The West Virginia Mine War

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Sid Hatfield, the dead police chief of Matewan, had been cut from the same rough cloth, but there was a difference: he had generally used his muscle in the miners’ behalf. He had attained a hero’s stature among them when, on a day in May, 1920, he shot up a band of Baldwin-Felts men who had come to town to put a group of miners’ families out of their homes. Seven of the “thugs,” along with two bystanders, were killed, leaving behind a legacy of hate that would cost Hatfield his life a year later. But the Matewan Massacre, as it promptly came to be called, was a triumph the miners would long remember.

 

So it was that the news of Hatfield’s slaying by three Baldwin-Felts men at Welch, preceding by a fortnight fresh rumors of atrocities by Don Chafin and his deputies in Logan, soon whipped the anger of the miners all through the Kanawha Valley into a vengeful frenzy. Calls upon the state authorities, they knew, would be unavailing (Hatfield’s killers were later tried and acquitted), and as they often had done in the past, the miners determined to seek justice on their own harsh terms—to avenge Sid Hatfield’s death, to crush Chafin’s tyranny and liberate their brethren from Chafin’s jail, and to smash the antiunion monopoly in Logan and Mingo counties.

To what extent this warlike spirit was encouraged by the local union leaders is unclear—certainly they were fully aware of it—but spread it did, like fire in dry grass, up and down the desolate creek bottoms and along the winding railroad spurs where the miners’ shanties stood. By Saturday, August 20, 1921, between five and six hundred men had congregated in a sullen, aimless mob in a little meadow on Lens Creek, a few miles out of Charleston and some seventy miles north of where Hatfield lay buried and Chafin held sway.

Over the next few days the miners’ numbers swelled to between four and five thousand. They were a tatterdemalion lot in blue jeans, worn corduroy, bits of army khaki, slouch hats, and miners’ caps. Many brought their women and children along, loaded in ancient jitneys and farm wagons or trudging on foot over the hills from as far as fifty miles away. They cooked beans and fatback over open fires and slept on the ground in a cold drizzle. Most of the men were armed, some with pistols and shotguns, others with high-powered hunting and military rifles. They had gathered through a spontaneous impulse and with but a vague notion of what they were going to do. They were leaderless at the start—Keeney, Fred Mooney, Bill Blizzard, and other UMW officials denied any connection with the mobilization—but out of the turmoil of rumors, gossip, impromptu harangues, and the boredom of inaction a semblance of organization began to assert itself. The miners, many of whom were World War I veterans, divided loosely into companies based on the communities from which they came. Disciplinary details were set up to take care of troublemakers and interlopers (reporters and bootleggers were sent on their way). Armed patrols kept round-the-clock vigil on the roads and mountain trails. A commissary emerged that depleted the food from stores for miles around, and a medical unit of six doctors and eight nurses was set up.

Still, no single leader emerged—none, in fact, has ever been positively identified—but by Tuesday night the mounting tensions spilled over. The men had grown restless and irritable. Wild rumors of atrocities and lynchings by Chafin’s men whipped their passion for revenge. They milled noisily about a dozen bonfires, and their hoarse exhortations and rebel yells, punctuated with the erratic crack of rifles fired into the air, reverberated from the dark surrounding hills. “On to Logan!” they yelled. “Let’s get the dirty thugs!” “Remember Sid Hatfield!”

At two o’clock the next morning the fire sirens in the county seat of Logan roused the startled citizens from their beds. This was the prearranged signal that brought hundreds of Sheriff Chafin’s men to the courthouse, the arsenal from which the dreaded invasion was to be repelled. In Charleston, Governor Morgan was awakened by a call from the night city-editor of the Gazette with the news that the miners from Lens Creek were on the march. The governor telephoned an order for a special detachment of state police to stand by for emergency action after daylight. At the little town of Racine, ten miles down the Logan road from Lens Creek, workmen getting ready for the day shift at the local mines stopped to cheer a plodding file of marchers, three and four abreast, that clogged their main street and stretched out of sight in either direction. All day long they came in a straggling, disorganized procession, hundreds upon hundreds of grimfaced, weary men and excited boys, each with a gun and a sack of provisions slung over his shoulder and, by way of uniform, a red bandana knotted about his neck or right sleeve. The badge gave them the name Red Necks.