The Battle of Blair Mountain marked a turning point in the national movement to better the conditions of working people by demanding the legalization of unions. It was the largest armed labor confrontation in U.S. history, and it began on August 24, 1921.
The highway historical marker erected last April by the state of West Virginia in front of the United Mine Workers headquarters in downtown Charleston honoring him claims organizer Bill Blizzard had mobilized 7,000 striking miners; other estimates place the figure as high as 13,000.
West Virginia coal operators did all they could to oppose unionism. The main problem was that mine workers were forced to sign legally binding “yellow-dog” contracts (upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court) under which miners pledged not to join a union or risked forfeiting their jobs as well as the right to live in company housing. In exchange they were paid next to nothing, had no freedom of speech or assembly, and were killed with impunity by mine guards and local politicos in an atmosphere akin to a third-world dictatorship.
By the summer of 1921 the “Red Neck Army” was outraged over the years of brutality and lawless exploitation. And so the miners picked up their Winchesters and gathered at Marmet (near Charleston) that summer morning, and from there began marching on Logan and Mingo counties — the last two non-union counties in West Virginia.
Blair Mountain, a 1,600-acre ridge located to the southwest, stood between the Armed March and their destination. About three hundred deputies and mine guards, under Sheriff Don Chafin, waited for the marchers in fortified positions in a fifteen-mile-long battle line along the crest, commanding the high passes. The coal companies paid Chafin some $32,000 per year to keep the UMW out of Logan County.
Frank Keeney, president of UMW District 17, met with Governor John J. Cornwell and General J. H. Bandholtz, and Federal troops were promised to the region. Keeney set out on the road to try and head off this violent confrontation.
“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!
“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.”
The appeal worked. The men grumbled but began to head home. Trains began arriving to take the miners home. It looked like a showdown wouldn’t happen after all.
Then a rumor spread among the miners: They are shooting women and children at Sharples!
What had happened was that heedless of the truce between General Bandholtz and the governor, Chapin and his men had crept down from Blair Mountain intent on arresting the ringleaders of the miners. A shootout erupted and several miners were killed before Chapin and his men were driven off.
The miners returned to their march and the battle was on.
The following day the miners made a major push on the front line.
“Logan County deputies were driven down the 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.'”
The battle raged for nearly a week. Chafin called in reinforcements from other counties, and even offered prisoners freedom if they fought for the non-union defenders.
By August 30 the defenders had massed themselves at Craddock Fork of Hewett Creek and felt they were about to break through. At that point Chafin began contracting private airplane pilots at $100 a day to fly over the miners and drop homemade bombs on them.
The bombing was largely ineffective, but it made the event interesting enough that newspapers from around the country began sending war correspondents.
Several times the miners nearly broke through the defenses, but were driven back each time. Eventually President Harding intervened with a declaration of martial law, and sent 2,000 U.S. Army troops armed with poison gas. He also sent a fleet of bombers commanded by General Billy Mitchell, but they were never used except to drop a couple bombs in a demonstration of military potential.
The federal troops met with Bill Blizzard and gave the presidential order to desist. Blizzard spread the word and then high-tailed it out of there. The rest of the miners hid their guns on the side of the mountain and headed for home. It was no longer an army, just a bunch of tired and dirty men trying to get home. The undeclared civil war was over.
The union had suffered a crushing defeat. Between 20 and 50 people had been killed in the battle on both sides. An unknown number had been wounded, probably in the hundreds.
Blizzard and some of his colleagues were indicted for treason, but later acquitted during a trial in a Harper’s Ferry courtroom. UMW organizing efforts in southern WV were halted until 1933.
Sources: The Battle of Blair Mountain, by Robert Shogan, Westview Press, 2004