,000 Vendeans who were republicans or royalists and 50,000 non-Vendean republican soldiers; according to the Jacques Hussenet and Centre Vendéen de Recherche Historique’s book “Détruisez la Vendéee.
- Sociallist Worker: https://socialistworker.org/2018/03/09/the-heights-of-solidarity-at-blair-mountain
- West Virginia History: http://www.wvculture.org/history/journal_wvh/wvh50-1.html
- Military History Battle of Blair Mountain: http://military.wikia.com/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain#cite_note-FOOTNOTEShogan2004164.E2.80.93165-31
- The West Virginia Encyclopedia, Ephraim Franklin Morgan. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/print/Article/2046
- Wikipedia Battle of Blair Mountain: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Blair_Mountain
- com Battle of Blair Mountain: https://www.history.com/news/americas-largest-labor-uprising-the-battle-of-blair-mountain
- IWW Environment Unionism Caucus: https://ecology.iww.org/
- Ayers, Rothrock and King 2007
- Ever heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain? Federal troops were called against 13,000 miners. https://www.upworthy.com/ever-heard-of-the-battle-of-blair-mountain-federal-troops-were-called-against-13000-miners
- Role of Women from the Register Herald newspaper, Beckley, West Virginia
Al Simpson is a mathematician who lives in the United States