The West Virginia Mine War

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A series of high ridges known collectively as Blair Mountain forms the boundary of Logan County where the main road from the north and the Coal River branch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad snake in through a narrow defile. To this natural barrier Sheriff Chafin rushed about three hundred of his irregulars, deploying them in a fifteen-mile-long battle line along the crest and commanding the high passes. That night an advance party of the miners’ army several hundred strong—they had commandeered a freight train up the line and pushed on ahead of the main body—tried to make their way over the mountain and ran into a defenders’ patrol near Dingess Run. The two sides dug in behind rocks and trees and banged away furiously at one another in the dark. After a few hours the attackers withdrew to the base of the mountain to await daylight and reinforcements.

News of this ominous but ineffectual encounter threw Charleston into a panic that morning. Governor Morgan dashed off an urgent telegram to Washington saying the state was unable to protect itself and needed federal troops. President Harding held a hurried conference with Secretary of War John W. Weeks and dispatched General J. H. Bandholtz, commander of the Washington Military District, to West Virginia for a firsthand reconnaissance report.

The general and his aides, resplendent in gleaming puttees and Sam Browne belts, arrived in Charleston by train before daybreak. They roused the governor from his bed, summoned Keeney and Mooney from theirs, and got down to business. The minutes of the conference were not preserved, but from available evidence it seems to have gone like this:

Bandholtz: He had no concern with the merits of the dispute, but only with the question of whether law and order had broken down and what was needed to restore it and prevent bloodshed.

 

Morgan: The southern counties were at the mercy of an angry mob, and soldiers were needed to protect life and property.

Keeney: The mob was out of hand all right, but they probably would disperse peaceably if the request came from federal rather than state authorities and was coupled with a guarantee of future protection against Chafin and his thugs.

Whatever the understanding may have been, by eight o’clock that morning—Friday—the two union officials were bouncing down the Logan road as fast as their four-cylinder Dodge would take them. As they passed groups of stragglers heading south they shouted: “Go back home; the march is over!” About noon they caught up with the main body of marchers at the little town of Madison. Two or three thousand men sprawled about the streets and the town square eating their midday meal out of cans and tin plates. Keeney herded them into the ball park, mounted the hood of his Dodge, and tore into them in some such words as these (he paraphrased his speech for me as best he could from memory in an interview in the early 1960’s):

“I’ve told you men God knows how many times that any time you want to do battle against Don Chafin and his thugs I’ll be right there in the front lines with you. I’ve been there before and you know it. But this time you’ve got more than Don Chafin against you. You’ve got more than the governor of West Virginia against you [boos]. You’ve got the government of the United States against you!

“Governor Morgan hasn’t got the guts to enforce the laws of this state that protect your rights. Instead of standing up to the operators he runs crying to the federal government.

“President Harding has sent an Army general down here to see what the trouble is, and I have just come from a conference with him in Charleston. He wants you to break off this march and go home. He promised me that if you do it, you won’t be troubled by the constabulary. And he has promised to get trains in here today to take you home.

“Now I’m telling you for your own good and for the good of the cause, you’ve got to do it. Break up this march. Go home. Get back to your jobs. You’ve got Uncle Sam on your side now, and he won’t let you down. You can fight the government of West Virginia, but by God you can’t fight the government of the United States.”

Keeney’s appeal worked. There was grumbling among some of the hotheads who still wanted to storm the ramparts of Logan, but by late afternoon one group after another turned homeward, and the next morning trains began coming in to pick up the rest. Keeney called General Bandholtz in Charleston to tell him the men had turned back, and the general verified this by reports from his own scouts. At the same time Sheriff Chafin called in his defenders, and the town of Logan that night held a “peace” celebration. The general telegraphed a reassuring “all clear” to his chiefs in the White House and War Department, then stepped into a warplane with no less a pilot than General “Billy” Mitchell (who had been sent out by the Air Corps to assess the situation) to return to Washington.

The peace, however, was shortlived. In the predawn hours of Sunday the miners’ grapevine brought a new message: They are shooting women and children at Sharples! Hundreds of armed men, many still on their way home from the dispersal at Madison, turned and stormed back down the Logan road. In Logan itself the sirens shrieked again, and the defenders set up their machine guns and went scurrying back to their positions atop Blair Mountain.