|W.H. Blizzard, left, with an “aide-de-camp.” Blizzard commanded the army of miners in the August 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain | Courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives
Mining in the early 1900s was still, by all accounts, an ugly occupation, and negotiating for better working conditions and pay remained a fraught endeavour. Miners were increasingly turning to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) for support, but the relationship between mine owners and the union was largely antagonistic, and often marked by violence. In West Virginia between 1920 and 1921, this violence reached such heights that today it is commonly referred to as the West Virginia coal wars, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The UMWA began gaining a foothold in the coal fields of West Virginia in the spring of 1920, with scores of miners signing up despite fears of losing their jobs. Mining companies pushed back, often hiring the notorious Baldwin-Felts agency for the dirtier work. Baldwin-Felts was a detective agency that had branched out from investigative work into private security. Their agents were hired to spy on union members and to put down strikes, but to the miners they were nothing more than hired thugs.
The events leading up to Blair Mountain began in Matewan, in the southwest county of Mingo. On May 19, 1920, the Stone Mountain Coal Company brought in 12 Baldwin-Felts agents, including Albert and Lee Felts, brothers of the agency’s owner, Thomas Felts, to evict some miners and their families from company housing. This they did, forcing the miners out at gunpoint, beginning with a woman and her children who were home alone.
Needless to say, this did not go over well with the miners, nor with Matewan’s hot-headed police chief Sid Hatfield and the town’s mayor Cabell Testerman, both former miners themselves and sympathetic to the miners’ struggle. Hatfield confronted the agents as they were preparing to leave town and attempted to arrest them. The confrontation grew heated, and as it did, armed miners positioned themselves around the agents. Then gunfire broke out. By the time it was over, seven agents were dead, including Albert and Lee Felts, along with two miners and Mayor Testerman.
Hatfield instantly became a hero for challenging the agents, and the event galvanized the miners to push for workers’ rights and to have the mine owners recognize the legitimacy of the union. After a year of increasing tensions and violent encounters between mine owners and their employees, the state imposed martial law on the county to calm things down. This resulted in mass arrests of miners, though it only seemed to harden their resolve.
The Baldwin-Felts agency, meanwhile, sought revenge on Hatfield for the deaths of the Felts brothers, especially after Hatfield was acquitted for their deaths. Finally they saw their chance. Hatfield was to appear in court on August 1, 1921, along with his friend Ed Chambers, charged with dynamiting a coal tipple. Baldwin-Felts agents were waiting for the two men as they climbed the courthouse steps. The agents opened fire and gunned them down – an act for which they were later acquitted.
For the miners, the assassination was the final straw, and they began arming themselves for whatever came next. A week later thousands of miners gathered for a rally in the capital of Charleston. When the governor rejected their demands, the miners decided to march south to Mingo County to free their imprisoned comrades, end martial law and enforce the legitimacy of the union.
On August 24, some 10,000 armed men began their march, passing through neighbouring Logan County along the way. But their path was blocked. A Logan County sheriff named Don Chafin was waiting for them, having organized a 2,000-strong armed force of his own and positioned them on Blair Mountain, directly in the miners’ path.
It was here, along the valley and slopes of Blair Mountain, that the largest labour uprising in U.S. history came to a head. For five days the miners fought hard against superior firepower, with Chafin going so far as to hire planes to drop bombs on them. Finally the federal government sent in the army to end the uprising, and the miners stood down – many hiding their guns in the woods as they retreated, some of which are still being found today. The estimate of the total number killed varies from 16 to 100, though it is clear most of the deaths were of miners.
Nearly 1,000 miners were charged with everything from murder to treason. The battle was a major defeat for the UMWA, which lost tens of thousands of memberships over the subsequent years, and the region itself failed to unionize until 1935. But after Blair Mountain, the lines had been drawn, both sides knew how far the other was willing to go.