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BATTLE OF BLAIR MOUNTAIN

This article originally appears at the Zinn Education Project as Sept. 4, 1921: Battle of Blair Mountain Ends.

September 4 marks the end of fighting at the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest example of class war in U.S. history. It was fought over the course of five days in 1921 by 10,000 coal miners. The coal miners were rebelling against inhumane conditions in the West Virginia coalfields. The region led the nation in mine fatalities and the coal companies controlled almost every aspect of mining families’ lives.

The miners had attempted to unionize for decades, but were constantly blocked by a corrupt political system, brutal intimidation for organizers, and other forms of harassment such as blacklisting where union sympathizers were barred from working in the region.

While federal troops did not drop any bombs, the Logan forces dropped homemade bombs from private aircraft. These struggles all came to a head when the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on a national strike in 1919. The southern coalfields of West Virginia at this time were the only major coal-producing region that was non-union. The continued production in the region during the strike seriously undercut the UMWA’s position. After the national strike was resolved, the UMWA set their sights on the problematic region.

This began two years of determined efforts on the miners’ part to unionize these fields. The first efforts were focused on Logan County. The union organizers met stiff resistance from the county sheriff, Don Chafin, who was in the employment of coal operators. Chafin used intimidation, beatings, and even murder to keep the union out.

In 1920 the campaign shifted to Mingo County, during which a notable event was the Matewan Massacre on May 19, 1920. During this, the town sheriff Sid Hatfield sided with the miners in a gun fight against detectives from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. This resulted in seven detectives being killed along with the mayor of the town. Hatfield became a hero to the miners, but he himself was gunned down on August 7, 1921, which further inflamed the situation.

After Hatfield’s murder, the miners began planning a march to Mingo County via Logan County. They started marching on August 24, armed with high-powered rifles and machine guns. Meanwhile, Don Chafin had his 3,000 person army dig in along roughly ten miles of the ridge line around Blair Mountain. The miners reached Blair Mountain on August 29, and the first fighting started on August 31. The battle was only halted when three regiments of federal troops were sent to the area and both sides laid down their arms peaceably.

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