||06-05-2011 05:16 PM
Battle of Blair Mountain
The Battle of Blair Mountain was the result of a generation of social transformation and extreme exploitation in the southern West Virginia coalfields. Beginning in 1870-1880, coal operators had established a system of oppression and exploitation based around the company town system. To maintain their domination and hegemony, coal operators paid "private detectives" as well as public law enforcement agents to ensure that union organizers were kept out of the region. In order to accomplish this objective, agents of the coal operators used intimidation, harassment, espionage and even murder. Throughout the early 20th century, West Virginia coal miners attempted to overthrow this brutal system and engaged in a series of strikes, such as the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913, and which coal operators attempted to stop through violent means. Mining families lived under the terror of Baldwin-Felts detective agents who were professional strikebreakers under the hire of coal operators. These agents took part in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Mine War, where they drove a heavily armored train called the Bull Moose Special through a tent colony at night, opening fire on women, men and children with a machine gun. They would repeat this type of tactic during the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado the next year, with even more disastrous results.
By 1920, most of West Virginia had been organized by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The southern coalfields, however, remained non-unionized bastions of coal operator power. In early 1920, UMW president John L. Lewis targeted Mingo County for organizing. Certain aspects of Mingo made it more attractive to union leaders than neighboring Logan County, which was under the control of the vehemently anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin and his deputized army. Mingo?s political structure was more independent, and some politicians were pro-union. Cabell Testerman, the mayor of the independent town of Matewan was one supporter of the union cause. He appointed 27-year-old Sid Hatfield as town sheriff. As a teenager, Hatfield had worked in the coalmines, and was sympathetic to the miners' condition. He also claimed to be a member of the notorious Hatfield family of the Hatfield and McCoy "feud", but was not. These men provided union organizers an opportunity to gain a foothold, and unionizing accelerated rapidly in the county.
In response to the organizing efforts, coal operators used every means to block the union. One of their primary tactics of combating the union was firing union sympathizers, blacklisting them, and evicting them from their homes. Their legal argument for evictions is best stated by S.B. Avis, a coal company lawyer; ?It is like a servant lives at your house. If the servant leaves your employment, if you discharge him, you ask him to get out of the servants? quarters. It is a question of master and servant.? The UMW set up tent colonies for the homeless miner families, and soon a mass of idle and angry miners was concentrated in a small area along the Tug River. Even with the coal operators? suppression, by early May 3,000 out of 4,000 Mingo miners had joined the union. At the Stone Mountain Coal Company mine near Matewan, every single worker unionized, and was subsequently fired and evicted.
On May 19, 1920, 12 Baldwin-Felts agents arrived in Matewan, including Lee Felts, and promptly met up with Albert Felts who was already in the area. Albert and Lee were the brothers of Thomas Felts, the founder and director of the agency. Albert had already been in the area, and had tried to bribe Mayor Testerman with 500 dollars to place machine guns on roofs in the town?which Testerman refused. That afternoon, Albert and Lee along with eleven other men set out to the Stone Mountain Coal Company property. The first family they evicted was a woman and her children, whose husband was not home at the time. They forced them out at gunpoint, and threw their belongings in the road under a light but steady rain. The miners who saw it were furious, and sent word to town.
As the agents walked to the train station to leave town, Sid Hatfield and a group of deputized miners confronted them and told the agents they were under arrest. Albert Felts replied that in fact, he had a warrant for Sid?s arrest. Testerman was alerted, and he ran out into the street after a miner shouted that Sid had been arrested. Hatfield backed into the store, and Testerman asked to see the warrant. After reviewing it, the mayor exclaimed, ?This is a bogus warrant.? With these words, a gunfight erupted and Sid Hatfield shot Albert Felts. Mayor Testerman fell to the ground in the first volley, mortally wounded. In the end, 10 men were killed, including Albert and Lee Felts.
This gunfight became known as the Matewan Massacre, and its symbolic significance was enormous for the miners. The seemingly invincible Baldwin-Felts had been beaten by the miners? own hero, Sid Hatfield. To the miners, Sid became an immediate legend and hero to the union miners, and became a symbol of hope that the oppression of coal operators and their hired guns could be overthrown. Throughout the summer and into the fall of 1920, the union gained strength in Mingo County, as did the resistance of the coal operators. Low intensity warfare was waged up and down the Tug River. In late June, state police under the command of Captain Brockus raided the Lick Creek tent colony near Williamson, West Virginia. Miners were said to have fired on Brockus and Martin?s men from the colony, and in response the state police shot and arrested miners, ripped the canvas tents to shreds, and scattered the mining families? belongings. Both sides were bolstering their arms, and Sid Hatfield continued to be a problem, especially when he converted Testerman?s jewelry store into a gun shop.
On January 26, 1921, the trial of Sid Hatfield for killing Albert Felts began. This trial was in the national spotlight, and it brought much attention to the miners? cause. Hatfield?s stature and mythical status grew as the trial proceeded. Sid Hatfield posed and talked to reporters, fanning the flames of his own stature and legend. All men were acquitted in the end, but overall the union was facing significant setbacks. Eighty percent of mines had reopened with the importation of replacements and the signing of yellow dog contracts by ex-strikers returning to mines. In mid-May 1921, union miners launched a full assault on nonunion mines. In a short time, the conflict had consumed the entire Tug River Valley. This ?Three Days Battle? was finally ended by a flag of truce and the implementation of martial law. The enforcement of martial law was from the beginning decidedly against the striking miners. Miners in the scores and hundreds were arrested without habeas corpus and other basic legal rights. The smallest of infractions could mean imprisonment, while those on the other side of this ?law and order? were immune. The miners responded with guerilla tactics and violence against this oppressive state-sanctioned system.
In the midst of this tense situation, Sid Hatfield traveled to McDowell County on 1 August 1921 to stand trial for charges of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their two wives. As they walked up the courthouse stairs, unarmed and flanked by their wives, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the stairs opened fire. Hatfield was killed instantly, while Chambers' bullet-riddled body rolled to the bottom of the stairs. Over Sally Chambers' protestation, one of the agents ran down the stairs and shot Chambers once more in the back of the head point blank. The miners? hero was dead. As Sid and Ed?s bodies returned to Matewan, word of the slayings spread through the mountains. For the miners, Hatfield was slain in cold blood and it seemed the assassins would escape punishment.
Hatfield?s death enraged the miners, and they began to pour out of the mountains to take arms. Miners along the Little Coal River were among the first to militarize, and began actions such as patrolling and guarding the area. Sheriff Don Chafin sent Logan County troopers to Little Coal River area, with the end result the troopers were apprehended, disarmed, and sent fleeing by the miners. On 7 August 1921, the leaders of the UMW District 17, which encompasses much of southern West Virginia, called a rally at the state capitol in Charleston. These leaders were Frank Keeney and Ed Mooney, who were veterans of previous mine conflicts in the region. Both were local, and were well read and articulate. Keeney and Mooney met with Governor Ephraim Morgan, and presented him with a petition of the miners? demands. Morgan summarily rejected these, and the miners became even more restless. Talk began to spread of a march on Mingo to free the confined miners, end martial law, and organize the county. But directly in the way stood Blair Mountain, Logan County, and Sheriff Don Chafin.