BlogLabor History

The Battle of Blair Mountain

By August 29, 2023September 17th, 2023No Comments

August 29, 2023

The Battle of Blair Mountain was a violent conflict between coal miners and strikebreakers, known as the Logan Defenders, in Logan County, West Virginia, during the Coal Wars. It is the largest labor uprising in history. Up to 100 people were possibly killed during the battle. 

Before the battle, several other instances of violence and murder had taken place across coal country. Miners were fed up with the mistreatment they faced–everything they knew, had, and used was owned by the coal companies, and the Company could do whatever they wanted. 

A deadly dispute had occurred not five months before the Battle of Blair Mountain began. It was between the coal miners of Matewan, West Virginia, and Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency that was hired by the Company to put an end to any possible unionizing within the coal miners. The Baldwin-Felts evicted one family from a company-owned home and prepared to leave town–but not before they could be confronted by Matewan’s Police Chief Sid Hatfield, town Mayor Testerman, and a group of miners. Words were exchanged and shots fired, leaving Testerman and the two Baldwin-Felts dead. 

This violence–known as the Matewan Massacre–became a symbol of hope for miners across West Virginia coal country. It set the stage for the Battle of Blair Mountain as the Baldwin-Felts, who felt indestructible, were brought down by a few miners and a small-town sheriff. This seemingly impossible feat gave confidence and drive to the miners across the state of West Virginia. 

A few months after the Matewan Massacre, after Hatfield had been acquitted of the Albert-Felts murders, he was shot and killed outside the McDowell County Courthouse by other Albert-Felts agents. Miners across the state were infuriated by this act of injustice. They were becoming more and more agitated at the state of their lives: the Coal Companies across West Virginia were able to take advantage of the miners with incredible ease–and the miners felt helpless to stop it. Hatfield’s sudden death was the spark to fully set the Battle of Blair Mountain in motion. Miners began to take up arms and gather themselves to patrol certain areas with armed government troopers, driving them out of their towns. 

Listen to this podcast from Mountaineer Media! Chuck Keeney is the author of The Road to Blair Mountain: Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield from King Coal, a professor of history at Southern WV Community and Technical College, and a founding member of the Mine Wars museum. He discusses his work in helping preserve the history the Battle of Blair Mountain, his great grandfather Frank Keeney’s leadership role, and how that history was covered up and disseminated.

In August of 1921, two representatives of the United Mine Workers took to Charleston, WV to present their list of demands to Governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan almost immediately rejected all of them–adding kindling the flame within the miners. They began to discuss a march on Mingo and Logan county to end martial law and take back the county. But, they encountered one serious problem–Blair Mountain stood directly in the way of both Logan and Mingo county. The miners needed to make it over that hill in order to take back the counties, and overcome the anti-union Sheriff Chafin who had set up camp to stop them.

On August 20th, 1921, armed miners gathered at Lens Creek Mountain in Kanawha County. By August 24th, nearly 13,000 people had arrived–and the march to Logan County began. Some miners in St. Albans even took control of a C&O train, meeting the other marchers on their way to Mingo County, now dubbed “Bloody Mingo”.

Sheriff Chafin began to set up defenses on the base of Blair Mountain, preparing for the arrival of the angry miners. The Logan County Coal Operators Association supported him with a private armed force of 2,000 men–the nation’s largest private armed force ever. 

On the morning of August 25th, a few small conflicts began at the base of Blair Mountain. They were short lived–the following day, President Warren G. Harding declared he would send in federal troops and army bombers if the fighting did not cease. 

Discouraged, the miners had a long meeting in Madison, in Boone County. They made the demoralizing decision to make the trek back, giving up on their movement to Mingo and Logan county.

But, it would not be that easy. Sheriff Chafin did not want to waste the private army he’d spent several days assembling. Just hours after the miners decided to head home, Chafin’s army shot at union sympathizers just outside of Blair Mountain. Innocent families were caught in the crossfire. This injustice convinced the miners to turn back and fight. 

Chafin’s men, having the higher ground, were able to inflict great damage on the miners. Bombs and poisonous gas leftover from World War I were dropped from private planes, increasing the damage done on the miners–although they outnumbered Chafin and his men, they ultimately had better weapons. 

This webinar, honoring the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, was organized by the ReImagine Appalachia campaign and featured Phil Smith, Director of Government Affairs, United Mine Workers of America, Myya Helm, Research Associate at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, and Stephen Herzenberg, Keystone Research Center economist and Co-Director of the ReImagine Appalachia campaign.

Governor Morgan called upon Colonial William Eubanks of the West Virginia National Guard to oppose the miners. Battles continued throughout the week at random. At one point, the miners almost broke through the border to the town of Logan and their planned destinations–only to be shoved back once again. Many miners were killed (about 50-100), with hundreds more wounded. Chafin’s men only saw about 30 deaths. 

The Battle of Blair Mountain ended on September 2nd, 1921. Federal troops arrived–with many miners veterans themselves, they refused to shoot at them. Miners began to head home the following day, riddled with defeat and fear of being arrested. Most miners hid their weapons in the woods on their return voyage. 

The state of West Virginia was able to charge 925 miners with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the state. Some were acquitted, and some were imprisoned for many years. 

The Battle of Blair Mountain was, at first, a sizable victory for the Coal Companies. The United Mine Workers of America had faced a massive blow. It wasn’t just in West Virginia that this effect took place, too–Pennsylvania and Kentucky also felt the loss. Membership plummeted greatly in the union, and wouldn’t see another uptick until after President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. 

By the 1930s, most Americans could now see the poor working conditions and treatment that coal miners faced, especially in West Virginia. In fact, the Battle paved the way for a great union victory in 1933, when the New Deal was in full swing. Unions learned from the mishaps during the battle to more easily get law enforcement on the side of union members and labor workers as well. 

The United Mine Workers of America also set the standard for new unions to be created–like the Steel Workers Union, which was beginning to reorganize after World War I.

All in all, the Battle of Blair Mountain showed the sheer willpower of the miners and the union. These miners (and their families) wanted better–and they were going to do what they could to achieve it. Not every uprising or union struggle was successful at first, but in the end, good came of it: the union was recognized for its fight for righteousness, and the poor conditions and abuse from the coal companies was recognized

The labor movement has come along way and there are still upcoming battles to fight–but we can admire the pluck and initiative that theses miners held, we can learn from their failures and violence, we can appreciate what they accomplished, and we can remember those that lost their lives while fighting for what they believed in. We have come a long way since the Battle of Blair Mountain, and the people that fought would be glad to see it.