The Mine Wars, which took place in the southern West Virginia coalfields from 1912 to 1922, included the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike (1912–13), the Battle of Matewan (May 1920), the Battle of the Tug (May 1920), and the Miners’ March on Logan (August 1921) and the ensuing Battle of Blair Mountain. Combatants included, on the miners’ side, the legendary labor organizer Mary Harris ‘‘Mother’’ Jones; local United Mine Workers leaders Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, and Bill Blizzard; Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield; and others. On the other side were Albert Felts, the head of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency; Don Chafin, the high sheriff of Logan County; and others.
By 1912, southern West Virginia miners were placing their hopes for the future in their union, the United Mine Workers of America. There had been early attempts to organize the region’s miners, most importantly during the national strikes of 1897 and 1902. They had only limited success, but the union did gain an important foothold in eastern Kanawha County.
In April 1912, miners along Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in Kanawha County walked off their jobs, and the great Mine Wars began. Their basic demand, employer recognition of the union, seemed simple enough, but they and the coal operators alike knew that this would mean the end of company housing, company stores, company schools, company guards, and company churches, as well as better pay for the miners and control over their own lives and work.
The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike lasted a year and a half. Miners were beaten, ambushed, and killed by mine guards, machine-gunned by an armor plated train called the Bull Moose Special, illegally court martialed, and deported from the state. The miners responded in bloody ambushes of their own, including the Battle of Mucklow, which left 16 men dead. Two labor newspapers were suppressed and their editors incarcerated. Governor Henry D. Hatfield, working with local UMWA officials and coal officials to abort the strike, dictated settlement terms to the miners. Led by the newly emerged rank-and-file leadership of Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, the miners renewed their struggle and remained on strike until the coal companies agreed to their original demands.
In 1919, Keeney, then president of UMWA District 17, launched a drive to unionize the rest of southern West Virginia. Gunfights, explosions, and other forms of conflict occurred in numerous coal towns, including Roderfield, Willis Branch, Glen White, Mohawk, War Eagle, Borderland, Noland, Freeburn, and Merrimac. In these battles miners fought the newly established state police as well as mine guards and strikebreakers.
In May 1920, the Battle of the Tug erupted in Mingo County, three days of unabated violence on a 10-mile front along the Tug Fork. Determined to stop coal production, miners fought pitched battles with mine guards, deputy sheriffs, and state police in the towns of Blackberry City, Alden, Sprigg, New Howard, and Rawl.
On May 19, 1920, 11 Baldwin-Felts agents, after evicting striking miners in Red Jacket, tried to board a train in nearby Matewan to return home. They were confronted by the mayor of Matewan and the chief of police, Sid Hatfield, a former UMWA miner. When the shooting stopped, three townspeople, including the mayor, and seven of the Baldwin-Felts detectives were dead. Mingo County became known to the nation as ‘‘Bloody Mingo,’’ and Hatfield became a regional folk hero. He was later tried and acquitted in a trial lasting through the early months of 1921.
On August 1, 1921, Baldwin-Felts detectives had their revenge for their losses at Matewan when they shot to death Hatfield and his deputy, Ed Chambers, both unarmed, on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in Welch.
There followed the famous Miners’ March on Logan. In probably the largest armed labor uprising in American history, perhaps as many as 20,000 miners marched 90 miles and engaged in a two-week battle with more than 5,000 Logan County deputy sheriffs, mine guards, and state police. The Battle of Blair Mountain ended when President Warren G. Harding placed the region under martial law, and ordered 2,500 federal soldiers and a bombing squadron into the state.
The Miners’ March ended the Mine Wars. Keeney fell into dispute with the national president of the UMWA, John L. Lewis, who dismissed him and withdrew the autonomy of District 17, precipitating a collapse of the UMWA in southern West Virginia. As a result, the coal industry’s control of the region would not be challenged again until the New Deal of the 1930s.
This Article was written by David A. Corbin
Last Revised on October 20, 2010
Corbin, David A. Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners 1880-1922. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Savage, Lon. Thunder in the Mountains. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990.
Lunt, Richard D. Law and Order vs. the Miners: West Virginia, 1907-1933. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1979.