The West Virginia Coal Wars: Matewan and Blair Mountain

The West Virginia Coal Wars: Matewan and Blair Mountain

In the late 19th & early 20th centuries, deep underground in the mountains of West Virginia laid vast deposits of coal. The large coal companies bought up huge tracts of land to mine the coal and scar the countryside. This generated enormous profits and untold wealth for the coal barons. The coal barons lived in luxury. Just like the plantation owners in the old South, they got rich off the back-breaking of working people. The mineworkers, on the other hand, had a very different existence. The miners and their families lived in a semi-feudal system. They had to live in “company towns.” In these company towns, everything was owned by the mining company. The local stores, churches, and schools were all owned and operated by the mining company. The inhabitants of the town couldn’t elect a mayor or even express their opinions without causing a threat of eviction. The workers also didn’t get paid in U.S. currency either. They got paid in company “scrip,” a company-issued currency, which could only be used in the company-owned stores. Since the workers were not being paid in the actual currency this arrangement made them slaves to the company. The company, while still charging them rent, made it impossible for them to save any money to relocate away from the company town. In addition, the company would take them “rent” for the use of the equipment required to do their jobs. In many cases, at the end of the week, the workers would owe the company more than they were paid. Not only did the coal companies exploit the workers through their wages but they also exploited them by not having any basic safety protections. Working in the mines was extremely dangerous. The coal bosses had no interest in workers’ safety. After all, mine safety was expensive and the workers were replaceable. Thousands of workers, including children, died in mining disasters.

There were many attempts to form labor unions for miners during the 19th century, but all were unsuccessful. Eventually, two groups arose to become the dominant voice for miners. The Knights of Labor and the National Federation of Miners and Mine Laborers. They competed with each other for members, but eventually met in Columbus, OH on January 23, 1890, and created the United Mine Workers of America. One of their primary goals was to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields. But they faced vicious opposition from the coal companies. The coal companies enforced strict employment contracts that included union membership as grounds for firing and because the miners lived in company towns, eviction from their homes. The eviction process was very brutal. The coal companies used armed enforcers (“gun thugs”) to force people out of their homes. Evictions included widows whose husbands had died in the mines and pregnant women. If anyone protested against the evictions they would be fired and evicted as well. The “gun thugs” would not hesitate to open fire on workers’ homes. Many striking union miners and their families found themselves evicted and homeless. As a result, they set up tent colonies near the company towns. Most company towns were built on the side of railroad tracks. As a result, the tent colonies were also next to the railroads. The coal companies would try to break the strikes through a process known as “The Bull Moose Special.” “The Bull Moose Special” was a train with one or two machine guns mounted on top of one of its cars. At night while the striking miners and their families were asleep, the train would pass by the camp and open fire. This tactic was famously used in 1913 during the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike, which had been called the first of the “West Virginia mine wars.”

Sid Hatfield became a hero to the miners. The Matewan Massacre became a symbol of hope.

The ongoing struggle to unionize the southern coalfields eventually devolved into a bloody conflict. The coal bosses continued to used evictions as a tactic to break unions. This tactic was tried near the town of Matewan, WV, in Mingo County. The coal bosses hired agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to evict pro-union miners and their families. The agents evicted a woman and her children at gunpoint, throwing their belongings into the street. Witnesses became furious and called on the local police chief, Sid Hatfield. Hatfield was pro-union, which was very uncommon at the time. Most sheriffs and police chiefs had been bought off by the coal companies and were active participants in breaking the unions. Hatfield was born on the other side of the river in Pike County, Kentucky, in an area known by locals as “blackberry”. Hatfield had been a coal miner in his teens, which explained his support of unionization. Hatfield along with Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and a few deputized miners confronted the agents at the local train station. Hatfield had an arrest warrant for the agents. But the agents also had an arrest warrant for Hatfield. Mayor Testerman inspected the Baldwin-Felts warrant and determined it was not authentic. Words were exchanged. Then gunfire erupted. After the smoke cleared 7 detectives and 4 residents lay dead in the streets, including the mayor. This event came to be known as the “Matewan Massacre.” Sid Hatfield became a hero to the miners. The Matewan Massacre became a symbol of hope. The brutality of the coal operators and their gun thugs could be resisted. The subsequent trial of Hatfield brought national attention to the miners’ cause. All of the men involved in the shooting were acquitted in the end. On August 1, 1921, Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers, accompanied by their wives arrived at the courthouse in Mcdowell County, WV. They were charged with sabotaging a nearby mine. While they were walking up the steps of the courthouse, completely unarmed, they were attacked by agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Hatfield and Chambers were both shot and killed. At Hatfield’s funeral, thousands of union miners attended. Sid Hatfield had become a martyr for the union cause. On August, 7 the leaders of the United Mine Workers District 17, which represented most of southern West Virginia called a rally at the state capital in Charleston. However, their demands fell on deaf ears. Afterward, the angry miners called for a march to Mingo County but the anti-union Logan County sheriff Don Chafin stood in their way. Nonetheless, they moved toward Blair Mountain.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest battle on American soil since the Civil War.

On August, 20, Miners began rallying at Lens Creek an area 10 miles south of Charleston. Four days later ten thousand miners began a march into Logan County. Most of them were armed. The miners sang songs in the way and chanted “we’ll hang Don Chafin from a sour apple tree.” Sheriff Chafin set up his defenses on Blair Mountain. He was joined by anti-union vigilantes called the “Logan County Defenders.” When the two groups met gunfire was exchanged. To distinguish themselves from their opponents in the dense forest, the miners tied red handkerchiefs around their necks or their arms. Thus the term “redneck” came into common usage. Heavy fighting began on August 31. A miners’ patrol stumbled on a group of Logan County Defenders. When the miners’ asked for the password being used to sort out those moving about on the mountain, the Defenders answered incorrectly. The Battle of Blair Mountain was on! Unfortunately, the “Defenders” had much better weaponry and held high ground. They opened fire with machine guns, driving the miners back. The miners had a better day when the battle renewed on September 1. The miners attacked the Sheriff’s men with a Gatling gun looted from a company store, And the sound of machine-gun fire lasted for the entire day. The Sheriff even called in private planes to drop pipe bombs onto the army of union miners. Only with the arrival of federal troops did the miners cease fire. 100 or more men were killed during the battle. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest battle on American soil since the Civil War. Thousands of miners, many of which were African American, immigrants, and native Appalachians, decided to pick up arms to fight against the coal barons, the gun thugs, and the mass evictions. They were fighting for their right to unionize, better safety conditions, and their basic human rights. They were fighting for their class.