The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Coal Wars:
Battle of Blair Mountain, 1921

Sep 13, 2021

One hundred years ago, an armed force of about 10,000 West Virginia union miners fought a five-day battle against 2000 sheriff’s deputies who were in the pay of coal companies.

The miners were on the march to Mingo County, where 3000 miners had joined the union and been immediately fired. The miners intended to shut down those mines and get those jobs back.

The coal companies sent their sheriff to block the miners’ march. The companies provided the deputies, the payroll, their weapons and machine guns, and also the private airplanes that dropped World War I-style bombs and poison gas on the miners.

The miners fought Minutemen-style on the slopes of Blair Mountain, along the rugged hills east of Logan. World War I veterans, now working in the mines, had been in the war just 3 years before. They knew guns and combat. Reinforcements from many mining towns arrived on “requisitioned” C & O trains.

After 5 days of battle, the coal companies’ forces had to be rescued by the federal government. President Harding ordered troops in. The miners decided not to shoot at U.S. troops and retreated back from Blair Mountain.

The State of West Virginia indicted 985 miners on charges such as murder, conspiracy, and treason against the state. Most were acquitted. In particular, the leader Bill Blizzard was acquitted, when miners produced as evidence an unexploded bomb dropped on the miners from an airplane.

All the convicted miners were released or paroled within 4 years. Keeping them jailed was not a popular thing in West Virginia.

The miners might have retreated, but they scared the living daylights out of the coal companies and their state legislators. A state law was passed preventing school textbooks from making any mention of this battle or any other “social problem” that did not suit the coal owners.

The era of 1890–1930 was known for “Coal Wars” that swelled up, died down, and swelled up again, as miners fought again and again against their bitter mistreatment and exploitation at the hands of brutal owners. The owners got rich from selling coal for steelmaking, for railroad steam engines, for Navy ships, and for home heating. The miners’ families starved on low wages, paid by company scrip usable only at company stores with company-store prices. Real estate was controlled by companies—the only work available was in the mines, and the only housing near the mines were company towns. Private armed “security” forces, like the Iron and Coal Police and the Baldwin-Felts Agency, terrorized mining communities with beatings and murders.

In fact, part of the buildup to Blair Mountain was the open murder of Sheriff Sid Hatfield, unarmed, on courthouse steps, by Baldwin-Felts agents. Hatfield, a sheriff in Matewan, had stepped in to prevent Baldwin-Felts from evicting some fired miners’ families. The sheriff’s murderers were neither arrested nor prosecuted—standard practice in company coal towns, and another reason for miners to not worry much about shooting back if they had to. The 1987 movie Matewan tells this gripping episode.