The West Virginia Mine Wars climaxed in the largest battle on American soil since the Civil War but its beginnings can be traced to the upheavals caused by the U.S. Industrial Revolution. When the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began, America’s Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. As a result, the pace of social change in the country accelerated. America quickly went from being mostly rural to increasingly urban. People who had worked on small farms for generations suddenly got jobs in factories and moved away from their ancestral lands. For all of human civilization prior to this, people had primarily survived by raising crops on small farms. The Industrial Revolution completely changed that and consequently impacted every other aspect of life and culture. This was the largest and most abrupt social change in human history.
When people began working in industrial settings the conditions were harsh. Injuries and death were common and many toiled at demanding and dangerous jobs for 70 hours a week. In spite of their hard work, most people were barely able to survive because wages were so low. This was also true in the coal industry. This led workers to revolt and demand better working conditions and fairer pay. Many joined labor unions to give them more leverage in dealing with the powerful corporations that had come to control much of American life.
The fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution was coal. At that time Coal was more important to the world economy then than oil is today. Some of the largest coal reserves in America were in southern West Virginia and a steady stream of coal from this region was vital to U.S. economic growth and stability. In many parts of the country labor unions had taken hold but this was not the case in the southern West Virginia coal fields. The coal companies that dominated life in this remote region had been successful in keeping the unions out. However, about 1919 there was a big push to unionize the southern West Virginia coal fields in Mingo and Logan counties.
Company control of worker’s lives in this region was pervasive. The coal company owned the miners’ homes, the stores they shopped in and even paid the men with company issued money, called scrip, that could only be spent in the company store. As a result the coal company controlled every aspect of a miner’s life and when a miner lost his job he also lost his home and any money he had saved became worthless. This meant that a coal miner would basically lose everything if he joined a union.
When the push to unionize the West Virginia coal fields started in 1919 many miners were so dissatisfied with their working conditions that they risked everything and joined the union. One of the towns at the center of this effort was Matewan in Mingo County. The Chief of Police in Matewan was named Sid Hatfield. He was one of the few law enforcement officials in the region whose pay was not subsidized in whole or in part by a coal company.
As soon as the miners in this area joined the union, the coal companies quickly sent in men from the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency to evict them from their company owned homes. The Baldwin Felts Detective Agency was a private security company that was feared throughout the American labor movement. These “gun thugs” as workers called them were used to break up strikes across the land. The Baldwin Felts Detectives were known for their brutal tactics and for operating outside the law. The powerful forces that employed the detectives protected them and enabled them to beat and even kill workers with no real consequences.
When the Baldwin Felts Detectives came into Matewan to evict miners’ from their homes, Sid Hatfield tried to stop the effort by arresting the men for not carrying out the evictions in a legal manner. The detectives responded by trying to arrest Sid. Gunfire immediately erupted between them. When the smoke cleared nine of the eleven Baldwin Felts men were dead, including two brothers of the man who owned the company.
This event came to be known as the Matewan Massacre. Shortly after it happened the owner of the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency was able to get murder charges brought against Sid Hatfield and 22 other miners involved in the shootout. The trial was conducted in nearby Williamson and all of the miners were found not guilty. As a result of this, Sid Hatfield became a nationally known hero in the American labor movement. He had stood up to the hated Baldwin Felts Detectives and gotten the better of them – a very rare occurrence. Not long after Sid’s acquittal unsubstantiated charges were brought against him in nearby McDowell County which was a stronghold of the anti-union forces. Sid went to the county seat of Welch to face these charges and as he was walking up the courthouse steps he was gunned down by five employees of the Baldwin Felts Agency. Supporters of the union movement felt the entire event was an obvious ambush orchestrated by Tom Felts. The five men who killed Sid pled self defense and were never charged.
When word of Sid’s murder got out, miners and union sympathizers around the country were incensed. In response workers started gathering near the West Virginia capital city of Charleston. These men then began marching down to Mingo County with the intention of freeing it from the oppression of the coal companies. The size of this army has been estimated to have exceeded 10,000 armed miners. In response to the armed march, the governor of West Virginia asked the federal government for help. President Warren G. Harding sent General Harry Bandholtz to the state to assess the situation. In addition, General Billy Mitchell was dispatched to the region. Billy Mitchell was the father of the American Airforce and he brought several heavily armed planes and bombers to West Virginia with the intention of using them to turn back the advancing miners.
When the coal companies heard about the miners’ march they sent Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin to the Logan/Boone County border to stop the miners. Don Chafin was feared throughout southern West Virginia for his brutal tactics employed against unionization efforts. Don Chafin was paid the equivalent of $300,000 per year by the coal companies to keep unions out of the area and he was purported to have beaten and killed many men as part of his efforts. Chafin gathered a heavily armed contingent of 3,000 men and set up a line of defense along the crest of Blair Mountain. Chafin’s men had the advantage of the high ground and bolstered that by setting up machine gun emplacements and digging fortified trenches along the ridge.
General Bandholtz met with the leaders of the marching miners and got them to agree to put down their weapons and go home. As the miners began to leave, those on the side of the coal companies began arresting them. In response to this betrayal the men took up their arms again and resumed their march. When they got to Blair Mountain they engaged Don Chafin’s men in battle. President Harding immediately sent two huge contingents of soldiers to stop the conflict. The Army soon arrived at Blair Mountain and deployed half of its force behind the miners and half behind Chafin’s men.
Many of the miners were World War I veterans and they were unwilling to fire on the uniform that they had so recently served in. As a result the miners laid down their weapons for a final time and dispersed. Soon after this the leaders of the marching miners were charged with treason and went to trial. They were found not guilty.
In the aftermath of these events the American labor movement wilted. When it became apparent how far the government would go to suppress unionizing activities many labor advocates gave up. Unions in America lost nearly half their membership. Within two years after the Battle of Blair Mountain the average salary paid to an American coal miner dropped 87%. The union movement in America did not recover until the Great Depression when pro-union legislation was made part of the New Deal. Labor unions then were able to win important concessions for workers, including a 40 hour work week, child labor laws, worker safety rules and health and retirement benefits. These are all things we take for granted today but they were achieved through the efforts of unions and the struggle of American workers for better working conditions and workers’ rights.
The Battle of Blair Mountain, and the Matewan Massacre that precipitated it, are milestones in the American labor movement and in the efforts of workers to achieve fair wages and working conditions. The Battle of Blair Mountain has been called the Gettysburg of the American labor movement. This is an important chapter in U.S. history that few know about today. These events, collectively known as the West Virginia Mine Wars, were a key part of the struggle of U.S. workers and the formation of a middle class in this country. The Mine Wars made a vital contribution to improving the lives of average Americans and helped our country evolve into the modern, egalitarian society it is today.
For more information on these events check out the links below.http://www.wvculture.org/history/labor/matewan04.html