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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
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.
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
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
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.
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
less on economics than on civil liberties - freedom of speech
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."