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Economic Exploitation Of Workers

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the result of economic exploitation of workers during a period of social transformation in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Beginning in 1870–1880, coal operators had established the company town system. Coal operators paid private detectives as well as public law enforcement agents to ensure that union organizers were kept out of the region. In order to accomplish this objective, agents of the coal operators used intimidation, harassment, espionage and even murder. Throughout the early 20th century, West Virginia coal miners attempted to overthrow this system and engaged in a series of strikes, including the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912, which coal operators attempted to stop through violent means. Mining families lived under the terror of Baldwin-Felts detective agents who were professional strikebreakers under the hire of coal operators. During that dispute, agents drove a heavily armored train through a tent colony at night, opening fire on women, men, and children with a machine gun. They would repeat this type of tactic during the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado the next year, with even more disastrous results.

In 1921, "Marching Miners" squared off against mine owners and the "Logan County Defenders" in the mountains of West Virginia in one of the biggest labor disputes-and battles-to occur on United States soil. The second largest armed insurrection in American history, only surpassed by the American Civil War, culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, near the town of Logan, W. Va., during the late summer of 1921. Thousands of coal miners, pushed beyond the limits of frustration with the coal mine owners and operators, took up arms and marched from the state capital, Charleston, toward the southernmost county in the state, in a spontaneous attempt to free fellow miners who had been capriciously imprisoned by local authorities for attempting to unionize the coal fields. Rumors of the recently formed state police machine-gunning women and children in the camps of striking miners fueled the fires of their rage, and revenge for the assassination of their hero, Sid Hatfield, steadied their course.

For decades prior to 1921, there had been unrest in the mining industry across the nation. In their attempts to squeeze every penny of profit out of their enterprises, many mine owners and operators not only employed unfair labor practices that forced many miners into a form of economic slavery, but also tolerated unsafe conditions that led to the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of miners. The only redress on the part of the miners was the growing labor union movement, and by the summer of 1921 only the southern West Virginia coalfields had not yet been unionized. The mine operators there fiercely resisted unionization, as the post-World War I recession had cut deeply into their profits and, through a series of manipulations and machinations, they had the local and state authorities either firmly on their side or in their pockets. The miners' repeated appeals to the federal government for help went, for the most part, unanswered.

In 1913, striking miners and their families living in a tent camp had been machine-gunned from a hastily improvised armored train, manned by men of the notorious Baldwin-Felts Railroad Detective Agency, who were actually serving as mine guards and company "enforcers." The resulting fracas at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek brought in the West Virginia National Guard to disarm the miners, after a negotiated settlement was reached. Relations between the operators and the miners improved during the boom years of World War I, but steadily deteriorated after the war. They finally came to a head in May 1920, when a shoot-out in the streets of the small mining town of Matewan, in Mingo County, resulted in the deaths of several "detectives" at the hands of the local authorities, who, in turn, were supported by armed miners. The town chief of police, "Smiling Sid" Hatfield (one of many of that famous local clan who were involved in the Coal Mine Wars), was a former miner and had stood up to the mine operators' hired guns who were illegally and unceremoniously evicting the families of striking miners from company-owned houses.

After being tried for murder and acquitted, Hatfield, now the hero of the miners, was summoned to testify before the U.S. Senate a year later. Meanwhile, a war between the mine operators and the striking miners had been raging in Mingo County, with miners and mine guards (usually referred to as "gun thugs" by the miners) trading shots at each other daily, sometimes with serious casualties. Across the Tug River in Kentucky, tensions were also running high, with frequent shootings between miners and the Kentucky National Guard on both sides of the river. The governor of West Virginia responded by proclaiming martial law in Mingo, although he had no troops with which to enforce it, since West Virginia had not re-established its national guard after it was federalized for overseas service in World War I. The job fell to the newly established West Virginia State Police, supported by both mine guards and a local militia made up of the middle class and professional men of the county. Using their newfound powers, the authorities in Mingo County began jailing any miner suspected of union activity, without charge. Scores of miners were locked up in makeshift jails, and the authorities banned nearly all of the union's activities.

Shortly after his appearance before the U.S. Senate, Sid Hatfield and a long-time friend, accompanied by their wives, were lured to the neighboring county of McDowell, to answer a spurious indictment. Without provocation, a group of Baldwin-Felts detectives gunned down the two unarmed men, in front of their horrified wives, on the steps of the county courthouse in the town of Welch. Hatfield's assassination, and the oppression of the striking miners in Mingo, galvanized coal miners across the state. Urged on at several mass meetings by "Mother" Mary Jones, an elderly, feisty and outspoken labor agitator, the miners grabbed their guns and headed south to Mingo, in an ever-growing stream of armed men.

In response to the governor's pleas, the Harding administration sent Maj. Gen. Harry Hill Bandholtz to defuse the situation. The former Provost Marshal of the American Expeditionary Forces, he was an accomplished diplomat. In 1919, armed with only with his M1911 Colt pistol and a riding crop, he had single-handedly saved the Hungarian national museum in Budapest from destruction by confronting a mob of victorious Romanian soldiers bent on looting it. Bandholtz convinced the local leaders of the United Mine Workers of America to stop the march. Most of the miners turned around and began to return home, but Capt. James R. Brockus of the West Virginia State Police seized the opportunity to arrest some miners who had earlier humiliated some of his troopers by disarming them. Leading about 300 men on a night raid, Brockus ended up in a fire fight with alarmed miners living in one of the mining camps. During the melee, several miners were killed and wounded, while their homes were sprayed indiscriminately with gunfire.

Exaggerated rumors about the "Sharples Massacre" quickly reached the retreating miners, and they turned around, heading south again-but now with a vengeance-and appropriated more guns and ammunition from citizens and businesses along the route of the march. On the way, the miners also commandeered motor vehicles, as well as entire railroad trains. More miners joined the throng, now just one county away from their destination-Mingo County. The armed marching miners (estimated at anywhere from 7,000 to as many as 20,000) then hit fierce resistance at the entrance to Logan County, where a formidable defensive line of World War I-style trenches had been constructed on top of Blair Mountain by Sheriff Don Chafin's Logan County Defenders.

Chafin was a resolute and implacable foe of the union. He was also obviously in the pay of the mine owners and operators, in that he died a very wealthy man in the 1950s, after having received only a meager salary during his life-long employ as county sheriff. The mine operators paid the salaries of his many deputy sheriffs, since they also doubled as mine guards, "keeping order" in the mining camps. Chafin played on the fears of the citizens of the region, by equating the miners and unions with bolshevism, an already prevalent opinion openly shared by the Attorney General of the United States. While many of the miners were recent immigrants, or the sons of eastern and southern European immigrants, and some shared a more socialistic view of politics than many Americans at the time, the overwhelming majority of them were patriotic Americans, simply seeking a decent life and the American Dream. Moreover, a sizeable percentage of the overall-clad miners were veterans of World War I, and many of them brought their "tin hats" and gas mask bags along with them. Many of the marching miners and at least two of their leaders were African-American-perhaps another fear that was exploited.

Against these "Redneck" Miners (so-called because their only uniform was a red bandanna, usually worn around the neck), Chafin was able to assemble an "army" of West Virginia State Police, the neighboring Mingo County "Citizens' Militia," hundreds of his own deputies, volunteers (including many World War I veterans, mainly officers) from across the state, American Legion detachments from all over the state, willing businessmen and professionals (and others who simply were anti-union) from the local area, unwilling local citizens who, nevertheless, were quickly issued guns and sent to the front lines, and non-union miners who were threatened with dismissal if they refused to fight in Chafin's "army." There were no formal mustering processes or record keeping, so estimates of the number of men enrolled in the Logan County Defenders vary-somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500-and the "army" was nominally under the command of Col. William E. Eubank, who, at the same time, was frantically trying to reconstitute the state's national guard. However, it was no secret that Chafin, who had energetically acquired or commandeered every firearm at his disposal in the county, was really running the show. He even enlisted several civilian pilots who dropped improvised fragmentation and chemical bombs on the miners from their biplanes.

Most chroniclers of the Battle of Blair Mountain refer to "machine guns" having been used, and the most often published photograph of the fight (and one of the very few known actual combat images) shows a Colt "potato digger" tripod-mounted machine gun in action with the Logan County Defenders. While there certainly were crew-served machine guns on both sides, they can hardly account for the constant roar of gunfire up and down the more than 10-mile line of earthworks and barricades, as was reported in all of the accounts of the battle. Many of these reports came from World War I veterans, who had plenty of experience in determining the extent of gunfire

Casualties on both sides are estimated to be from a low of 30 to as many as several hundred. The fighting raged on for five days, during which time Bandholtz summoned U.S. regular infantry from Ohio, Indiana and New Jersey. Not without mishap, the controversial aviation pioneer Brig. Gen. "Billy" Mitchell flew in a squadron of DeHavilland fighter-bombers from Langley Field in Virginia and a squadron of Martin bombers from Bolling Field in Washington, D.C. Faced with this threat, and not wanting to fight the troops, the miners abandoned the assault, surrendered some arms (but hid the rest), and went home. Their fight was not with the federal government, but with the coal mine owners and operators, and those who supported them. As loyal U.S. citizens, the miners did not consider themselves to be insurrectionists in revolt against "Uncle Sam."

More than 100 miners were arrested and tried for treason at the same courthouse in which the abolitionist John Brown had been tried for the same crime more than 60 years before, but nearly all of them eventually were acquitted. The march, the battle, and the expense of the trial broke the back of the UMWA in the region, and the southern coalfields were not completely unionized until the eve of World War II. Outside of West Virginia, the story of the march and the battle has not been told until recent years, and questions concerning the rights of labor, capitalism, unions, militias, police, insurrection, government, vigilantes, confiscation, the First Amendment and the Second Amendment are as relevant today as they were back then. While perhaps neither the Redneck Miners, nor the Logan County Defenders, had all the answers to these questions, they at least had their guns when they needed them.

Kenneth Smith-Christmas. Guns of the Battle of Blair Mountain. American Rifleman. March 13, 2014.


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