The West Virginia Mine War

PrintPrintEmailEmail

What had happened, as nearly as it can be pieced together from many conflicting reports, is this: in spite of whatever armistice terms had been set by the governor and General Bandholtz, Chafin and Captain J. R. Brockus of the state police planned to round up a group of men who they decided were ringleaders of the miners’ march. With a force of several hundred deputies they crept across the mountain trails that night to the little town of Sharpies. On a ridge just above the town they came upon a force of miners. Chafin demanded that they lay down their arms and submit to arrest. The miners answered with gunfire. For an hour there was a wild melee of shooting and hand-to-hand combat in the darkness. At last the deputies retreated in disorder over the mountain, but the miners counted five of their own dead or wounded, and many houses in the town had been peppered by stray bullets.

Blair Mountain became a battlefield again as thousands of miners poured into the region and scaled its northern slopes. On the opposite slope, and holding advantageous positions on the ridge, were hundreds of deputies and volunteer militia. The battle line extended some twenty miles along the serpentine crest of the ridge, from Buffalo Creek on the east to Mill Creek on the west. Throughout the day and night there were erratic bursts of riHe fire and occasionally the chatter of a machine gun. The outside world could learn little of what was going on, for telegraph wires had been cut, trains suspended, and traffic on the roadways blocked by armed patrols. An airplane from Logan, on a scouting mission of the attackers’ positions, was riddled by rifle fire from the ground and forced to retire. One eyewitness report published by the Associated Press on Tuesday depicted the scene from the miners’ front:

 

“With all males from the age of 15 to 60 under arms; children and women fleeing in panic over the line into Boone County; armed patrols arriving and departing, and every available conveyance carrying supplies to the picket posts in the hills, the Sharples-Blair sector may well be compared to Belgium in the early days of the World War.”

The following day a dispatch from Logan described the situation inside the town:

“This city was thrown into a frenzy shortly after dark last night when reports from men returning from the fighting at Crooked Creek said that the miners’ forces had broken through at an important point and forced a retreat by the Logan deputies.

“Logan County deputies were driven down thd hillside in a skirmish with an armed force from the other side of Spruce Fork Ridge, Captain I. G. Hollingsworth reported at 7 o’clock. Heavy fighting continued on two other sectors of the line during the afternoon and evening.

“‘We intend to hold our lines with all the power at our command,’ Colonel W. E. Eubanks [commanding officer of the militia] said. ‘We have 1,200 men in the line and fighting is continuing in the Blair sector and along Crooked Creek.’”

For a week the battle of Blair Mountain raged furiously, not in a single, momentous clash but in a series of uncoordinated skirmishes, hit-and-run raids, and individual gun duels up and down the length of the thirty-mile front. The deaths on both sides have been variously estimated at from ten to thirty, but there were hundreds of lesser casualties, including Boyden Sparks, a famed war correspondent for the New York Tribune , who ventured into the region and was nicked in the leg by a bullet. Probably ten thousand men were engaged in the conflict at its height, from seven to eight thousand on the miners’ side and from two to three thousand on the other. The defenders were under pseudomilitary command of the state adjutant general and were supplied with government-issue arms, ammunition, and some communications equipment. But they were barely able to hold their own against the numerical superiority of the attackers. The miners fought under a loose form of military command (whose leadership was never fully determined) and seemed plentifully supplied with rifles and bullets. Had either side concentrated its forces for a breakthrough at one point, the consequences would have been even more bloody and disastrous. But before this could happen, the federal government moved in.

Governor Morgan’s frantic appeals to Washington drew a stinging rebuke from General Bandholtz, who said the miners’ march would never have been resumed had it not been for the “injudicious” behavior of Captain Brockus and his men at Sharpies. However, on Wednesday, August 31, President Harding was induced to intervene. Within two hours the news flashed that he had issued a formal ultimatum to the miners:

“Whereas the Governor of West Virginia represents that domestic violence exists in said state which the authorities of said state are unable to suppress … now, therefore I, Warren G. Harding, President of the United States, do hereby command all persons engaged in such unlawful and insurrectionary proceedings to disperse and retire peacefully to their respective abodes on or before 12 o’clock noon on the first day of September, 1921.…”

General Bandholtz was immediately dispatched to Charleston to enforce the terms of the proclamation, copies of which were dropped over the battle lines from airplanes. At the same time regiments at Camp Dix, New Jersey, Camp Sherman, Ohio, and Fort Knox, Kentucky, were put on battle alert and special trains held in readiness to take them to the scene of trouble. An air squadron at Langley Field, Virginia, was similarly alerted.