- Historic Sites
The West Virginia Mine War
BLOOD FLOWED IN THE PERENNIALLY TROUBLESOME COALFIELDS IN 1921, WHEN THOUSANDS OF MINERS DECIDED THEIR RIGHT TO ORGANIZE WAS WORTH FIGHTING FOR
August 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 5
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.
Although they were fighting a losing battle, the southern operators, closely linked financially with the big steel and railroad empires, had the statehouse at Charleston and most of the law on their side. Their principal weapon was a hiring contract that forbade workers to join a union (miners called this a yellow-dog contract), and its validity was repeatedly upheld by the state courts. So was the operators’ contention that anyone soliciting membership in a union was guilty of trespass. And so was their contention that miners living in company-owned houses could be evicted without notice or legal redress. This last was an impressive power, since the entire town around a mine property, including the streets, stores, and churches, if any, was usually owned by the operator. To enforce these rights the mineowners put as many deputy sheriffs on their payrolls as they felt they needed. And in times of particular stress they called on the services of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a nationwide firm of professional strong-arm men and strikebreakers, for extra brawn and firepower.
The hired mine guards—“thugs” in the local vernacular—epitomized the miners’ grievances, but the substantive issues went much deeper. The miners demanded the right to belong to a union and the right to bargain with their employers through that union. They wanted an eight-hour day instead of the prevalent ten-hour one, weekly instead of monthly paydays, and payment in cash instead of the local scrip that was widely employed. They demanded the establishment of two thousand pounds as the standard ton on which their pay should be based. Many companies paid by the car, the capacities of which might vary by several hundred pounds. The miners also sought the right to pick their own checkweighman to keep tabs on the company scale operator. Above all they demanded that the hated “thugs” be stripped of their power to make arrests and to ransack homes and meeting places under search warrants issued by justices of the peace who often were also in the pay of the mine-owners.
The miners’ leader was Frank Keeney, president of UMW District 17, whose jurisdiction covered the coalfields in the central and southern part of the state. Unlike the lank, hollow-eyed rustics and inarticulate immigrants who made up the rank and file of his following, Keeney in his mid-thirties was squat, muscular, square-jawed, and aflame with the pugnacity and accumulated resentments of his Irish forebears. He had been born and reared in these hills and spent his early years digging coal. He had a sharp, eager mind and a fierce determination to do something about his and the other miners’ plight. On the stump he was a fiery, persuasive rabble-rouser, and sitting across the table from a governor or a committee of legislators or a group of mineowners he was a shrewd, confident, resourceful negotiator. Inevitably, in the supercharged atmosphere of the time, he was a man with a double profile: a fearless and incorruptible Spartacus in one view, a dangerous troublemaker in another.
The issue of whether the miners in adjoining Logan and Mingo counties could join the union was being pushed toward an explosive climax as the igao’s arrived. Hundreds had signed up, and as promptly as they were discovered they were fired from their jobs and put out of their houses. Organizers and union representatives were clapped into jail in Williamson, the town of Logan itself, and other coal centers as soon as they stepped off the trains. The operators refused to meet with the union, and as their mines were shut down one by one they brought in strikebreakers and added more deputies and mine guards to their payrolls. Bands of miners were accused of roaming the hills at night, dynamiting coal tipples and firing at company buildings with rifles. The deputies struck back by swooping down on the tent colonies in which some fifteen hundred dispossessed mine families were living. They slashed the tents, threw the contents about, and arrested all the boys and men they could run down. A sense of panic spread from Logan and Mingo counties to the statehouse in Charleston. Governor Ephraim F. Morgan declared martial law in the area and authorized Sheriff Don Chafin of Logan County to muster his deputies and any other recruits available into a makeshift state militia, providing them with arms and ammunition.
To the miners and their backers Chafin was the most feared and hated man in the southern coalfields. He was in a quite literal sense the law in Logan County, fully backed with money and authority by the coal operators, who, in turn, controlled most other facets of the county’s life. His principal mission was to keep the union out, with no questions asked about the means employed. His large corps of deputies, which included most of the Baldwin-Felts mine guards, were openly carried on the companies’ payrolls. Tales of Chafin’s arrogance and brutality were legion, and in that hot, turbulent summer of 1921 the jail at Logan was jammed with more than two hundred men whose only offense was joining or talking up the union.
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.
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.
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.
The general and his staff arrived at the West Virginia capitol on Thursday morning. When the noon deadline came without news of whether the cease-fire had been observed—communications with the battle zone were virtually nonexistent—he set out on a personal inspection tour. Keeney and Mooney were nowhere to be found; they had been indicted for murder the day before by a grand jury in Mingo County and were hiding out from process servers. At Sharpies late that afternoon, however, Bandholtz encountered an even higher union official, Philip Murray from the national headquarters of the UMW in Washington, who told them that only a few miles farther down the road the fighting was continuing as furious as ever.
“These men will give up their arms when the federal troops come in to protect them,” Murray said. “But they won’t stop now just to be slaughtered by. Don Chafin and his army of assassins.”
Shortly after midnight Bandholtz wired the War Department that the Presidential proclamation was being ignored and asked that troops be sent immediately. Within hours the regiments held in readiness began boarding trains bound for West Virginia, and soon after thirteen DeHaviland airplanes armed with bombs, machine guns, and ammunition left Langley Field to support the federal troops.
The soldiers with their packs and trucks and mule trains arrived during the day Saturday. Charleston declared a holiday to welcome the “liberators.” The streets were hastily decked with flags and bunting; church ladies and Boy Scouts offered them coffee and sandwiches; Legionnaires strutted about, and excited citizens craned their necks to stare in awe as the arriving planes roared overhead. But the soldiers had little time for such amenities. They boarded boxcars and flats in the c&o freight yards and chuffed off by varying routes in the direction of Logan. An eyewitness account of their arrival on the fighting front was supplied by Boyden Sparks in a story he wrote for Leslie’s Weekly :
“…Capt. John J. Wilson’s command of 150 picked Regulars traveled by night to the scene of hostilities. The engine of the troop train pushed ahead of it three flat cars, two soldier lookouts riding at the very front. Forty-five minutes ahead of it, although Capt. Wilson was then unaware of it, there traveled a commandeered train loaded with miners going to the front.
“Two hours after the start from St. Albans, the troop train entered Madison, the unionized seat of Boone County. … The bugler sounded ‘assembly.’ ‘Packs and guns!’ shouted a sergeant. ‘Fall in.’
“Buckling on their heavy packs each rolled as neatly and smoothly as a stove pipe … the Regulars dropped to the cinder-covered right of way. … Outposts with machine guns were sent up and down the tracks. Sentries were stationed at 5 yard intervals 50 yards up the hillsides from the train. As the last of these took his post Blizzard appeared and accosted Capt. Wilson.
“‘William M. Blizzard, subdistrict president of the United Mine Workers’ he introduced himself. He was young, wiry, dark-eyed, cordial and convincing. … [He] wore a weather-beaten black-felt narrow-brimmed hat, pulled low over his eyes. … his suit appeared to have been slept in for a week.…
“‘Are you the general of the miners’ army?’ he was asked.
“‘What army?’ countered Blizzard with a smile. … ‘I guess the boys’ll listen to me, all right. I just told the captain here that if he’ll send a squad of his Regulars up the line with me I can get all of our fellows out of the hills by daylight.…’
“Then he spoke to a man standing nearby. This individual trotted away to crank up a flivver, and a few minutes later Blizzard was on his way up the line. What he did when he arrived can only be surmised, but when the Regulars moved on up to Sharpies at daybreak a few hours later, the miner fighters were coming out of the hills. Their guns had been hidden, probably far back in the black recesses of old coal mines. Their red badges had been snatched off. They were simply a swarm of stubbly-faced men getting out of the hills and back to their homes. … But it was Blizzard who started them out.”
Similar scenes occurred at other points along the battle line, and by Sunday evening the Red Neck Rebellion had passed into history. The combatants on both sides laid down their arms and turned homeward.
One by one the mines reopened, the refugees came out of hiding, and life in the Logan and Mingo coalfields resumed its normal pattern. The soldiers remained for a couple of weeks, but in time they, too, returned to their home bases.
Peace had come to West Virginia, but it was a bitter, precarious peace that in the miners’ view had been imposed by force. As so often in the past “the law” had come down on the side of their “oppressors.” And in retrospect this seems to have been true. Their quarrel had been, not with the federal government, but with the private operators of the coal mines and a state administration that had conspired with them to ignore the miners’ rights. Most of the miners’ grievances, in fact, had specific remedies in state statutes—the private hiring of sheriffs’ deputies, for example, was expressly forbidden by state law—but the governor’s invariable response to such complaints was that relief should be sought through the courts. The courts were as unsympathetic toward the miners as the statehouse. They had repeatedly upheld the yellow-dog hiring contract and the “master and servant” tenancy relationship, both of which were subsequently upset by federal courts. And the political bent of the judiciary was underscored by the example of a Logan County circuit judge who resigned the bench shortly after the event to become a chief prosecution counsel for the operators in criminal action against the union leaders.
So from the standpoint of the miners the net result of federal intervention had only been to restore an unsatisfactory status quo. Hundreds of families continued to live meagerly in tent colonies. Thousands of miners were blacklisted from employment. The Baldwin-Felts men and sheriffs’ deputies were restored to authority. Keeney, Mooney, and Blizzard were dismissed from their union posts by John L. Lewis, the new UMW president, whom they had failed to consult; and the three men as well as over a hundred other leaders of the miners’ uprising were indicted for, among other things, treason against the sovereign state of West Virginia.
Their trial turned out to be a farce. After elaborate maneuvers a change of venue was granted from the openly hostile atmosphere of Logan County to the more placid environs of the old courthouse at Charles Town, which the abolitionist John Brown had made famous more than sixty years earlier. But Charles Town did not remain placid long. When the special trainload of defendants arrived and were marched manacled through the streets, the citizens created an uproar of resentment. They erupted again when, on the opening day of the trial, it developed that prosecution of the treason charge, including the payment of jurors’ fees, was exclusively in the hands of counsel for the Logan County Coal Operators Association and that there was not so much as an observer from the state attorney general’s office in attendance. The trial dissolved into a shambles when Harold W. Houston, the chief defense attorney, won a ruling from the bench that each defendant had to be tried separately and that there had to be two witnesses to each overt act of treason if the charges were to be sustained. This proved an insurmountable obstacle for the prosecution, and after many continuances and changes of venue the treason charges were dismissed, although ultimately a few miners were convicted on lesser counts.
For all their violence and suffering the miners got nothing in return. The Logan and Mingo fields continued to be off limits to the union, and in 1922 the UMW , having poured more than two million dollars into the cause, abandoned the effort to organize them. They remained predominantly nonunion until the passage of the Wagner Act in the early years of the New Deal.
The operators won the battle but lost the war. They preserved for a time the principle of the nonunion shop. But on the heels of their labor troubles came the depressions of the mid-twenties and of the nineteen thirties and after that the devastating competition from fuel oil. The industry shrivelled and scores of operators were forced to the wall, and it remained for decades a sick industry.
As for the state of West Virginia, its harvest was a bad name among people of good conscience. Public opinion had been largely against—or at least apathetic toward—the miners, and most other unionists as well, when the decade of the twenties began. Organized labor was equated in a vague, fearful sort of way with bomb throwers and Bolsheviks. But the march on Logan, emblazoned in the newspapers and investigated by Congress, turned up another face of the coin. The human misery of the tent colonies, the harsh peonage of the mine towns and the yellow-dog contract, the shocking spectacle of a trial for treason reputedly being conducted by private prosecutors at private expense—such “discoveries” outraged thousands of citizens across the country who had virtually no opinions about the labor movement but very strong ones about injustice. West Virginia was where it happened, so West Virginia must be responsible, they reasoned. It could be because of some lingering sense of corporate guilt that there is nowhere in the state archives at Charleston today a single official report, document, or letter relating to this historic happening, although scores of them were written.
If there was a remnant of glory left over from this forlorn epic, it finally rested like a faded mantle about the shrunken shoulders of Frank Keeney. He had done his honest best to turn the marchers back from their foolhardy excursion—not once but several times. But his loyalty to their basic goal had been constant, and when the national union abandoned the southern counties, he broke with it and tried to organize an independent union. This, too, failed, although in the effort he sacrificed his home, his savings, and his future status with the UMW . Until late 1969, when he, too, died, he was the last survivor of the old Red Neck general staff and held occasional court on the street corners of downtown Charleston for the aging veterans of The March—the last great insurrection—who now and then wandered up to the city.