Image by Matt Orfalea

The Battle of Blair Mountain: Violent American history you didn’t learn in school

This is the story of The Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in the Unites States since the Civil War.

Danger in the Air

Life for the early 20th century American industrial worker was not only difficult, but often deadly. Nowhere was this more true than in Southern West Virginia, where any safety regulation was strongly resisted by the coal companies. The coal mine owners were happy to trade worker lives in favor of higher profits.

The Union Movement

Around the country, miners and other industrial workers were learning the only way to change things was to fight back. To exercise their strength in numbers. To organize unions, not only for better pay and working conditions, but for basic freedoms of speech and assembly.

The Baldwin Felts’ “The Death Special”

Baldwin-Felts Agents & “The Death Special”

Baldwin Felts Agents spied on the miners, hired informants, and set up machine guns by the mine. Miners were effectively working at gun point. Beatings were common and if you were suspected of trying to organize a union, all your belongings would be thrown into the streets as they kicked you out of your home.

It was clear the only thing that was going to change anything was something more extreme.

Sid Hatfield & “The Matewan Massacre”

Sid Hatfield (bottom center left) poses with Mother Jones (bottom center right) for union publicity photos

The Assassination

In August 1921, as Sid Hatfield walked up the steps of the McDowell County courthouse, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents shot and murdered him in broad daylight. Sid’s murder made it crystal clear anybody who cared about the union was considered expendable by the coal companies.

The Miner’s Uprising

After Sid Hatfield’s funeral, Frank Keeney (President of the local UMWA Union), Mother Jones, and other union leaders, held a rally of 5,000 coal miner at the state capital in Charleston, West Virginia. The governor refused to even come out of his office.

The Battle of Blair Mountain

Sherif Don Chafin had long been bribed by the coal companies, and vowed, “No armed mob will cross Logan County”. He hastily assembled 3,000-man army of mine guards, deputies, and volunteers including doctors and lawyers of the coal company. This was by any definition a real class war.

The Aftermath

Following the battle of Blair Mountain, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia. Although all but one were acquitted of treason charges, others were found guilty of murder and spent years in prison. Only years later in 1933 with the passage of New Deal legislation were the rights of miners to form unions finally recognized.

Erased from History

Given the historical significance of this conflict, one might wonder, “Why haven’t I heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain before?” Because there have been very real efforts to suppress it’s history. For example, Homer Adam Holt, Governor of West Virginia in 1939, worked tirelessly to censor the armed march from West Virginia history books.





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Matt Orfalea

Matt Orfalea

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