A Powder Keg Ready to Blow | HistoryNet MENU

A Powder Keg Ready to Blow

By Robert Shogan
9/14/2018 • American History Magazine

Coal miners toiling in the bowels of the earth kept American industry humming in the early 1900s. Their fight for better working and living conditions led to the nation’s largest armed uprising since the Civil War.

It was a tableau that had last been seen in the wooded hills of the Meuse-Argonne, during the U.S. Army’s final big push against the kaiser’s legions: platoons of doughboys, rifles at the ready, marching into battle. Yet this was not 1918, on the shell-torn fields of France. This was 1921, in the Kanawha River valley of southern West Virginia. And the troops in this advancing force, some 10,000 strong, were no longer members of the army whose uniform many still wore, but long-oppressed coal miners whose desperation to save their union had driven them to take up arms against the coal operators who ruled West Virginia. Expeditionary Force (AEF). They posted sentries, cut telegraph and telephone lines, sent out reconnaissance patrols and used passwords and codes. Wives and daughters wearing nurses caps bearing the insignia of United Mine Workers (UMW) locals marched along with the men, ready to tend to the casualties they knew would come.

The miners had vowed to drive out the despised company mine guards from the state, free the union organizers who crowded the jails of Mingo County and break The miners had learned their lessons well in the American  the power of the mine operators, once and for all. But to reach Mingo, the insurgents had to cross Logan County, the stronghold of Sheriff Don Chafin, the mine owners’ most potent ally. That meant conquering Blair Mountain, the formidable ridge that was the bulwark of Chafin’s defense. As they marched, the miners chanted:

Every little river must go down to the sea
All the slaving miners and our union will be free
Going to march to Blair Mountain
Going to whip the company
And I don’t want you to weep after me

Nearly every day during the final week of August, front page headlines in newspapers across the country told the story of the largest armed uprising on American soil since the Civil War. Class warfare, long only a Marxist daydream, now verged on reality, etched in blood and bullets. The time had come for American workers to rush to the barricades.

Or so it seemed. To understand why that moment did not materialize into a full-fledged revolt, one needs to follow the trail of violence that led to Blair Mountain from its beginnings, more than a year earlier. That was in the little Mingo County mining town of Matewan on the Tug River, smack up against the Kentucky border, where on Wednesday morning, May 19, 1920, seven men carrying Winchesters and pistols arrived on the Norfolk & Western’s No. 29 train.

All seven were hirelings of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, personally selected by its chief, Tom Felts, who had written to his brother, Albert, in Matewan that “they had been tried and can be relied on.” Baldwin-Felts prospered by doing the bidding of the coal companies, serving as their private police force, harassing and threatening miners suspected of wanting to join the union or the even more heinous offense of trying to organize their fellow workers. Tom Felts was sending these men to Mingo County because (as in the rest of southern West Virginia) the coal companies, whose product fueled the national economy, and the UMW, the nation’s most powerful labor union, were at each other’s throats.

With the output of the rich nonunion coalfields in southern West Virginia threatening its existence, the UMW had launched a desperate organizing drive to bring the southern mines to heel. The operators fought back with the court-sanctioned authority of “yellow dog contracts,” pledges coerced from workers to not join a union. Anyone who joined the UMW was fired, and Baldwin-Felts agents were deployed to roust the fired miners and their families from their company-owned homes. Soon after train No. 29 pulled into Matewan, the arriving detectives, their ranks bolstered by cohorts already on hand, set out to enforce those evictions. Albert Felts hoped to finish in time to make the 5:15 train back to Bluefield.

He and his men had not been at their work long when they were interrupted by a group of townspeople led by Matewan’s Mayor Cabell Testerman and its police chief, Sid Hatfield. Both were union supporters, but of the two, Sid Hatfield most worried Albert Felts. Hatfield, just 27, already was recognized as a dangerous gunman. In part he owed his reputation to the name he shared with the family known for the notorious feud with another mountain clan, the McCoys. That vendetta had long since died down, but Two-Gun Sid, as he was dubbed, was a force to be reckoned with. His body was lean and hard, his eyes narrow, his mouth taut; his vest usually flapped open over two revolvers in his belt.

Felts claimed that the evictions had been authorized by a judge, but he had no such order with him. “Well, you don’t pull anything like that around here and get away with it,” Testerman said. The mayor turned on his heel and led the others away. When the Baldwin-Felts agents arrived at the depot to catch their train later in the day, Hatfield, Testerman and a posse of hastily recruited deputies were waiting for them. Many conflicting accounts were later offered as to what happened next, but there was no doubt about the outcome. A gun battle erupted in the center of Matewan and 20 minutes later, 10 men were dead: Testerman, two miners and seven detectives, among them Tom Felts’ brothers, Albert and Lee.

The echoes of the gun battle had hardly died down before union leaders pushed to take advantage of the opportunity it presented. For years their organizing efforts in southern West Virginia had been stymied not just by the heavy-handed tactics of the Baldwin-Felts operatives but also by the intimidating shadow the detective agency cast. But now the bodies littering the street at Matewan Station served to undercut that aura of invincibility.

In the immediate wake of what was becoming known as the Matewan Massacre, miners flocked to the union fold. By July 1, 1920, more than 90 percent of the Mingo County miners had sworn allegiance to the UMW. Encouraged, District 17, the West Virginia branch of the UMW, called a strike to force the mine owners to come to terms. Instead, the operators kept the mines open with trainloads of strikebreakers from all over the South and from New York and Chicago. They also brought in more guards.

In retaliation, miners blocked the railroad tracks and ambushed the strikebreakers. They dynamited mines and the railroads serving them and shot it out with mine guards and state police. With production crippled, Democratic Governor John Cornwell invoked martial law in November and called for help from Washington. President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops who occupied the troubled region into the early winter of 1921.

Against this turbulent background, Sid Hatfield and 22 miners went on trial in January for the shootout in Matewan. After 44 days Hatfield and his codefendants were acquitted by a Mingo County jury, and the police chief returned home to a hero’s welcome. “It’s good for a man to have so many friends,” Hatfield told the host of hometown well-wishers. In his relief, however, he forgot how many enemies he had. The next summer, Hatfield was indicted for conspiracy in the continuing mine violence in Mingo County and was ordered to stand trial in the staunch anti-union bastion of neighboring McDowell County. Hatfield’s friends asked Governor Ephraim Morgan, Cornwell’s successor, to give Hatfield special protection at the trial, but Morgan refused. On August 1, 1921, as Sid Hatfield, his friend Ed Chambers and their wives were walking up the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch, both men were gunned down by Baldwin-Felts detectives. Tom Felts had taken his revenge.

These were the shots heard ’round West Virginia. Hatfield’s funeral in Matewan drew the biggest crowd that town had ever seen. In his eulogy, union lawyer Sam Montgomery took inspiration from the driving rain that soaked the mourners: “Even the heavens weep with the grief stricken relatives and bereaved friends of these two boys.”

The miners had no time for tears. A week after the slayings, hundreds massed outside the state Capitol in Charleston and presented Governor Morgan with a broad range of proposals for improved working conditions and curbs on the power of the mine owners. Ten days later, on August 17, Morgan flatly turned down everything the miners had asked for, thus ending hopes of a peaceful resolution of their grievances. Within the next week union men from all over West Virginia began gathering near the little town of Marmet, just outside Charleston. Many wore their World War I uniforms, others simply donned blue bib overalls, but nearly all tied around their necks a red bandana, which soon became the hallmark of the insurgent army. They brought with them a mind-boggling assortment of weaponry: .22-caliber bird guns, double-barreled shotguns, the Springfield rifles that many had carried in France and every variety of handgun. Their guards patrolled the roads and shooed away strangers. But among themselves they spoke openly of marching on Mingo County, freeing the union organizers held in the county jail in Williamson and bringing an effective end to the martial law that had been reinstated by Governor Morgan. All that stood in their way was Logan County and Sheriff Don Chafin, the mine owners’ righthand man, who vowed firmly, “No armed mob will cross the Logan County line.”

To back up that pledge, Chafin called for volunteers, and scores of Logan’s solid citizens responded. Chafin’s deputies descended on the strikebreakers’ camps with the rallying cry “Anyone who doesn’t come fight is fired.” To equip his forces, Chafin stripped the county armory and local hardware stores of weaponry, turning Logan into an arsenal that boasted not only machine guns and rifles but also a squadron of three biplanes parked on a local baseball field. Under the direction of the deputies, the volunteers felled trees, hauled lumber to erect breastworks, dug trenches and blocked roads.

Chafin’s preparations, however, were by no means sufficient to relieve Governor Morgan’s anxiety. On Thursday, August 25, as The New York Times reported that an “army of malcontents, among whom were union miners, radical organizers and not a few ex-servicemen” was marching on Mingo, the governor appealed directly to President Warren Harding. At the president’s behest the War Department dispatched Brig. Gen. Harry Bandholtz, who had been General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s provost marshal general in the AEF, to Charleston. Bandholtz’s orders were clear: Make the miners go home.

Bandholtz arrived before dawn on August 27 and summoned the two top leaders of the UMW in the state: Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney. The general minced no words. “You two are the officers of this organization and these are your people. I am going to give you a chance to save them, and if you cannot turn them back we are going to snuff this out just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers in their faces. Much of the country was suffering through hard times, as Bandholtz and the union leaders well knew. The general was worried that the workingman’s distemper, so palpable in West Virginia, might spread. “There are several million unemployed in this country now and this thing might assume proportions that would be difficult to handle,” he told the union leaders.

Having little choice, the two union men set about trying to carry out Bandholtz’s orders. In Washington, however, the War Department was taking no chances. An infantry detachment at Ohio’s Camp Sherman was ordered to hold itself in readiness. The Army Air Service, forerunner of the Army Air Corps, was told to determine if Kanawha Field, outside Charleston, could serve as a base for air operations. That was all it took to bring Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, commander of the First Provisional Air Brigade, to the scene. The 42-year-old Mitchell, who had been the top U.S. airman in Europe during World War I, had already demonstrated the flair for controversy that he would exhibit again in the Mountain State. Soon he was strutting around Kanawha Field wearing a pistol, spurs and his row of combat ribbons and discoursing on how air power could be a potent weapon for suppressing civil disturbances. “All this could be left to the air service,” he told a reporter. “If I get orders I can move in the necessary forces in three hours.”

When a reporter asked how he would handle masses of men under cover in gullies, the general responded: “Gas. You under- stand we wouldn’t try to kill people at first. We’d drop gas all over  the place. If they refused to disperse, then we’d open up with artillery preparation and everything.”

While Mitchell beat the drums for air power, Keeney and Mooney were desperately meeting with groups of union militants, trumpeting Bandholtz’s ominous warning. Before night fell, they had an encouraging report for Bandholtz. In response to the pleas of their leaders, the miners were abandoning their march. Bandholtz relayed the good news to Washington and headed back there himself. But he prudently urged his superiors to keep their powder dry. He trusted Mooney and Keeney to keep their word, but as he told Washington, he had little confidence in Governor Morgan’s ability to maintain order, adding that “the state had made only a feeble attempt to check the growth of the insurgent movement or to keep [in] reasonable touch with its progress.”

Sure enough, hard on the heels of Bandholtz’s caution, a state police captain itching for a fight and heading a force of 300 state troopers and deputies triggered a skirmish with armed miners. Before it was over, at least one miner was dead, both sides were nursing wounded and the truce that Bandholtz had so carefully nurtured was obliterated.

By Monday, August 29, the red bandana army was back to full strength and on the march again. The insurgents had the natural advantage of the built-in organizational structure provided by their union. Each UMW local formed its own contingent, generally headed up by the local leaders who served as field commanders. But Keeney and Mooney, facing murder indictments for previous skirmishes, had fled the state. Taking charge in their absence was Bill Blizzard, the head of a District 17 subdistrict. Although no one questioned Blizzard’s dedication to the cause, some wondered about his judgment. Mooney described him as “all fire and dynamite, hot headed and irresponsible.”

At hastily thrown-up barricades in Logan County, Chafin’s defenders braced to meet the onslaught. The sheriff ’s force had been enlarged by outpourings from all over the state—many, like the armed miners they faced, were former World War I doughboys. They brought with them high-powered rifles, ammunition and even a machine gun. The defenders’ ordnance was bolstered by contributions from another dedicated foe of the UMW, Kentucky Governor Edwin P. Morrow, who sent 40,000 rounds of ammunition, 400 rifles, two machine guns and three airplanes.

The union forces’ attack plan was a classic pincer strategy. One column, to the north, would try to flank Blair Mountain, while a second, southern column would head due west up and over the mountain. If all went well, they would meet in Logan and dance on Don Chafin’s grave.

But the miners soon learned one of the oldest rules of warfare: The inherent drawback in trying to seize a mountain is that the defenders hold the high ground. Chafin’s well-armed troops on the twin crests of Blair Mountain could keep the miners pinned down on the graded road that followed the pass between the crests.

The miners’ southern column, their firepower bolstered by a Gatling gun, scored a temporary breakthrough. But Chafin’s defenders, led by a World War I captain, drove them back with machine gun fire. At one point about 50 miners charged straight ahead, attempting to overrun the ridge where the machine gun was placed. Heavy fire drove them back, however, carrying five of their wounded comrades.

Moreover, Chafin did not limit his defense to ground warfare. He sent up the biplanes he had chartered, purportedly for reconnaissance, armed with tear gas and pipe bombs. But all the missiles aimed at the miners fell wide of the mark.

As the hours wore on with bitter fighting but little progress, the miners realized that Bandholtz’s patience had been strained past the breaking point and federal troops would soon be on the way. They launched a final effort to break through the defenders’ lines and reach Logan. “Attack was pushed desperately,” reported one local journalist from his vantage point in a machine gun nest on the defense ramparts. “The enemy seemed to have no sense of fear whatever and advanced over the crest of the hill in the face of machine gun and rifle fire.” In reality the defenders gave as good as they got. “We couldn’t fire a shot but what they would rake our line from top to bottom,” one of the miners told reporters. To that desperate insurgent, the defenders seemed able to volley back 100 rounds for every shot fired at them.

It was the last gasp of the miners’ rebellion. As the insurgents were falling back on their own lines, the U.S. military presence had arrived in the form of the Army Air Service. By late Thursday afternoon, September 1, 14 twin-engine de Havilland and Martin bombers had landed at Kanawha Field. But for all General Billy Mitchell’s bellicose talk, the planes—fully armed for combat—were assigned only reconnaissance missions and Mitchell himself was ordered to stay behind. The infantry, some 2,100 strong, moved in the next day. By Sunday afternoon, September 4, it was clear the uprising was over. About 1,000 miners had surrendered formally. Thousands more simply drifted away and disappeared. Only 400 guns were turned in by the insurgents; many were hidden in the woods where their owners could claim them when needed.

Those who surrendered were loaded onto streetcars and shuttled through the capital to nearby St. Albans. While thousands of curious citizens lined the streets, the once defiant rebels leaned out the windows, laughing and shouting at the crowd, some waving American flags. Many seemed to take satisfaction that they had not yielded to the coal operators and their local allies, but had instead forced the federal government to put down their rebellion. “It was Uncle Sam that did it,” one shouted.

The precise death toll for the Battle of Blair Mountain was never firmly established, but estimates range from fewer than 20 to more than 50, remarkably low figures considering that the official Army history of the incident estimated the number of forces on both sides to be between 10,000 and 20,000. Combatants had to reckon with the late summer underbrush that clogged the hills and hollows that made up the battlefield. They often fired without knowing exactly what they were shooting at. As one Bluefield volunteer described it to his local paper, “Someone spies the dark shadow of an armed man stealing along the road and let’s go at it.”

But the real significance of the battle was best reckoned by its economic and political consequences. With the union-organizing drive throttled, the state brought treason charges against Blizzard and a slew of other miners. They were tried in Charles Town, Jefferson County, in the same courthouse that had been the stage for the treason trial of John Brown, the abolitionist zealot whose raid on the federal arsenal at nearby Harpers Ferry helped ignite the Civil War. Unlike Brown, Blizzard was acquitted and most of the charges against the others were dropped. But the state had accomplished its purpose. The West Virginia UMW’s treasury was drained as a result of the strike and the subsequent legal battles. Nor was there much hope of help from national headquarters, which faced nationwide opposition to unionism and a glut of coal created by the end of World War I.

The Battle of Blair Mountain illustrates the power of the American dream with its promise of justice, equality and opportunity. A deeply held faith in that credo helped to inspire the West Virginia miners’ rebellion against the coal operators and their excesses. But it did not occur to the soldiers in the red bandana army to hold the national government responsible for the injustice they had suffered. The government was part of what they believed in. It was not only the strength of the federal intervention but what it represented that sapped the fervor and the fury from the rebels and led them to lay down their arms. “We wouldn’t revolt against the national guv’ment,” one miner told General Bandholtz when he arrived in strife-torn West Virginia.

The mineworkers’ rebellion died on the rugged road to Blair Mountain, but its spirit lived on, and the miners’ faith in the promise of their nation was eventually justified. Years after the guns of West Virginia fell silent, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the mineworkers finally won the right to organize and gained an ultimate victory for the 10,000 who marched in America’s forgotten civil war.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here

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