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This Day in Labor History: August 25, 1921

[ 36 ] August 25, 2013 |

On August 25, 1921, the largest labor insurgency in American history and the largest civil uprising since the Civil War began in Logan County, West Virginia when 10,000 miners and their supporters went to war with 3000 coal mine executives and their hired thugs. The Battle of Blair Mountain is one of the least known major events in American history.

By 1921, little had changed for several decades in the coal mining country of West Virginia. The coal companies ruled over this area like a medieval fiefdom, having almost total control over workers’ lives. They issued company scrip to shop at company stores, evicted workers from company housing if they went on strike, brutally crushed union attempts to organize the mines, and murdered union organizers. They hired goons to intimidate miners and spies to infiltrate union organizing effort. The United Mine Workers of America struggled to maintain a hold in West Virginia; in fact the UMWA throughout Appalachia had a rollercoaster of a membership for decades, with numbers skyrocketing after rare victories and collapsing after the inevitable oppression that followed.

Such a widescale rebellion took place in the aftermath of an event far more famous thanks to the John Sayles film detailing it, the Matewan Massacre, when Baldwin-Felts thugs got into a gun battle with the worker-sympathetic law enforcement officers of the town of Matewan. In 1921, the coal industry got their revenge on Mingo County sheriff Sid Hatfield, who had participated at Matewan, by murdering him on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch. That was on August 1. On August 7, the UMWA issued a petition of workers’ demands, including the arrest of Hatfield’s murderers, to West Virginia governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan rejected them out of town and workers’ anger grew.

On August 20, armed men began gathering in Kanawha County, outside of Charleston and by August 24, 13,000 miners had arrived fully armed and ready to demand justice. While alarmed politicians began working toward compromise, Logan County sheriff Don Chafin wanted blood. Supported by the Logan County Coal Operators Association, Chafin hated the UMWA and wanted to eliminate them from his country entirely, preferably with the maximum shedding of blood. The coal operators provided Chafin a hired army of 3000 people to oppress the miners. On the request of Governor Morgan, President Warren Harding had sent General Henry Bandholtz to West Virginia on August 25. Bandholtz told union leaders the army would “snuff them out” if they did not end the march, leading many prominent UMWA figures, including Mother Jones to urge the end of the action to prevent fatalities. Although on August 26, many of the miners agreed to return to their homes, Chafin wanted to his pound of flesh. His men began shooting union members as they returned to their homes, with families caught in the crossfire.



A bunker used by the coal miners’ private army.

When news of Chafin’s duplicitious and murderous violence reached miners, they exploded. Several days of sporadic fighting followed between Chafin’s army and the miners. The coal operators hired private planes to drop homemade bleach bombs and other munitions on the miners. The U.S. military clearly showed itself on the side of the mine operators. General Billy Mitchell ordered U.S. army planes to conduct aerial surveillance of the difficult terrain and report back to the mine owners, possibly the first time that planes were used by the U.S. army against American civilians. Over the next week, about 30 of Chafin’s troops died as did probably about 100 miners.



An unexploded bomb dropped by the coal company army on the miners, displayed by those it meant to kill.

The Battle of Blair Mountain ended when Harding sent in U.S. troops to put down the revolt. Fearing massive death, UMWA leader Bill Blizzard ended the revolt on September 2 and told his members to return to their homes, which they did, attempting to hide the guns in the dense mountains. As normal during the pre-New Deal period, UMWA membership followed the fortunes of organizing, with membership plummeting from 50,000 to 10,000 after the suppression of the uprising.

In the aftermath, 985 miners were indicted and tried for charges including murder and treason against the state of West Virginia (who knew you could commit legal treason against a state). The charges against most were dropped. A Baptist minister and his son who led a party that killed three members of the coal companies’ army did serve three years in prison, before a new governor, Howard Gore, pardoned them. Some argue that while the Battle of Blair Mountain was a total loss for the UMWA, the attention it garnered about the lives of coal miners helped build support for the major labor reforms of the New Deal, of which no one benefited more than the United Mine Workers of America.

Some years later, Chafin was arrested on corruption charges and served time in federal prison for bootlegging.

Why is the Battle of Blair Mountain so unknown, in comparison to other big labor events of the period? It’s a combination of reasons. First, the coal companies and their lackey West Virginia politicians worked very hard to keep news of this under wraps, even into the present. The state long refused to acknowledge the existence of this event with even a basic historical marker, although that has finally been rectified. I’m not sure that even today the event is taught in West Virginia history courses in schools, even though it is one of the most important things to ever happen there. Second, it was a total defeat for the union, although that hasn’t stopped other major losses like Homestead and Pullman from becoming iconic events. Third, it was rural West Virginia and not urban Chicago or Pittsburgh. We rarely think about rural people or rural issues in anything more than the abstract. West Virginia is isolated and you have to really work to get out to Blair Mountain, whereas anyone in New York can wander over to the site of the Triangle Fire and the giant factories of Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania serve as visual representations of the struggles of labor past. Blair Mountain has none of this.

Today, the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain is highly endangered thanks to the coal companies’ insatiable desire to take every rock out of West Virginia. The site is on the chopping block for a mountaintop removal operation of the type that is the latest iteration of how the industry has exploited the labor and nature of West Virginia for the last 150 years later. The lack of public knowledge about the important history that happened on the site assists the coal companies in their desire to mine it.

The likely future of the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain

This is the 74th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (36)

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  1. bob mcmanus says:

    Well, I know of it because of the movie, which I watched because I was following John Sayles rather than an interest in the history.

  2. buskertype says:

    They don’t teach anything about it in WV schools, or at least they didn’t in the late ’90s when I was in highschool. I have always heard about it, but it wasn’t until this year that I picked up Thunder in the Mountains by Lon Savage and really began to appreciate the magnitude of it. I plan to get my hands on “When Miners March” by William C. Blizzard, son of Bill Blizzard who led the miner’s army. (at least to the extent that anybody led them.)

    Thanks for writing about this. In 7 years time it will be the 100 year anniversary, and we really don’t know if the battlefield will survive that long.

    • FLRealist says:

      They didn’t teach about it in the 70s either, when I was in school in Charleston. But then again, we had other fun things to do, like get time off from school due to the Christianistas calling in bomb threats to the schools, and shooting at people. schools.

      I’ve always wanted to contact the people involved with the controversy and let them know they started me on the road to leaving the church.

      • buskertype says:

        I’ve been on a WV history jag recently and the textbook controversy is high on my list of things to find out about. so much reading to do.

  3. Bruce Vail says:

    “who knew you could commit legal treason against a state”

    Students of the abolition movement of course recall that old John Brown was charged with treason against of the state of Virginia following his attack on Harpers Ferry. Coincidentally I’ve been re-reading sections of Henry Mayer’s “All on Fire,” which is really worth reading (and re-reading).

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I can believe such laws would exist and be enforceable on the eve of the Civil War. Surprised about 1921 though. Do such laws still exist today? What would it take for me to commit treason to the state of Rhode Island? Not eat enough Italian food?

      • Bruce Vail says:

        I think anyone badmouthing clamcakes could be justly charged in RI.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Apparently a Harvard grad named Dorr was convicted of treason againt RI back in 1844:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Wilson_Dorr

      • Lurker says:

        It seems, according to the statute law, that the definition of treason against Rhode Island is:

        Every person who shall be convicted of treason against this state by levying war against the state or by adhering to the enemies of this state, giving them aid and comfort, shall be imprisoned during life.

        In fact, if we take the doctrine of double sovereignity even half-seriously, state treason is perfectly understandable concept. It is, in the realm of theory, possible that there arises an armed insurrection against the state. The proponents of this hypothetical insurrection would wage open war against the state government while proclaiming that they remain loyal to the United States, and upon winning, will remain a part of the Union.

        If the governor of that state would be able to handle the situation by utilising the National Guard and State Defence Force, the insurrectionists would not face federal troops at any time. Thus, it might be that they would not be levying war against the United States, thereby committing federal treason, but their actions would still be treasonous under state law. And because the state is sovereign, it should be indeed possible to commit treason against it. I don’t think that this would violate any post-Civil War amendments or the 1st amendment, if the actions prosecuted are, in fact, direct support activities on behalf of insurrectionists.

        Of course, this matters little, as most persons concerned would anyhow be liable for conspiracy to commit murder, but treason might be in some cases easier to prove. (Aid and comfort clause)

  4. Bruce Vail says:

    Department of Nitpick: Not sure how Blair Mountain can be ‘largest labor insurgency in American history’ in in light of your own excellent “This Day” post on the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I think Blair Mountain is considered to be the largest civil uprising because of the number of armed people fighting against the state in one place. So I guess it just depends on definitions.

  5. bootsdaddy says:

    When I lived in Seattle there was this bar band called the Radio Nationals that had a song called Black Lung about the Battle of Blair Mountain. That was the first I’d heard of this event. It’s a great song and the band was not too bad either.

  6. thelogos says:

    Just a few months before this, during the Tulsa Race Riot (well, really a purge or attempted genocide) there were planes used to fire on the black community and drop fire-bombs.

  7. DrDick says:

    Another great reminder that every right and benefit that workers have was bought with the blood of union organizers and labor activists. Management and the capitalists have never “given” the working man anything but grief.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      And that blithely repeating “Violence never solves anything” reflects both an ignorance of history and quite a bit of economic privilege.

  8. jefft452 says:

    “Why is the Battle of Blair Mountain so unknown, in comparison to other big labor events of the period?”

    Is that really true though?
    Most people I know who never heard of Blair Mountain never heard of the Triangle fire or Haymarket either
    Not really making an affirmative argument, just wondering if a general lack of labor history is the real reason Blair Mountain is little known

    • Just a Rube says:

      Haymarket and the Triangle fire were covered in my (c. 2000) AP US History class, and were in the textbook. I don’t remember the Battle of Blair Mountain being mentioned at all.

      So I suspect they are somewhat better known, with the caveat that most people don’t remember much from their History classes anyway.

    • DrDick says:

      I do not think it was covered at all in my high school history classes. I am old, however, and went to school in the 60s. Beginning in the 70s, high school history books became far more inclusive.

    • Melissa says:

      I’m familiar with Triangle and Haymarket, but was not aware of BlairMountain until today. I haven’t read labour history, just picked up things from, political articles,. etc. There must be many others like me.

  9. buskertype says:

    Just Curious: where do you get the 100 dead miners and 30 dead thugs number? The death toll numbers I have seen are either much lower (Lon Savage says 16 dead miners, I think) or very vague (ranging up as high as 300.)

  10. J R in WV says:

    I live near Blair Mtn. and have always thought it should be a national monument. Instead we’re going to get a sterile rocky flat spot in the unending campaign to make West Virginia a flat state via mountaintop removal mining.

    Most of the UMWA men were vets of WW I and knew how to fight. I suspect most of the scab thugs were only used to beating the crap out of someone in an alley after a meeting.

    One of the best teachers I ever had was beaten and left for dead in a ditch in Harlan county KY – he knew union and labor history from taking part decades ago. Once the wave of union organizing was receding, he took up the cause of ending segregation, and got fired from Emory University faculty on account of that “communist” activity. Shame that that knowledge is mostly gone now!

  11. [...] Battle of Blair Mountain is one of the least known major events in American history,” Erik Loomis writes in Sunday’s installment of his “This Day in Labor History” series. I had never [...]

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  13. [...] Line Stewardesses Association, first flight attendant union, forms. August 25, 1921–Battle of Blair Mountain September 9, 1919–Boston police go on strike, crushed by Massachusetts governor Calvin [...]

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