From around 1900 through 1922 a series of lockouts, strikes, clashes, gunfights, battles, assassinations, and all out warfare raged through the southern coal fields of West Virginia. These events became known collectively as the West Virginia mine wars. Starting in 1902 when New River operators locked out coal miners who had joined the United Mine Workers of America and then imported mine guards and gun thugs to evict the miners and their families from company housing, a pattern of violence and intimidation by the operators emerged that would be employed for the next two decades against miners seeking better pay and working conditions. Before long they would add the use of spies, injunctions, state militia, and compromised civil law enforcement in their bid to dominate their workers and to prevent the unionization of West Virginia’s coal industry.
The miners fought back, initially by peaceful protests and marches, but later by employing violence themselves. As the coal operators hired thousands of mine guards and “detectives” the miners found themselves out-manned and out-gunned but they also developed a determination that they would fight and win no matter the cost. The results were predictable and are now part of the unique catalogue of events that marks the history of the Mountain State.
There was the 1902 Stanaford Mountain Massacre in which US Marshalls and a posse of Baldwin Felts Detectives killed a dozen sleeping miners in a night time attack on the town of Stanaford in Fayette County. There was the bloody 1912-13 Paint Creek and Cabin Creek Strike that witnessed dozens of gun battles, three declarations of martial law, the suspension of the right of habeus corpus, trials of civilians before military tribunals, and which culminated in a midnight attack on a miners tent colony by the “Bull Moose Special,” an armored C&O train equipped with two machine guns and dozens of heavily armed deputies and guards. In 1919 5000 armed miners marched on Logan County in an attempt to overthrow the local Sheriff Don Chafin and his army of 500 company paid deputies.
In 1920 a gun battle took place on the main street of Matewan in Mingo County between Police Chief Sid Hatfield, a friend of the miners, and Baldwin Felts detectives who had been illegally evicting miners. When the smoke cleared from the so-called Matewan Massacre, ten men lay dead including the mayor of Matewan, a miner, a young boy, and seven detectives. This event was the deadliest shootout in US history. A bitter strike ensued and again martial law was declared and men jailed without charge or the right to habeus corpus. Both federal troops and local militia were deployed with the latter conducting a murderous attack on the strikers’ Lick Creek tent colony. Hatfield and twenty two others were tried and acquitted of murder for their part in the battle at Matewan but on August 1, 1921 Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were lured to McDowell County on a perjured charge and assassinated in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses by deputized Baldwin Felts agents on the courthouse steps in Welch. Both men were shot more than a dozen times, their wives at their sides when the attacks took place.
As a result of these brazen murders which were facilitated by public officials several thousand miners gathered in protest on the Capitol lawn in Charleston. When their petitions were rebuffed by the governor they returned home but in late August reappeared armed at the mouth of Lens Creek fifteen miles east. They began marching south with the intention of entering Logan County where they would hang sheriff Chafin and then proceed to Mingo County where they intended to lift martial law and free the hundreds of miners incarcerated there without charge. As they marched south their ranks swelled by the thousand as other miners, shop keepers, railroad men, farmers, young boys, doctors, lawyers, and even ministers joined their ranks.
By the time they reached Blair Mountain and Spruce Fork Ridge on the border of Logan County they numbered between ten and fifteen thousand. Here they met and engaged an army of four to six thousand mine guards, deputies, state police, and volunteers equipped with a dozen belt-fed, water-cooled, Browning .50 caliber machine guns, light artillery, and airplanes equipped with chemical and explosive ordinance. The Battle of Blair Mountain would become the largest insurrection in US history exclusive of the American Civil War and would rage for more than a week. Finally President Warren G. Harding dispatched federal troops under General Harry H. Bandholtz to stop the fighting. He also ordered General Billy Mitchell to deploy elements of the First Provisional Air Brigade from Langley Field in Virginia to West Virginia to support Bandholtz. Mitchell flew to Charleston with eight modern MB-2 heavy bombers and fourteen DeHavilland DH-4 fighters in the only instance in US history in which federal air power was deployed and utilized against domestic forces.
With the arrival of federal troops the coal miners broke off the engagement, hid their weapons in the hills, and began surrendering without so much as a single shot being fired. Many of the miners were WWI veterans and perhaps 20% were dressed in their US Army uniforms. Their dispute was with state authorities and they refused to fight Uncle Sam. It is difficult to determine the number of men killed during the Battle of Blair Mountain as both sides sought to hide their casualties but estimates range from fifty to three hundred.
In the ensuing weeks thousands of miners and civilians were arrested, jailed, and charged with murder and treason for their part in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Fearing a renewal of hostilities if the men were tried locally, the trials were moved to Jefferson County in the eastern panhandle. In the spring of 1922 an incredible series of treason and murder trials took place in the same Jefferson County Courthouse where the famous abolitionist John Brown was tried some fifty years prior. In the most famous case Bill Blizzard, a young UMW official, was acquitted of treason but the battle and the trials had physically and monetarily exhausted the United Mine Workers and the union would soon collapse to insignificance until New Deal legislation gave it a second life a decade later.
Join Coal Country Tours as we explore and trace this incredible history. Travel with us to the New River fields near Beckley where we visit the original 1890 Whipple Company Store and go underground in the turn-of-the-century Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine. Join us in Matewan where we experience a reenactment of the 1920 Matewan Massacre and where we dine with active and retired coal miners and their families. Stand with us on the Summit of Blair Mountain where we learn about the famous battle and its implications. Tour with us the incredible town and mansions of Bramwell, “the town of millionaires” where coal barons, financiers, and railroad magnates built their homes. You can do all of this in comfort and in safety with Coal Country Tours.
Can you name the largest armed civil insurrection in U.S. history excluding the American Civil War? If not, you are in good company. Few people can including many whose ancestors took part in that fight. That insurrection was the Battle of Blair Mountain which took place in 1921 on the border of Boone and Logan Counties, in the southern West Virginia coal fields. At that battle ten to thirteen armed coal miners and ordinary citizens fought three to four thousand heavily armed mine guards, deputy sheriffs, Baldwin Felts detectives, and state police in a bloody engagement that only ended when President Warren G. Harding intervened with federal troops.
The seeds of the conflict go back to a 1902 lockout against union miners in the New River coal field in the southeastern part of the state. During that lockout coal operators hired mine guards from the notorious Baldwin Felts Detective Agency of Bluefield, WV to intimidate the miners and to crush their efforts at gaining union recognition. Aided by sweeping injunctions, mass evictions, and state militia, they waged a violent campaign that eventually broke the organizing effort. In the aftermath, union leaders and sympathizers were fired, blacklisted and driven from the territory. Many drifted down the line of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad to the new Kanawha field where they successfully organized the coal mines there.
For a decade after, conditions were generally peaceful until the spring of 1912 when the Kanawha operators refused to renew the union contracts. After a brief strike, most of the mine owners capitulated except on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, two narrow twenty-mile valleys south of the Kanawha River. There, Baldwin Felts guards were again deployed but this time the coal miners were prepared. They quickly armed themselves and when the guards began attempts to intimidate them they responded in force. The famous labor activist Mother Mary Jones arrived and encouraged the miners to stand up to the Baldwin Felts men. The strike rapidly descended into widespread violence including a series of large-scale battles prompting Governor William E. Glasscock to declare martial law in the strike zone on three separate occasions.
Under martial law, habeas corpus was suspended and Mother Jones and about two hundred miners were arrested and tried before military tribunals. This violated provisions of both the state and U.S. Constitutions. As a result of this abuse of power the United States Senate launched its first ever investigation of a labor conflict. In early 1913 a new governor, Henry D. Hatfield, was inaugurated. Determined to end the strike, he forced a settlement but the coal miners were angry that it did not include union recognition or removal of the mine guards from the creeks. In defiance of union leadership they began walking off the job and threatened renewed violence. Hatfield, embarrassed by the Senate investigation and fearful of further strife then forced the operators to recognize the union and end the strike.
In 1916 a political compromise with Clarence Watson, head of the Consolidated Coal Company, led to the unionization of the Fairmont Field in north-central West Virginia. Recognition soon followed in the New River Field. With the entry of the United States into World War I both sides agreed to the status quo for the duration but following the war, the United Mine Workers union began looking at the state’s last unorganized area in the state’s southernmost counties. Initial attempts to enter Logan County were thwarted by legendary Sheriff Don Chafin and his 300 plus company-paid deputies. In adjacent Mingo County however, coal miners managed to organize a number of locals. The operators responded with a lockout and by blacklisting all who had joined the union. When the mine owners began evicting miners and their families tensions flared.
On the morning of June 19, 1920 thirteen heavily armed Baldwin Felts detectives under the direction of Albert and Lee Felts arrived in the small town of Matewan with orders to evict striking miners from company houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. A similar attempt two weeks earlier in nearby Williamson had resulted in the arrest of Albert, Lee and about two dozen of their men. Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman confronted the guards and told them their actions were illegal but the guards proceeded to evict the miners anyway. Testerman instructed his chief of police Sid Hatfield to arrest the Baldwin Felts men. When Hatfield attempted to do so, an argument ensued followed by gunfire. Armed and angry miners who had been watching developments immediately joined the gunfight. When the smoke cleared ten men including the mayor, two miners, Albert and Lee Felts, and five of their men lay dead on the streets of Matewan.
The “Matewan Massacre” had an electric effect on the coal miners and within days ninety-five percent of Mingo’s miners had joined the strike. Sid Hatfield and twenty-two others were indicted for the murder of Albert Felts but a sympathetic jury acquitted them all. The coal operators tried to import strikebreakers and also instigated a series of sham battles in the hopes of getting state or federal troops involved. Federal troops were eventually deployed for a short time. When they were withdrawn, Governor Ephraim Morgan declared martial law and allowed the creation of a volunteer militia. Dubbed the “Flying Mingo Militia” by the miners, membership was restricted to anti-union, pro-operator allies.
As the strike descended into the familiar pattern of violence and large-scale battles, the U.S. Senate launched another investigation into conditions in the Mingo Field. While in Washington testifying before the investigating committee, Sid Hatfield was informed that he had been indicted in McDowell County, a Baldwin Felts stronghold, for allegedly shooting the company town of Mohawk there. On August 1, 1921 Hatfield appeared in Welch for trial along with his boyhood pal Ed Chambers and their wives. They had been promised protection by the McDowell County sheriff but as they ascended the courthouse steps they were confronted by about a dozen deputized Baldwin Felts agents including survivors from the Matewan shootout. Without warning, the guards opened fire on the unarmed men killing both in front of their horrified wives. Both were shot more than a dozen times including a final round behind the ear.
News of the killings spread like wildfire through West Virginia’s coal fields and beyond. State officials took no action and no arrests were made. Coal miners everywhere were enraged that the operators had “shot Sid Hatfield down like a dog” with impunity. In mid-August several thousand miners and citizens gathered on the lawn of the state capitol to demand justice, the termination of martial law, and an end to the use of armed and deputized mine guards. Mother Jones gave an incendiary speech and a petition was submitted to the governor. District 17 President Frank Keeney told the gathering that if the governor failed to act the only way they could secure their constitutional rights would be “through the barrel of a rifle.” The men were then told to return home to await further instructions. A few days later Governor Morgan responded that state law did not permit him any avenue to take action.
Two weeks later armed miners began congregating at the mouth of Lens Creek on the south shore of the Kanawha River a few miles east of Charleston. Initially numbering a few hundred, the miners’ ranks swelled to six thousand within a couple of days. Soon they were on the march headed south toward Logan and Mingo Counties. As they marched their numbers grew as more miners, shopkeepers, railroad men, ministers, and others joined until there were between ten and thirteen thousand men and women involved.
In Logan County Sheriff Chafin and state officials hurriedly recruited their own army of mine guards, deputies, state police, and volunteers eventually numbering three to four thousand men. This army, armed with high-powered Winchester rifles, Thompson sub-machine guns, military Colt and Browning machine guns, and even ex-military light artillery was deployed along several miles of ridge on the top of Blair Mountain which separated Logan and Boone County to the north. Chafin also hired three airplanes from Ohio which he equipped with chemical and explosive ordinance. These were dropped on miners gathered at the base of Blair Mountain. The miners were less heavily armed although they did possess two machine guns captured from operators in previous actions on Paint Creek.
In the meantime, Governor Morgan had been frantically seeking federal troops from Washington. He eventually persuaded President Harding to send help. Harding dispatched General Harry H. Bandholtz to assess the situation. Bandholtz had made his name successfully suppressing Philippine rebels and also as Provost Marshal for all U.S. troops in Europe during the Great War. He was the perfect man for the job. Diplomatic and sensitive, Bandhotlz was also no-nonsense. Arriving in Charleston he summoned District 17 leaders to a meeting where he informed them in no uncertain terms that they must turn back the miners marching on Logan or that he would “snuff them out.” District President Frank Keeney and Secretary/Treasurer Fred Mooney hurried to Madison in Boone County where after some difficulty they successfully persuaded the miners to give up the march. Thousands of miners, though still seething, turned north and began to trek homeward.
That night however, possibly under the direction of Governor Morgan, Sheriff Chafin sent about 250 state police officers and deputies across Blair Mountain into Boone County which was union territory, to serve several “John Doe” warrants against unknown coal miners. At the town of Sharples the posse ran into a rear guard of miners and opened fire on them killing three. As news of the killings spread among the miners those who had turned north about-faced and raced back to the town of Blair at the base of the mountain. The deputies retreated swiftly to Logan.
Logan County officials informed Governor Morgan of the renewed march and he in turn frantically called Harding. Bandholtz, who had returned to Washington, was again dispatched to the Kanawha Valley. Although he blamed state officials for re-igniting the conflict, he could see that the situation was spiraling out of control as fighting had commenced on Blair Mountain between miners and defenders. He summoned Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, who is commonly credited as being the “father” of the U.S. Air Force, from Langley Field in Virginia.
Mitchell had just changed the course of military history by sinking captured WWI German battleships off the coast of Virginia with air attacks. In doing so he had overturned centuries of military doctrine that held capital warships as the measure of national military might. Mitchell flew into Kanawha City with eight top-of-the-line Martin MB-2 bombers and about fifteen De Havilland fighters. Ever anxious to further the cause of airpower, Mitchell assured reporters that he could bomb the miners into submission. Fortunately, Bandholtz restrained Mitchell by disarming his aircraft and limiting their use for reconnaissance only. This episode marked the only instance in U.S. history where federal air power was deployed against American citizens.
As fighting spread on Blair Mountain General Bandholtz also called for federal troops from Camp Sherman in Ohio. The miners had been probing lines and gaps on Blair Mountain but were held back by withering fire from defenders. At Crooked Creek Gap they engaged in a machine gun duel with deputies and nearly broke through but were turned back at the last moment. No one knows precisely how many were killed during the fighting as both sides sought to conceal their casualties, especially the miners. Estimates run as high as fifty dead. When federal troops arrived by train, they dispersed in a classic pincher movement coming up behind both the miners and the Logan defenders. With U.S. regulars on the scene the miners disengaged and surrendered without army troops having to fire a single shot. The miner’s grievances were with state officials, not the federal government. The Battle of Blair Mountain was over.
Trouble for the miners however was not. Special grand juries were called in Logan County and in short order they issued over a thousand indictments for murder and treason. Over the following weeks hundreds of coal miners and citizens were arrested and jailed including nearly every union official from District 17 of the UMW. Union attorneys made attempts to get their men released and also succeeded in getting a change of venue for the trials which were moved to Charles Town in the state’s eastern panhandle. The treason trials would take place in the same Jefferson County Courthouse as the 1859 treason trial of the famous abolitionist John Brown.
Under orders from Governor Morgan, state officials stepped aside and allowed the prosecution to be conducted by coal company attorneys. The coal operators would later bill the state $100,000 for this service. Bill Blizzard, a young, handsome United Mine Workers sub-district president was chosen as the first to be tried. Blizzard had been openly involved in the armed insurrection and had been dubbed the “generalissimo” of the miners’ army by the press. He was personable and a family man whose wife and two young children were always at his side during the trial. The judge chosen to conduct the trial was the Honorable Judge James Woods. Woods surprised the prosecution when he proved to be no-nonsense, independent, and professional. He understood the rarity and importance of a treason trial and spent considerable time studying precedent. He quickly established that he and he alone was in charge of the proceedings.
Both sides engaged in a public relations campaign prior to the trial in an attempt to influence local public opinion. The operators overplayed their hand when they painted the miners as the worthless, violent, moonshine-laden Radicals intent on murder and mayhem. When the miners and their families appeared, they were clean, polite, and well dressed. The operators further harmed their own cause when they marched several raggedy prisoners manacled in heavy chains and under heavy guard through the streets of Charles Town from the train station to the county jail to the horror of local citizens. In the end however, the jury’s verdict was based on points of law. Prosecutors were unable to prove that Blizzard had committed overt acts of treason in Logan County where the indictments were handed down. On April 24th, 1922 he was acquitted of treason prompting a spontaneous parade and celebration through the streets of Charles Town.
In June the Reverend John Wilburn and his son were put on trial for murder. The minister, who lived in Blair, had joined the miners and led a patrol onto Blair Mountain during the fighting. His column ran into a patrol of Logan deputies resulting in a gun battle in which one of his men was killed along with three of the deputies. Both Wilburn and his son were convicted though neither had fired a shot. Next up was Walter Allen, another coal miner who was charged with treason. He was also convicted but when union attorneys submitted evidence that some prosecution witnesses were secretly on coal company payrolls, he was released on bail pending appeal. Allen skipped bail and was never seen again.
Although Bill Blizzard’s acquittal had given coal miners everywhere great joy, it was a hollow victory. Despite the massive publicity and widespread condemnation of state officials and conditions in West Virginia the trials had generated, nothing substantial changed. Coal companies continued to heavily influence government and policy in the state and the use of operator- paid guards, deputies, and spies would continue for another decade. The union was physically and financially exhausted and the coal operators took full advantage. They began unilaterally repudiating their union contracts and within a year the UMW had been decimated both within and outside of West Virginia. Membership within the state dropped from around 50,000 to a few hundred within months. Former members were terminated and blacklisted by the thousands. The United Mine Workers had been effectively destroyed. It would not recover until passage of the New Deal Wagner Act in 1935 which granted workers the right to collective bargaining.