- Battle of Blair Mountain
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict = Battle of Blair Mountain
August 25to September 2, 1921
Logan County, West Virginia, United States
result = Setback of Miners' rights until early 1930s when Federal Government recognized American labor unions.
combatant1 = Striking Coal Miners
combatant2 = Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency
Logan County Sheriff's Department
United States Army
commander1 = William "Bill" Blizzard
commander2 = Don Chafin
strength1 = 15,000
strength2 = Unknown
casualties1 = 50-100 killed
casualties2 = 10-30 killed
Unknown WoundedThe Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest organized armed uprising in American labor history and led almost directly to the labor laws currently in effect in the United States of America. For nearly a week in late August and early September 1921, in Logan County,
West Virginia, between 10,000 and 15,000 coal miners confronted company-paid private detectives in an effort to unionize the southwestern West Virginiamine counties. Unionization had succeeded elsewhere as part of a demographic boom that was triggered by the extension of the railroad and was characterized by unprecedented immigrant hiring and exploitation in the region. The battle was the final act in a series of violent clashes that have also been termed the Redneck War, from the color of bandannas worn by the miners around their necks for friend-or-foe identification, a war some inaccurately claim was the impetus of the common usage of the original Scottish term redneck in the vernacular of the United States.
Though tensions had been simmering for years, the immediate catalyst for the uprising was the unpunished murder of
Sid Hatfield, police chief of Matewan, on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in Welch in July 1921 by agents of the Baldwin-Feltsprivate detective agency. Hatfield had been a long-time supporter of the United Mine Workers of America(UMWA) and their efforts to unionize the mines.
At a rally on
August 7, Mother Jonescalled on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties and set up the union by force. Accused by some of losing her nerve, she rightly feared a bloodbath in a battle between lightly-armed union forces and the more heavily-armed deputies from Logan County. Yet, feeling they had been lied to again by WV's Governor Morgan, armed men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain, near Marmet in Kanawha Countyon August 20, where four days later up to 13,000 had gathered and began marching towards Logan County. Miners near St. Albans, WV Kanawha Countyimpatient to get to the fighting commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners as the 'Blue Steel Special', to meet up with the advanced column of marchers in Danville, WV Boone Countyon their way to "Bloody Mingo". Meanwhile, the reviled and anti-union Sheriff of Logan County, Don Chafin[http://www.wvculture.org/History/government/chafindon01.html] , had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. Chafin was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association creating the nation's largest private armed force of nearly 2000.
The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of
August 25. The bulk of the miners were still 15 miles away. The following day, President Warren Hardingthreatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin B1/B2 bombers. After a long meeting in the town of Madison, the seat of Boone County, agreements were made convincing the miners to return home. However, the struggle was far from over. After spending days to assemble his private army, Chafin was not going to be denied his battle to end union attempts at organizing Logan County coal mines. Within hours of the Madison decision, reports came in that Sheriff Chafin's men were deliberately shooting union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, WV just north of Blair Mountain - and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. Infuriated, the miners turned back towards Blair Mountain, many traveling in other stolen and commandeered trains.
August 29, battle was fully joined. Chafin's men, though outnumbered, had the advantage of higher positions and better weaponry. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. On orders from the famous General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were also used to disperse the miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from the fighting in World War I were dropped in several locations near the towns of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect during treason and murder trials following the battle. It was the first and only example of Air Power being used by the federal government against US citizens. Sporadic gun battles continued for a week, with the miners at one time nearly breaking through to the town of Logan and their target destinations, the non-unionized counties to the south, Logan and Mingo. Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and 50-100 on the union miners side, with many hundreds more injured. By September 2, federal troops had arrived. Realizing he would lose a lot of good miners if the battle continued with the military, union leader Bill Blizzardpassed the word for the miners to start heading home the following day. Miners fearing jail and confiscation of their guns found clever ways to hide rifles and hand guns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Collectors and researchers to this day are still finding weapons and ammunition embedded in old trees and in rock crevices. Thousands of spent and live cartridges have made it into private collections.
Following the battle, 985 miners were indicted for "murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia." Though some were acquitted by sympathetic juries, many were also imprisoned for a number of years, though they were paroled in 1925. It would be Bill Blizzard's trial where the unexploded bomb was used as evidence of the government and companies' brutality, and ultimately resulted in his acquittal.
Short term, the battle seemed to be an overwhelming victory for management, and
UMWAmembership plummeted from more than 50,000 miners to approximately 10,000 over the next several years. Not until 1935 did the UMWfully organize in southern West Virginia, after the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Legacy in retrospect
In the long-term, the battle raised awareness of the appalling conditions faced by miners in the dangerous West Virginia coalfields, and led directly to a change in union tactics into political battles to get the law on labor's side via confrontations with recalcitrant and abusive managements and thence to the much larger organized labor victory a few years later during the
New Dealin 1933. That in turn led to the UMWA helping organize many better-known unions such as the Steel workers and Teamster's during the mid-thirties.
In the final analysis, management's success was a
Pyrrhic victorythat helped lead to a much larger and stronger organized labor movement in many other industries and labor union affiliations and umbrella organizations like the American Federation of Labor(AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO). The Battle of Blair Mountain was an important part of the labor movement that has resulted in the near universal eight-hour workday, workers compensation insurance, paid vacation and medical benefits now enjoyed by most full-time American workers.
The Blair Mountain march, as well as the events leading up to it and those immediately following it, are depicted in the novels "Storming Heaven" (
Denise Giardina, 1987) and "Blair Mountain" ( Jonathan Lynn, 2006). John Sayles' 1987 film " Matewan" depicts the so-called Matewan Massacre, a small part of the Blair Mountain story. Diane Gilliam Fisher's poetry collection, " Kettle Bottom", published by Perugia Press, also focuses on the events of the Battle of Blair Mountain, from the perspective of the miners' families.
"When Miners March" (2007) contains 16 recently written songs (not music from the 1920s) from the audiobook "When Miners March - The Battle of Blair Mountain". Available at MountainWhispers.com Audiobooks. Other songs..."Battle of Blair Mountain" (2004) is a song by the popular
folk singer David Rovicsand can be found on his album "Songs for Mahmud".The song "Red Neck War" by Byzantine is based on the Battle of Blair Mountain. The song "Black Lung" by The Radio Nationals is also based on this conflict.
*Blizzard, William C. "When Miners March " Gay, WV,: Appalachian Community Press, 2005. ISBN 0976470608
*Ross Ballard "When Miner March - The Battle of Blair Mountain" audiobook ISBN 097178017X
*Corbin, David, ed. "The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology." 2nd ed. Martinsburg, W.Va.: Appalachian Editions, 1998. ISBN 0962748609
*Lee, Howard B. "Bloodletting in Appalachia: The Story of West Virginia's Four Major Mine Wars and Other Thrilling Incidents of Its Coal Fields." Morgantown, W.Va.: West Virginia University Press, 1969. ISBN 0870120417
*Savage, Lon. "Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21." Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990. ISBN 0822936348
*Shogan, Robert. "The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America's Largest Union Uprising." Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 0813340969
* [http://www.mountainwhispers.com Audio Documentary of famous book "When Miners March"]
* [http://www.whenminersmarch.com "When Miners March" by William C. Blizzard]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~wvcoal/red.html "The Red Neck War of 1921."] Accessed February 28, 2006.
* [http://historypodcast.blogspot.com/2006/07/historypodcast-71-battle-of-blair.html History Channel podcast and transcription: "The Battle of Blair Mountain"] Accessed January 13, 2008
* [http://www.matewanwv.com Official Matewan, WV Website] at MatewanWV.com
* [http://visitmatewan.com Official Matewan, WV Tourism Website] at VisitMatewan.com
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