September 2, 2021
From Socialist Revolution

For forty years beneath the sod, with pick and spade I did my task, the coal king’s slave, but now, thank god, I’m free at last. — Epitaph on a miner’s tombstone

One hundred years ago, in the craggy mountains of West Virginia, 10,000 striking miners heroically fought for freedom against the capitalists and their state. One of the largest labor uprisings since the Civil War, the Battle of Blair Mountain is rich in inspiring lessons for today’s class fighters.

The rise of the UMWA in West Virginia

West Virginia—which seceded from Virginia in 1861 to remain in the Union—can be credited for developing much of American capitalist industry. In the years after the Civil War, land was seized up in great swaths by American capitalists. By the turn of the century, over 80% of the mining operations in the Southern counties of West Virginia were owned by absentee landowners. Expansion proceeded so swiftly that by 1900, over 8,000 workers cut and processed at least five million tons of coal each year in the New River coalfield. In the northern part of the state, the Consolidation Coal Company owned more than 50,000 acres of land and was the largest coal producer in America by 1907.

Capitalist mining ripped up West Virginia, chewed up its rolling hills, spat out black dust, and made great fortunes. Nothing stood in its way. But the concentration of capitalist coal production created more than just cheap coal to fuel the factories in the industrial North. The booming coal industry also created the great mining proletariat in Colorado, across the Midwest, and into Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

In 1890, an organization of workers was finally created to confront the coal kings: the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Notably, the early UMWA emphasized class solidarity and wrote in its founding constitution that “no local union or assembly is justified in discriminating against any person in securing or retaining work because of their African descent.” The UMWA rapidly expanded throughout the bituminous coal mines of the Midwest and Colorado. Coalfield after coalfield was organized by the UMWA—but West Virginia remained invulnerable.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was finally created in 1890. to confront the coal kings. / Image: Jimmy Emerson, Flickr

The mining proletariat in West Virginia was not the same as in the rest of the country. In distinction from the miners in Pennsylvania or Ohio, West Virginia mines employed a majority of black and foreign-born workers. Predictably, wages were drastically lower as compared to the rest of the country. Also predictably, the bosses wanted it to stay that way, and they shamelessly tried to use racism to divide the miners.

West Virginia mining towns were owned privately by the coal bosses who controlled all facets of social life. The coal operator often owned the general store, and pay, called “scrip,” was often redeemable only in these company stores—which charged highly inflated prices for their goods. Likewise, housing was owned by the bosses, and miners could be evicted at any time. These houses were also terrible; the wind blew through the seams, and everything was coated in black dust. Despite attempts to imbue racist prejudices, there developed an organic class solidarity that the bosses loathed. As one miner remembered: “Everybody felt a common kinship because they all had to work and fare together the same way.”

Following the economic “panic” of 1893–94, the UMWA called for a general strike in 1897 to keep the bosses on the back foot. Unfortunately, the strike failed, mainly due to “scab coal” coming in from West Virginia. As a result, the union leadership was convinced that the West Virginia miners were too backward to ever unionize. As one union organizer put it: “Their ignorance must be more than dense, their prejudice more bitter and their blindness more intense than that of any other body of miners we have ever heard tell of.”

But the UMWA had no choice, and in 1900, UMWA president John Mitchel sent in several of their best organizers to unionize what many believed to be the impossible. The main union organizer was an elderly woman named Mary Harris Jones, who became widely known as “Mother Jones.” A fiery speaker, she took to organizing the Kanawha coalfield throughout 1900–1902. The UMWA swept through Kelly Creek, battling constant death threats, sackings, beatings, and evictions. But by 1902, the Kanawha fields were won over to the union.

In the summer of 1902, a great strike broke out in the Pennsylvania anthracite mines. The newly unionized miners of West Virginia energetically joined the strike in solidarity. On June 7, 16,000 West Virginia miners joined their union brothers to the north. In the Kanawha fields, the workers quickly won their demands, but the bosses refused any concessions in the New River fields further east. The bosses brought in Baldwin-Felts strikebreakers and turned the mining towns into armed camps. Three thousand families were evicted, thousands of union men blacklisted, and some were shot or disappeared without a trace.

The strikers fled into the mountains with rifles, shooting at scabs and strikebreakers from the hills. Two months later, the strike was crushed when a “posse of deputies and mine guards” crept up to the strikers’ camp and opened fire into their tents, killing three black miners. Mother Jones wrote that “I pushed open the door. On a mattress wet with blood lay a miner. His brains had been blown out while he slept.” Such was the barbarity resorted to by the American bourgeoisie in the class struggle that swept across America’s coal country.

Mother Jones was the main union organizer who was a fiery speaker. She took to organizing the Kanawha coalfield throughout 1900–1902. / Image: Library of Congress, Wikiimedia Commons

The First Mine War

The 1902 strike was a partial victory for the Kanawha miners. But in 1912, unionized mines in the Midwest had won the 8-hour day, a pay increase, the right to free speech, and other concessions. West Virginia miners were significantly worse off. Workers in the Midwest made $.57–$1.27 per ton compared to $.38 per ton in West Virginia. The local union leaders of the Kanawha coalfield decided that this was the time to push for similar gains.

A strike broke out in April 1912, demanding union recognition and a two-and-a-half-cent raise. In May, the bosses along Paint Creek brought in Baldwin-Felts agents and began evicting families from company-owned homes. Evicted strikers and their families created a massive tent colony nearby and were soon ambushed by the bosses’ thugs with a hail of gunfire. In response, miners armed themselves and began a guerrilla struggle against the bosses. At the end of May, a contingent of miners attacked Baldwin-Felts strikebreakers in Mucklow. This was the beginning of what would be a sanguinary war between capital and labor for over a year.

The strike spread quickly when miners on nearby Cabin Creek saw an opportunity to unionize. A local socialist coal miner named Frank Keeney called in Mother Jones and promptly brought the mines to a halt in August 1912. Cabin Creek miners also armed themselves and joined the bloody struggle alongside Paint Creek.

From May 1912 to March 1913, the miners on Paint and Cabin Creeks fought tooth and nail, utilizing hit-and-run tactics against armed mine guards, sniping trains full of scabs, and miners’ wives even ripped up train tracks in the middle of the night. Striking miners wore red neckerchieves around their necks or arms as a symbol of solidarity, and strikebreakers began to call strikers “rednecks” for short. Between September 1, 1912, and February 10, 1913, the state-imposed martial law three times. Strikers were routinely rounded up, arrested on absurd charges such as adultery, and tried by courts-martial. Yet every time martial law was lifted, the war flared up again, and martial law was reimposed.

Cabin Creek miners also armed themselves and joined the bloody struggle alongside Paint Creek. / Image: The Register Herald Reporter, Wikimedia Commons

A turning point came in February 1913. “Redneck” miners ambushed Baldwin-Felts agents in Mucklow. Using this as an excuse, the local sheriff and strikebreakers decided to end the war with sheer barbarism. Mounting a machine gun to an armored train nicknamed the “Bull Moose Special,” the strikebreakers chugged slowly past the miners’ encampment and riddled their tents with bullets. One miner, Cesco Estep, was killed in front of his family. Once again, the miners were provoked to attack Mucklow, giving the state reason to declare martial law a third and final time.

All the miners’ leaders were arrested, including Mother Jones. The coal bosses were thrilled that the strike was on the verge of collapse. But a historical accident came to the miners’ rescue: Governor Glasscock’s term was up, and the newly elected Henry D. Hatfield took office. Hatfield saw that the strike had broader insurrectionary implications, so he quickly imposed a settlement on the bosses and the UMWA and released 30 arrested miners.

The “Hatfield Contract” was not a complete victory but did impose union recognition on the Paint and Cabin Creek mine operators. This was paid for dearly, with over 60 miners’ deaths and other terrible hardships. Cabin Creek miners led by John Keeney refused the settlement and continued to fight until the end of July when the bosses finally agreed to their terms. Almost immediately after the strike, this caused a split within UMWA District 17, where the rank-and-file eventually won leadership positions. Frank Keeney, the leader of the Cabin Creek strike, was elected president, and Fred Mooney became secretary-treasurer. As Keeney later explained: “Yes, I led a secessionist movement against the most degraded group of crooks, drunks, and double dealers that was ever known to infest the body politic of a labor movement….”

This struggle was a great spur for the American labor movement and inspired Ralph Chaplin’s well-known song, Solidarity Forever. Rank-and-file workers showed that militant tactics and class solidarity across racial lines are the only way to victory.

Under the leadership of John Keeney, Cabin Creek miners continued to fight until the end of July when the bosses finally agreed to their terms. / Image: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Redneck War & the Battle of Blair Mountain

In April 1917, the US entered World War I. To fuel the war effort, West Virginia coal production reached 90 million tons and profits increased by 500%. In response, wildcat strikes broke out throughout the West Virginia coalfields, and tens of thousands joined the UMWA. To stop the rising strike wave, the bosses volunteered to make favorable deals with the UMWA.

Immediately after the war, the world descended into economic depression. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, workers across North America began a struggle to maintain the advances made by the labor movement during the war. This resulted in a massive explosion of class struggle and labor militancy in 1919. Over 4.2 million workers came out on strike that fateful year. In Seattle, a general strike seized the nation by surprise for six days, and a massive steel workers’ strike paralyzed American industry in September. However, despite their heroic efforts, these struggles all went down in defeat due to the lack of revolutionary leadership.

The mood of radicalization was reflected at the UMWA’s 1919 national convention, which expressed growing support for the nationalization of the coal industry. The Wall Street Journal wrote worryingly: “Lenin and Trotsky are on their way.” In the fall, a massive nationwide miners’ strike for higher wages shook the country. Despite draconian repression by the federal government, the UMWA secured a compromise victory and a 14% wage increase.

Meanwhile, Keeney and Mooney had their hearts set on unionizing the notoriously ruthless Mingo County. Mingo was akin to occupied territory, and the unionized Kanawha miners were ready to liberate them by force if necessary. Keeney and the new president of the UMWA, John L. Lewis, were determined to make an all-out assault on the Mingo County coal bosses.

By April 1920, the union broke through in Mingo County. The bosses dismissed all miners who joined the UMWA and began to arm strikebreakers with high-powered rifles and machine guns. By May, there was a tent city near Lick Creek erected by the UMWA to accommodate the swarms of homeless union miners and their families.

On May 19, a posse of Baldwin-Felts thugs arrived by train in Matewan to evict union miners from company housing. But sheriff Sid Hatfield, an ex-miner, was no friend of the coal bosses and attempted to arrest the strikebreakers. After a heated encounter on the main street of Matawan, a detective shot the town’s mayor, Cabell Testerman, and Hatfield’s men responded with gunfire of their own, killing seven of the Baldwin-Felts agents.

On May 19, a posse of Baldwin-Felts thugs arrived by train in Matewan to evict union miners from company housing. / Image: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The “Battle of Matewan” was a significant turning point. Sid Hatfield was declared a hero by the UMWA, and the defeat of the Baldwin-Felts agents was an enormous impetus to the unionization drive. Although the local government was by no means a workers’ government, smaller towns can be more susceptible to working-class pressure than the state and federal government under certain conditions. On July 1, the UMWA called for a general miners’ strike to force the bosses into negotiations. The UMWA poured mountains of money into the campaign: $1.3 million. Soon after that, the familiar guerrilla struggle erupted yet again. In September, West Virginia Governor John Cornwell declared a “state of insurrection” and brought in federal troops, giving the military complete control over civil life.

But the invasion of federal troops did little to stop the violence. The coal operators were terrified and, in 1921, demanded that the new governor, Ephraim Morgan, send all state troops into Mingo. Morgan complied and put Captain James Bruckus in charge of all affairs in Mingo County.

After the ferocious “Three Days Battle” in May 1921, Major Thomas Davis turned Mingo County into a virtual military-police dictatorship. Anyone could be arrested for reading a socialist newspaper or meeting in a group of three. Davis told one reporter, “The big advantage of this martial law is that if there’s an agitator around, you can just stick him in jail and keep him there.” Davis became known as the “Emperor of the Tug.”

Under such relentless pressure, the strike was on the verge of collapse. But the volcano erupted yet again when Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were assassinated in front of their families on the courthouse steps in Welch on August 1, 1921. Indignation swept across the Kanawha coalfields, and UMWA organizers began to mobilize all willing miners to meet in Marmet with guns at the ready: they were going to liberate their comrades in Mingo by any means necessary—even if it cost them their lives.

The Kanawha mines emptied, and thousands of miners clad in dirty overalls and red neckerchiefs marched stoically across the Kanawha River, where they formed fighting columns. One eyewitness reported that “miners with rifles, by the thousand, poured into Marmet, some riding on the tops of passenger trains.” This was not some rag-tag collection of undisciplined hellraisers—it was a well-ordered army of nearly 10,000 miners, led by William “Bill” Blizzard, a veteran of the First Mine War. Discipline was strict, and one miner was even executed for failing to follow orders. Nor was it only miners; their wives too came as medics.

Don Chafin, funded by the Mingo capitalists, rounded up some three thousand armed men and set up defenses along Spruce Fork Ridge to meet the insurrectionary miners. While the miners outnumbered Chafin, the UMWA leadership was not agreed in its support for the insurrection. Keeney and Mooney refused to justify their mobilization publically and lied in the press about their real intentions, creating only confusion in the ranks of the miners. Mother Jones played a more harmful role. She showed up in the miners’ camp and tried to convince the Rednecks to give up the struggle and leave the liberation of Mingo to the federal government. Despite her past contributions to the movement, her speech fell on deaf ears.

On August 26, Keeney briefly convinced the miners to go home, as US President Harding threatened martial law. This worked for several hours until false reports of miners’ families being shot again turned the miners’ army toward the front. The next day, truckloads of volunteers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois arrived. By August 29, the miners controlled over 500 square miles of territory, and bullets began to fly. The fighting was ferocious, and veteran miners compared it to the battle against the Germans in the Argonne Forest during WWI.

Keeney briefly convinced the miners to go home when US President Harding threatened martial law. This worked for several hours until false reports of miners’ families being shot again turned the miners’ army toward the front. / Image: Kinograms, Wikimedia Commons

On September 1, as the battle raged in Logan County on Blair Mountain, Keeney and Mooney—the official leaders of the insurrection—fled the state for Kentucky out of fear for their own lives. This left the miners’ army headless and reliant on Bill Blizzard for leadership. The next day, John L. Lewis sent bureaucrats to convince the miners to lay down their rifles. But they were not convinced, and the fighting continued. Chafin, desperate to break the miners’ lines, ordered biplanes to drop gas and shrapnel bombs, but this proved insufficient to cow the miners. One defender remarked that “the miners pushed the attack desperately; they had no sense of fear.”

Finally, President Harding sent in the army to quash the rebellion. By September 3, over 21,000 troops had entered and occupied southern West Virginia. The miners, many of them veterans of WWI, refused to fight against the army. That day, Bill Blizzard began a ceasefire, and the miners’ army was slowly disarmed and sent back home. Over one hundred lives had been sacrificed in the struggle, and the miners saw this as their victory. They naively believed that the federal troops would side with them and end Davis’s dictatorship in Mingo County. However, this illusion was short-lived as Harding was convinced by the coal barons that the federal government ought not to get further involved.

Disorganized by their own union leaders, confused by their local leaders’ vacillations, and now disarmed by the federal government, the miners of West Virginia were exposed to a reign of terror by the bosses and the state. Governor Morgan fumed at John L. Lewis: “Your silent encouragement of unlawful acts would indicate that Lenin and Trotsky are not without sincere followers in your organization.”

Over 900 miners were arrested and placed on trial for a plethora of offenses. The leaders of the UMWA, Keeney, Mooney, and Blizzard, among many others, were arrested on the grounds of treason and murder. While many of the accused got away with lenient punishments due to sympathetic juries, this was the beginning of the end for the UMWA in West Virginia. The strike in Mingo was crushed, and all attempts to resurrect the struggle ended in failure. Lewis eliminated the left-wing of the UMWA and placed District 17 in receivership. Reaction swept through the state, graphically illustrated by the appearance of the Ku Klux Klan in West Virginia for the first time in 1924. The Mine Wars had come to an end.

Over 900 miners were arrested and placed on trial for a plethora of offenses. The Mine Wars had come to an end. / Image: Kinograms, Wikimedia Commons

Towards the next Blair Mountain!

The Battle of Blair Mountain remains one of the most heroic chapters of the American class struggle. From being the most backward segment of the American proletariat, the West Virginia miners became the most militant class fighters, combating not only their bosses and the bourgeois state but also their own union’s conservative bureaucracy. Nobody could demand more heroism, self-sacrifice, or examples of solidarity from these miners and their families.

To understand the failure of the Second Mine War, we must look at the broader objective conditions. The Battle of Blair Mountain was not an isolated event. Rather, it was the last gasp of the great explosion of class struggle that came in 1919. After the defeats of 1919, the general trend of the labor movement was downward for an entire historical period. The Second Mine War should be understood as a rearguard struggle during a historical ebb of the class struggle.

Does this mean that they were doomed to defeat? Not at all. The workers had mass support and were compelled to confront the bourgeois state with blood and lead. However, the transition from economic struggle to armed struggle outgrew the natural bounds of the trade union organization and stressed its leadership past the breaking point. No matter how limited its intended goals, an insurrection is a revolutionary act and requires revolutionary leadership to clarify its aims, generalize the movement to the broader working class, and guide the struggle to victory.

Had there been a party akin to the Bolsheviks in place in the US, the entire situation could have been different. The struggles of 1919 would have been transformed, and as a result, the insurrectionary movements in West Virginia would not have been isolated and snuffed out. A revolutionary leadership would have explained that the workers should have no faith in the US Army or the federal government. It would have appealed to the labor movement nationally for material support and solidarity.

Even if the working class had not seized power on the national level, more would have been gained, establishing a stronger base for future battles. But no such leaders existed in 1919 or 1921, and the movement remained in the hands of reformists and second-rate leaders without a clear understanding of what they were leading.

The Battle of Blair Mountain may have taken place a century ago, but its spirit of class solidarity and militancy is very much alive. West Virginia today is teeming with revolutionary potential, exemplified by the 2018 teachers’ strike that spread across the nation. We must learn from the past experiences of our class, fight implacably for class independence and solidarity, and build an organization capable of leading the working class to the successful overthrow of capitalist exploitation. Let us pick up where those miners who stormed heaven left off and finish what they started over 100 years ago.