A Little-Known Civil War in Coal Country
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this conflict says a lot about today’s mining communities.
By Jack Doyle
Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.
Over the past few years, we’ve become familiar with the weapons of American police brutality, from tear gas and rubber bullets to automatic weapons. But few realize just how long these tactics have been in play. Nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. federal government was dropping bombs on civilians in rural West Virginia.
For a week in the late summer of 1921, planes buzzed, machine guns rattled, gas hissed and bombs whistled through the air around Blair Mountain. It was like a scene out of World War I — a war that had ended just a few years earlier. Now, the United States was fighting itself in a conflict known as the Coal Wars, and the Battle of Blair Mountain would be the biggest fight yet. Impoverished coal miners risked everything to try to unionize and establish some basic rights for themselves and their communities.
The significance of class conflict in the making of America is overlooked and misunderstood.
Robert Shogan, historian
Outside West Virginia, the Battle of Blair Mountain is little remembered, but it shaped the politics of the region in surprising ways. Our “dominant middle-class ethos,” historian Robert Shogan says, is part of why we shy away from historical memories like Blair Mountain. “The significance of class conflict in the making of America is overlooked and misunderstood,” he explains. But with coal country currently undergoing a dramatic 21st-century political awakening, Blair Mountain is a testament to the power of American labor — and a lasting insight into the region’s political strife.
The turn of the century saw coal become one of the world’s most precious commodities. That refocused whole regions of the U.S., especially Appalachia, around mining — and put increasing pressure on miners to work long, punishing hours in harsh conditions. The intention may have been to make America great again, but the push for superpower status after World War I came at a tremendous cost to miners themselves. If they weren’t killed in a cave-in or starved on poor wages, injuries and lifelong health problems abounded. And coal companies policed mining communities with private security, making sure that anyone caught speaking out against conditions was swiftly — and violently — silenced.
The miners who worked around Blair Mountain knew a little about how to better their situation; some waged work stoppages and strikes to get results. But miners elsewhere had unions — now considered a mixed bag by the American workforce, but at the time a cutting-edge way to establish unprecedented rights. Blair Mountain’s miners came from several different counties in West Virginia and knew that together they had significant clout that could sway the bosses, or even the state and federal governments. To unionize, though, they were going to have to take matters into their own hands — and that meant trading tools for guns.
One confrontation exploded the situation between miners and the Stone Mountain Coal Company: the killing of a well-known pro-miner sheriff, Sid Hatfield, by private security hired by the coal company. Thousands of miners from several West Virginia counties banded together with one intention: to unionize the miners of Logan and Mingo counties.
That led to a battle that shocked the nation. With upward of 10,000 miners ready to fight for their rights, it became clear that 3,000 police and local volunteers wouldn’t be enough to hold off the tide. Planes dropped bombs on the miners at the direction of military aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell. Five days into the fighting, President Warren G. Harding declared martial law in West Virginia and sent in the U.S. Army. The miners’ resistance soon collapsed.
The Battle of Blair Mountain took its toll on West Virginia’s mining communities for decades. But the conflict remains a source of pride for many — and is key to understanding the region’s fractious relationship with national politicians.
- Jack Doyle, OZY AuthorContact Jack Doyle