One thing had led to another, and one confrontation of company-dispatched detectives and miners had led to another — truly the tensions were high and 10 were dead — and eventually open warfare broke out in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. The security forces were determined, the miners armed, the conflict brutal and deadly. President Warren G. Harding dispatched single-propeller De Havilland-4 World War I bomber biplanes from the Army Air Service’s 88th Aero Squadron as a show of force. Miners commandeered trains and used them to bring combatants to the front. Some of them traveled on the roofs of the train cars themselves.
The conflict is known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, but it is more accurate to say that the uprising — the largest domestic armed insurrection since the Civil War — is hardly known at all today, all the more remarkable given the scope of the combat: As many as 100 people were killed in fighting pitting massive military and volunteer forces against 10,000 miners. Even the legacy of the episode is a matter of contemporary contention, though the battle occurred exactly a century ago — and though the ripples from that 1921 conflict reach us still.
This Labor Day, the United Mine Workers and history-minded West Virginians are planning a concert, march and rally to commemorate what organizers call “the suppressed history of the Mine Wars and Blair Mountain.” But the story of Blair Mountain and the lessons of the warfare that broke out there are for all of us beyond the Mountaineer State. At a time when Americans are giving fresh attention to forgotten elements of our history, this is a tale worth recalling — and retelling.
Indeed, a third of a century ago, movie director John Sayles, reminiscing about his film “Matewan” starring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones and Mary McDonnell, about the conflict in those faraway hills, employed an idiom that is part of today’s history wars. “When a colonized people learn they can fight back together,” he said, “life can never again be so comfortable for their exploiters.”
The conflict had its origins in the generations-long discord between miners and mine owners, but its trigger was the dispatch of a private security force from the Baldwin-Felts detective agency to evict miners from houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Co. in Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920. Miners mobilized to oppose them. A verbal fight became a gunfight, men were killed in the streets, passions were inflamed, a pro-miner sheriff was killed by Baldwin-Felts agents, and thousands of enraged miners set out marching to Mingo County.
The goal of their procession: to end the power of the coal companies, as Charles B. Keeney III, a historian at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, the labor leader in the struggle, put it, “to rule the coal fields as a police state in which the right to free speech, assembly, and other basic rights were forfeited as a condition of employment.”
At one point, the miners appealed to Gov. E.F. Morgan, himself convinced that “moonshine liquor, pistol-toting and automobiles” were the cause of lawlessness in his state and that the miners had mobilized “for the sole purpose of terrorizing the government.”
“You can expect no help from such a goddamn dirty coward,” the labor organizer Mother Jones warned. “Unless he gets rid of these goddamn Baldwin-Felts mine guard thugs, there is going to be one hell of a lot of bloodletting in these hills.” Later, when the governor persuaded her to urge the miners to avoid bloodshed, the miners condemned her as a “sellout” and “traitor.”
The marchers, Heber Blankenhorn of the progressive magazine The Nation reported, were mountaineers “in blue overalls or parts of khaki uniform, carrying rifles as casually as picks or sticks.” He said that they had “come to believe that certain persons have been taking the law pretty completely into their own hands. They retaliate in kind.”
This presented a challenge to newly inaugurated President Harding, for here, in the characterization of University of Massachusetts, Boston, historian James Green, was the making of “mortal combat on American soil just 200 miles from the nation’s capital.”
The result was the largest peacetime deployment of American military power since the Pine Ridge massacre, the 1890 Army effort to dislodge the Ghost Dance movement from Lakota Sioux land. It also may have been the greatest challenge to the power of American business and industry in history.
“The airplanes zoomed and dropped bombs on the rocks,” James M. Cain, author of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1934) and “Double Indemnity” (1936), would write two years later. “The machine guns went put, put, put; the rifle fire never ceased. The noise was superb.” An abundance of force put down the rebellion, and it wasn’t until more than a dozen years later that the New Deal administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the way to unionization in the mines. One song of the time proclaimed:
President Roosevelt is a friend to the laborin’ men,
Gives us the right to organize an’ be real union men.
In his “The Battle of Blair Mountain” (2004), the writer Robert Shogun said the lesson of the West Virginia mining conflict, and of auto workers’ 1936 and 1937 sit-downs against General Motors in Michigan, was that “in the land of the free, working-class gains can be made only by playing by middle-class rules, rules that demand respect for property and profit.”
The Blair Mountain site was nominated to be on the National Register of Historic Places and actually was placed there 12 years ago, but even that was a matter of contention. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and other mine leaders fought the decision, legal action ensued, and federal authorities de-listed it, restoring it only three years ago.
“We had our mail opened, we were followed by police, we were threatened with violence, and my computer was hacked six times,” said Keeney, who pushed for the decision. “If you cannot believe that, you know absolutely nothing about West Virginia.”
The restoration came with an ironic twist: The decision prohibits surface mining on the acreage covered by the Blair Mountain entry into the register, but it remains possible that underground mining operations could occur in other areas on the battlefield.