The Battle of Blair Mountain has been described as the largest labor uprising in United States history, at least since the Civil War. The battle occurred in the late summer of 1921 and was the only time in U.S. history that air power was used against its citizens.
The battle happened in Logan County, W.Va the heart of coal country, and has defined much of today's workforce, a fight for fair working conditions, the ability to unionize, and demand a fair wage.
Many miners died due to unsafe working conditions, and many of us who can join a union if we choose have these coal miners who risked and lost their lives to thank. Still, to this day, companies are the same: they do not want you to unionize.
They will go out of their way to prevent a union, as the coal companies hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to keep union leaders away from the miners.
West Virginia is a state full of natural resources, and due to the isolation of the towns, the rugged terrain made a perfect place for those running the mines to take advantage of the workers by exerting complete control. The mine owners were not around, and those running the mines created a police state around the mines.
Mining companies justified this by using their political and economic powers as they felt due to the booming industry, which meant poor living conditions in company-owned towns. Over 80% of the mining towns in Appalachia were owned by mining companies to keep costs low.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was only one incident of the Coal Wars; however, it was one of the largest.
Before the Battle of Blair Mountain, what happened to escalate the situation?
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union was founded in 1890, in Colombus Ohio. When it began to talk of unionizing W.Va, the mining companies enforced their rules upon miners.
They would only hire nonunionized workers, and to ensure the workers stayed away from the union, they had a strict contract for the miners. The agreement stated they would be terminated immediately if they joined a union.
Most miners signed the contract as mining coal was the only work in the area, and the town was mine-owned. Not only did the miners work for the coal companies, but their entire family lived in the houses provided by the mines; they had to shop at the stores provided by the mine, and they were not paid in dollars but in a voucher-type system called, scrip and could only be used at company stores.
Forced to shop at stores owned by the coal companies, you would think prices would be lower, as the wages for a miner were low, it was expensive, and the miners could not save any money. If the miners wanted to exchange for USD, the exchange rate would take off 25% of their already low wages. If there were ever a wage increase, the mining company would also increase store goods. The workers were treated like slaves.
Due to these horrible working conditions, the UMWA began to organize in W.Va, some say, as early as 1912, which is also when Mother Jones, a unionizer, arose. She gave fiery speeches to unionize the mines. When strikes happened, the mining companies would fire shots into workers' homes and even declare Marshall Law.
Violence and Labor Relations began to go hand in hand in Appalachia.
The Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency was always nearby whenever there was violence in Appalachia. Mining companies hired the agency to ensure workers knew the danger of striking, unionizing, or even talking to union reps; they were there to prevent the union.
The agency consisted of hired gunmen, local law officials, criminals, and sometimes even other miners. Many of them were even sworn in as real detectives, even deputy sheriffs, and they had the authority over the miners. They were in charge of evictions and force; union leaders disliked them, a significant obstacle to unionizing West Virginian miners.
Even with the Baldwin-Felts strongarming workers and unions, by 1919, over half of the West Virginian miners were unionized. However, the areas of Mingo and Logan County were not unionized.
One day, the Baldwin-Felts agents showed up in Matewan, a town in Mingo County, to evict miners and their families from their homes. However, Matewan was relatively independent of the mining companies; the Mayor, Police Chief (Sid Hatfield), and Sheriff were union-friendly.
Instead, the Police Chief and Mayor tried to arrest the Baldwin-Felts agents, and the agents then said they had a warrant to arrest Hatfield; the mayor determined it was a fake. At that moment, the agents shot the mayor, and a gunfight broke out.
It is unsure who shot first, but agents of Baldwin-Felts were dead, along with two coal miners. This was known as the Matewan Massacre, leading to the unions growing even more by 1921.
This incident also led to county-wide Marshall Law, declared by the Governor that only applied and union leaders, unionizing miners, and union activists. Miners' families were assaulted in the camps they had to live in after being evicted. More miners went on strike, and their families moved into the camps after being forced out.
The conditions in the camps were grim. The coal companies continued bringing in strikebreakers, but the conditions only worsened. Unions attempted to provide basic needs, but keeping up with the demand was tough. Children died of pneumonia, and mining companies stated it was an exaggeration of what was going on.
In 1921, Governor Morgan asked President Harding for assistance, but he deemed it a state problem and would not intervene.
Governor Morgan was forced to ask for volunteers in the state to assist, which included the Baldwin Felts agents, and they began raiding union territories to arrest the unionizing miners and any supporters.
The Governor also had a warrant to arrest Sid Hatfield, the police chief, to put him on trial for conspiracy. In August 1921, Sid Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers were ambushed and unarmed on the courthouse stairs when the Baldwin-Felts agents gunned them down.
The agents were later acquitted, but the assassination proved the brutality the miners were under. It then fueled the wage war between the agents and the coal company.
Union leaders organized a rally in Charleston, and 5,000 armed miners arrived.
The miners knew this was a fight to reclaim their fundamental rights as U.S. citizens. They got weapons and gathered at least 15k miners, of all backgrounds, and races they all were in the same war against the coal companies.
They were headed to Mingo County, but first, they had to pass through Logan County, which was full of at least 3k anti-union forces, and they were all gathered on Blair Mountain. A 15-mile ridgeline overlooked where the miners were coming from, and they built trenches and waited for the miners to approach. They also used three planes loaded with homemade bombs on the miners.
The Governor asked for the help of the Army to join the side of the ani-union, and at one point, it looked like the miners would go home as they did not want to go up against the U.S. Army. Most agreed to go home instead of fighting, and while waiting for the train to go back home, the coal companies sent 300 police to raid the town of Clothier to make arrests but were ambushed before arriving, which killed women and children.
The miners who decided to go home were again ready to fight.
August 30, 1921, the miners got into position around Blair Mountain. The anti-union forces included the police, who had machine guns. Makeshift bombs were dropped on the miners. The miners had no tactical skills, and the U.S. Federal troops soon arrived.
The miners knew this was not a fight they would win, so they retreated, and a cease-fire was agreed upon. Over a million rounds were fired, but it was estimated that only around 100 people were killed in the battle.
Governor Morgan claimed that the UMWA was linked to socialism and that all its leaders should be arrested. However, President Harding refused to arrest them, as the FBI later determined that there were no links to socialism claims.
The miners stood for the American dream and patriotism; they only wanted fairness applied to the mine workers. However, the miners did not get fair labor laws for another decade, and the union fell, leaving an unsympathetic public.
It was not until 1935 that the UMWA was again organized in West Virginia. However, as mining jobs disappeared, those in the UMWA have also declined.
The Mine Wars are not spoken about and have not been included in history books, but they are an essential part of American history. If we know the past, we will repeat it, as these miners were integral in fighting for workers' rights, even at the cost of dying.