The West Virginia Mine War

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On the morning of August 1, 1921, the Gazette of Charleston, West Virginia, carried under an eight-column banner on its front page the following dispatch from the city of Bluefield:

“Sid Hatfield lies in the morgue at Welch tonight, a smile frozen on his lips, eyes wide open and five bullet holes in his head and chest. On the slab next to him lies the body of his friend and bodyguard, Ed Chambers.

“They were shot down as they mounted the steps of the McDowell County Court House this morning, where they were scheduled to go on trial. Their wives, who were with them, ran screaming into the doorway of the building.

“Who started the shooting nobody seems to know. The true story of how the men met their death will, in all probability, always remain a secret.…”

On this grim note opened the final chapter in one of the most protracted and violent episodes of civil strife and armed insurrection in this country’s history since the Civil War. The scene was the desolate, rugged terrain of the southern West Virginia coalfields, and the issue was the right of the miners to belong to a union.

The conflict had raged intermittently for ten years, with murder, arson, sabotage, and brutality on both sides. In its final, climactic phase thousands of armed miners, organized into squads and companies and with commissary and medical units, marched nearly seventy miles through the mountain wilderness to the relief of fellow unionists in Logan and “Bloody Mingo” counties. At Blair Mountain they locked in a week-long battle with a defending force of two thousand hastily recruited sheriffs’ deputies and state militia. The stalemate was broken only by the arrival of several infantry battalions and a fleet of Army bombers.

That a man of such primitive scruples and dubious attainments as Sid Hatfield should be the martyr who set in train the miners’ march is ironic. He was a lanky, rawboned, semiliterate mountaineer with the high cheekbones and cold, close-set eyes that marked him as a member of the clan of old “Devil Anse” Hatfield, whose feud with the McCoys raged along the West Virginia-Kentucky border before the turn of the century. He had been born to the mines, but by the time he was twenty-six he had become police chief of Matewan, a rough-and-tumble coal town in Mingo County, not far from his birthplace. With a silver badge on his shirt and a pair of six-guns slung around his waist, Sid Hatfield found that the life of the law suited him perfectly.

 

Mingo and its neighboring counties were used to violence. Though the American frontier had all but vanished by the time the twentieth century began, the code of the frontier still prevailed in this rugged, isolated mountain enclave. Fierce pride, quick suspicions, and short tempers called for the settlement of disputes on a personal basis, and human life was held to be much less dear than a mountain man’s sense of his own independence and dignity. “Bloody Mingo” earned its name before the miners’ union was ever heard of, but the coming of the union added a new dimension to the area’s tradition of violence.

The westward thrust of empire in the fifty years between the Civil War and the First World War was powered by coal. The vast subterranean basin of “black gold” that stretched westward from the Appalachians almost to the Mississippi was sought nearly as eagerly as the yellow gold of California and the Klondike, and it inspired as much villainy, broke as many lives, and made as many fortunes. In the wake of the speculators and the engineers came the agents of the United Mine Workers of America to create a proletarian counterforce against the monopoly power of the coal barons of Pittsburgh and Wall Street. Unionization spread by a sort of slow and bloody osmosis from Pennsylvania into Indiana and Illinois, but the farther south it reached, the heavier the opposition it met. In West Virginia, by 1917, a sort of Mason-Dixon line had been established roughly along the valley of the Kanawha River: coalfields in the counties to the north were generally unionized, those to the south were not. This gave the southern operators an economic whip hand over their northern competitors; they paid lower wages, and they were immune to the shutdowns frequently enforced by the UMW in the other fields. For good reason, then, the northern operators were almost as eager as the unionists to have the rich coal lands south of the Kanawha organized, and they secretly conspired to that end. For equally good reasons the southern operators were determined to keep the organizers out, and they had public opinion, which had just discovered the Bolshevik menace, in their favor.

The confrontation was a classic example of the industrial conflict that reverberated across the nation in the early decades of the century. For West Virginia the issue erupted in riots on Cabin Creek in 1912. There was a brief armistice while the war with Germany was being fought, but when it was over, the union had gained its first precarious beachhead south of the Kanawha, and over the next few years it continued to inch slowly and painfully forward.