AMERICA'S BLOODY UPRISING: BATTLE OF BLAIR MOUNTAIN - Power And Politics In West Virginia's Coal Fields

(05/03/2004)

Note: We are pubishing this book review because it contains an overview of the largest armed battle to take place since the Civil War, right here in West Virginia. It is a frightening and bloody legacy of power, politics and control over the citizens of West Virginia - coal miners.

BATTLE OF BLAIR MOUNTIAN - A Book Review: Reprinted

By Rick Steelhammer
Staff Writer
The Sunday Gazette-Mail

The largest armed uprising on American soil since the Civil War took place in the summer of 1921 when an army of nearly 10,000 miners, fed up with years of abuse and exploitation by mine operators and corruption and indifference by state government, took up arms and marched from the Kanawha Valley into Logan County.

Awaiting their arrival about 10 miles east of the city of Logan, from positions atop a natural, 2,000-foot-high barrier known as Blair Mountain, was a force of about 3,000 men, armed by coal operators, organized by their lackey, Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, and commanded by a National Guard colonel.

On standby at Kanawha Field in Institute were 14 twin-engine bombers from the U.S. Army Air Corps and a large quantity of 150-pound tear gas bombs. Also at the airfield was a swaggering, pistol-toting, spur-wearing man — World War I aviation hero Gen. Billy Mitchell — anxious to put them to use in quelling the rebellion that was taking shape. Not far away, 2,100 newly arrived U.S. Army troops were stationed, awaiting orders to move out.

The final battle in West Virginia’s Mine Wars was about to take place.

“The Battle of Blair Mountain,” Robert Shogan’s compelling account of the conflict, the events that fueled it, and its aftermath, is must reading for anyone interested in understanding West Virginia’s turbulent past, whose ghosts still linger in the state’s union halls and halls of government.

Shogan began researching the battle in the early 1960s, but a career as a political correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times put the project on hold for four decades.

When he resumed his studies, he found that several notable works had been written in the meantime, including Lon Savage’s “Thunder in the Mountains.” Even so, he wrote in an author’s note at the beginning of his new book, “the great uprising of the West Virginia miners remained only an afterthought in our historical consciousness, earning only a few sentences at most even in chronicles of the labor movement, and no attention at all in more general accounts of the American heritage.”

“The Battle of Blair Mountain” goes a long way toward correcting that perception.

Shogan’s story begins one year before the battle, when Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield, accompanied by Mayor C.C. Testerman and several other armed townspeople, resisted arrest by Baldwin-Felts detectives after Hatfield halted an effort to evict union miners from their company-owned homes.

Seven of the coal company-hired detectives and four townspeople were killed in that confrontation, later to be known as the Matewan Massacre.

Hatfield was acquitted of criminal charges stemming from that shootout, but in August of 1921, while standing trial in Welch for a previous shooting at a McDowell County coal camp, the flamboyant lawman was gunned down on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse by Baldwin-Felts operatives.

Hatfield’s death served as a lightning rod for coal miners weary of being attacked in their tent colonies or evicted from company houses for joining the United Mine Workers, or being beaten and harassed by elected officials who were little more than paid employees of the coal operators.

A severance tax on Logan County coal, ranging from a half-cent to a penny a ton, was used by the coal operators to finance Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin and his small army of deputies, instrumental in forming the armed force that gathered on Blair Mountain to resist the union forces. According to Shogan’s book, Chafin, who drew an annual salary of $3,500, admitted to a net worth of more than $350,000 during U.S. Senate hearings that followed the battle.

With thousands of well-armed men, a fleet of bombers, and no shortage of strong emotions, the Battle of Blair Mountain could have turned out much bloodier than it did. But the battle ended shortly after thousands of U.S. Army troops arrived on the scene, and miners complied with their orders to lay down their arms.

Although tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired from both sides of the battle lines, in the end, fewer than 20 combatants were killed, the majority of them miners.

“The casualty figures seemed to belie the reputation of West Virginians for marksmanship,” Shogan wryly observed.

But the battle’s true significance “is best reckoned not by the blood shed by opposing forces but rather by its economic and political consequences,” Shogan wrote. “By these measurements it soon became clear that the union miners of West Virginia had suffered a staggering defeat.”

When the smoke cleared, coal operators wasted no time exacting revenge, immediately pursuing treason charges against 24 miners, starting with District 17 organizer William Blizzard.

The complaint against Blizzard was filed in Jefferson County, where the prosecutor, John T. Porterfield, termed the exercise “a waste of scarce resources and a mean-spirited vendetta” before recusing himself.

Prosecution of the case was promptly turned over to the chief counsel for the coal operators’ association, who billed the state $125,000 for his services after Blizzard was acquitted.

Among the more interesting historical tidbits I picked up from reading Shogan’s book was the fact that UMW leaders considered legendary labor icon Mother Jones to be a loose cannon at best, or a sellout at worst, at the time of the battle.

West Virginia’s newly formed State Police force, expected to serve as enforcers by the coal operators, turned out to be impartial and were considered firm but fair by the miners.

Mitchell, fresh from a successful experiment proving that a battleship could be sunk by aerial bombardment, was champing at the bit to use Blair Mountain for a demonstration on the efficiency of using tear gas to bomb civilians into submission. His superiors wisely pulled in the reins, and limited the use of Army aircraft to the surveillance of both armed camps.

In the end, it took the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue the UMW from near oblivion following the union’s defeat in the Logan County hills.

The march on Blair Mountain and the series of sit-down strikes against Detroit automakers in the decade that followed “served to remind trade unions that in the land of the free, working class gains can be made only by playing by middle class rules that demand respect for property and profit,” according to Shogan.

“But the larger truth,” he added, “is that these rules were generally accepted by workers, with the qualification that they were understood to be part of a larger compact with their country governing their rights as citizens of the United States.

“It was this compact, with its balance of responsibilities and protections, requiring respect for the law and property in return for fair treatment and equal opportunity, including the right to organize, which had been violated by the coal operators of West Virginia and the auto makers of Michigan. The mine workers’ allegiance to this compact not only inspired the great armed uprising in the West Virginia coal fields but it also restricted it and contributed to its failure.”

To contact staff writer Rick Steelhammer, call 348-5169.


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