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Blair Mountain

 

Blair Mountain:
The History Of A Confrontation


Miners turn their weapons over to soldiers after the strike ends.
 

Blair Mountain is a unique place, with a unique and powerful story to tell. No comparable site exists to tell this pivotal story of paramount importance both to labor history and to civil rights in America. According to the National Park Service, the Battle of Blair Mountain served as the bloody climactic confrontation when "the violence of the West Virginia coal-mining war of 1920-21 reach[ed] a level unparalleled in U.S. history."

Rising as high as 2,064 feet, Blair Mountain was both the symbolic and real hurdle that confronted miners wishing to bring union protection to the miners of Mingo, Logan, Mercer, and McDowell counties. The ridge offered only the most inhospitable conditions for a march: steep slopes, heavy timber, and rocky terrain. It also afforded high points that were good outposts for defensive scouts, including massive rock formations that served as strong defensive positions. The topography of the region dictated the course of the confrontation, and is therefore extremely significant.

The American industrial revolution brought with it massive, rapid changes in the way citizens lived and worked. Work in fast-paced, dangerous environments dictated new levels of adherence to standards of timekeeping, regularity, and safety. For Americans accustomed to the farm life and in-home production of goods, this often meant a radical adjustment. As large corporations emerged and began competing with one another in the stock market, businesses often increased production and allowed safety to diminish as a means of staying solvent. Coal mines struggled to provide the growing iron, steel, and railroad industries with the fuel that was so important to their growth. Though yielding relatively low profit return on a high labor investment, and incredibly dangerous, the mining of coal was integrally important to the industrial growth of the nation. Repeated accidents resulted in growing activism in the mines of Pennsylvania and other states, and by the end of the 19th century, coal strikes were commonplace as a means of building the miners' unions.

In the early twentieth century, coal alone fueled American industry. Work stoppages threatened steel production and the railroads, and political and economic pressure to maintain order in the coalfields allowed coal companies a great deal of latitude. Increasingly, however, mine workers began to organize as a way to withstand the industry's back-breaking demands and garner a small piece of its extraordinary profits. These efforts were consistently resisted by the coal companies, whose suppression of the unions were also supported by a widespread national fear of bolshevism following the Russian revolution.

By 1921, southern West Virginia was ripe for violent confrontation. More than half of the state's one hundred thousand miners were organized, but the union had largely failed to organize southern coalfields, which produced the region's best specialty coal. The United Mine Workers of America believed that organizing the southern coalfields would improve working and living conditions for the miners, in addition to securing the survival of the union.

At the time, coal companies enjoyed a great deal of political influence, and martial law was regularly employed to quell unrest. Lacking a National Guard, martial law in West Virginia meant that local law enforcement, including "deputies" in the pay of coal companies, exercised an inordinate amount of power, enabling widespread violence against miners and their families. The governor regularly requested the support of federal troops in disputes, but was usually rebuffed by federal officials, who did not want to set a precedent for the use of the Army in times of civil unrest.

Following several violent conflicts, including those memorialized in the John Sayles film Matewan, Bill Blizzard, Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney of the District 17 United Mine Workers of America assembled 600 armed miners near Charleston for a march to Mingo County to demonstrate their solidarity, gathering additional miners to their cause as they advanced.

Although no count was ever taken, it is likely that the miners' army grew to at least 7,500, and may have surpassed 10,000. They intended to sweep through the southern counties of West Virginia, unionize workers and drive out the hired gunmen who guarded the coalfields and terrorized the miners.

Meanwhile, Logan County Sherriff Don Chafin, whose salary was heavily subsidized by coal companies, learned of the miners' intentions and began organizing local recruits to help stop the march. Hundreds of volunteers from across southern West Virginia flocked to Logan town to "do their patriotic duty" and end the rebellion by joining Chafin and his deputies, many of whom were also in the pay of coal companies. In the end, approximately 3,000 men comprised Don Chafin's defensive force.

The Battle of Blair Mountain took place between August 30 and September 4, 1921. Spruce Fork Ridge formed a natural dividing line between union and non-union territories. On August 30, the miners began their assault on Blair Mountain. Defensive positions blocked the miners along on the upper slopes of the ridge, with particular concentrations at the gaps: Mill Creek, Crooked Creek, Beech Creek and Blair Mountain. Here the defensive force dug trenches, felled trees, blocked roads, built breastworks and placed machine guns. Most of the hostilities between the two groups occurred along the fifteen-mile ridgeline, reflecting the miners' use of natural pathways up and over the ridge to breach Chafin's line.  

During the battle, private planes organized by the defensive militia dropped as many as ten homemade bleach and shrapnel bombs at Jeffrey, Blair, and near the miners' headquarters on Hewitt Creek. In Charleston, eleven Army Air Corps pilots arrived, led by Billy Mitchell, a pioneer in aerial bombardment who was eager to experiment with the strategy. While troops were used in labor disputes throughout the nation during this era, West Virginia alone bears the distinction of having been the focus - and potential target - of military aircraft. Fortunately, the Army did not allow Mitchell to bomb the miners; the military planes performed reconnaissance flights.

The end of the battle began with the arrival of federal troops on September 3. Six hundred miners, many of whom were veterans of World War I, formally surrendered rather than fight the soldiers. Far from considering the Army as an enemy, the miners considered the soldiers to be brothers and refused to fire on them. In the end, despite the valiant charges of a few miners and close-range gunfight at Blair Mountain itself, there was little face-to-face combat. Visibility was so limited by the thick, late summer underbrush that few combatants actually saw the enemy. Lon Savage, who wrote the most authoritative account of the battle, sets the number of documented deaths at sixteen--all but four from the miners' army. But the defeat heavily damaged the UMWA, which lost members and territory in the wake of the battle. 

Although they did not win the Battle of Blair Mountain, the miners accomplished a great deal in their revolt. It forced national scrutiny of their situation in the press and in the federal government. They amassed sufficient force to require intervention by the United States Army, and they broke down racial and ethnic barriers to the solidarity they would need later when they did organize. Following sanctioning legislation in the 1930s, the UMWA became the leading force in organizing the nation's industrial workers. UMWA president John L. Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1937, which spearheaded the struggles for unionization in the auto, rubber, steel and other industries. 

As with other wars, this battlefield must be considered an important part of a larger effort. The events at Blair Mountain are overwhelmingly significant to the history of labor in the United States, because they set in motion a national movement to better the conditions of working people by demanding the legalization of unions and the use of the federal government to protect workers' rights. In its 2003 American Labor History Theme Study, the National Park Service observed that the fight for control of the southern West Virginia coalfields

 "centered less on economics than on civil liberties - freedom of speech and assembly, freedom from the industrial feudalism of company towns, and freedom from the terrorism inflicted by the operators hired gunmen. The struggle that began in 1912 and culminated in the 1921 armed miners' march to liberate Logan County, West Virginia, from the company rule shows that labor history is part of a larger historical theme, the struggle for liberties promised in the Bill of Rights."

 

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