1921 Seventy-five Years Ago

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On September 4 federal troops disparsed thousands of armed coal miners who were besieging a ridge called Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia. The action ended a week of skirmishing between the miners and an improvised local militia that had left somewhere between ten and thirty dead and at least a hundred wounded.

Strikes and violence had been flaring up in the West Virginia coalfields for a decade, but the immediate cause of the Logan insurgency was the assassination of Sid (“Two Gun”) Hatfield a month earlier. Hatfield, a descendant of the famous feuding clan, had been the police chief of Matewan, in neighboring Mingo County, just across the border from Kentucky. In 1920 he became a hero to miners by shooting a group of enforcers from the hated BaldwinFelts Detective Agency, who were trying to evict pro-union miners from their homes. So when Hatfield was gunned down on the courthouse steps by Baldwin-Felts agents (who were eventually acquitted), union men from the Charleston area up north reacted with rage.

An irregular band, with no formal leadership or agreed-upon set of demands, assembled near the Kanawha River in mid-August. Their vague goals were to avenge Hatfield’s murder and help their nonunion brethren in Mingo and Logan counties to organize. On hearing rumors of fresh atrocities, they formed loosely into companies and began marching south. At the town of Madison the union’s district president broke the news that a U.S. Army general had been summoned and told the marchers to go home. They started back only to learn that five miners had been killed or wounded by state police flagrantly disregarding a pledge of amnesty. After receiving this news, the men turned around again and resumed their march on Mingo, some in automobiles and a train appropriated for the purpose.

At Blair Mountain on August 28 the marchers, fortified by sympathizers from Kentucky and Ohio, encountered an army of state and county police, deputized Baldwin-Felts men, and local volunteers. A week of sporadic shooting ensued along a front more than twenty miles long. Federal troops hurried to the area; they included half a dozen aviators (all of whom crashed in the nearby mountains, though Logan’s defenders did manage to scare up a plane and drop a homemade bomb). With the Army’s arrival the gun-toting miners gave up and went home. Treason charges were brought, but in the end only a few miners were convicted of lesser offenses.

The March on Mingo accomplished nothing. Once the smoke had cleared, the status quo returned. As it turned out, both sides were fighting a losing battle. The mines of southern West Virginia, mostly small operations in remote places, could stay in business only by paying low wages, and even so, their survival was precarious. As coal prices tumbled through the 1920s, the region’s marginal operations were hard-pressed, and when the Depression hit, the entire state was desolated. A decade after the Battle of Blair Mountain, some of the nation’s worst scenes of poverty and distress were found in the same region’s abandoned company towns.