Thursday, August 30, 2012

The (Almost) Second Civil War

In 1921, the United States was still feeling the sting of the Civil War when fighting erupted again in Logan County, West Virgina. For one week in late August and early September, 13,000 armed coal miners clashed with 3,000 law officials and strikebreakers on Blair Mountain. In what would become one of the largest civil uprisings in U.S. history, the event wouldn't end until the United States Army intervened.

In the early twentieth century, unions were trying to take shape. The coal mining industry was one occupation that the unions were trying to organize. Miners were treated poorly. They were forced to live in company towns where the mining company owned all the property. In 1912, at Paint Creek, the mining company drove a train through a tent city and opened fire upon women and children with a machine gun.

Blair Mountain, where the battle took place.
Source: Sierra Club
By 1920, northern West Virginian miners were organized by the United Mine Workers of America. However, in the southern part of the state, the mining companies still ruled and did everything in their power, including employing private detectives and local law enforcement to stop union organizers, even firing, blacklisting, and evicting workers who were found to be union sympathizers. They even tried placing machine guns on rooftops to keep the workers in line.

In nearby Matewan, 3,000 of 4,000 workers organized and were fired. When the mining companies came to town to deliver the eviction notices, the local sheriff, Sid Hatfield, the town's mayor, and deputized miners told them to leave. A fight broke out and nine people were killed, including the mayor. Sheriff Hatfield became a hero to the miners, and they began to organize themselves.

Shortly thereafter, Sheriff Hatfield was placed on trial for the murder of the mining company men. He was acquitted, but then placed on trial again after being accused of dynamiting a non-unon mine, after mines were being reopened with new, non-union workers and fighting had begun to envelope the entire region. On August 1, 1921, Sheriff Hatfield, his friend Ed Chambers, and both of their wives arrived at the courthouse. After talking to reporters, they began to advance up the steps when company agents opened fire. Hatfield and Chambers were riddled with bullets, in front of their wives. After the shooting, Chambers was still alive and company agents ran down and shot him point blank in the back of the head.

The mining companies army, preparing for battle.
Source: Coal County Tours
When word of the deaths of Hatfield and Chambers reached the miners, they armed themselves, tied red bandanas around their necks (thus the phrase 'redneck' was born), and decided to organize southern West Virginia by force. By August 25, the battle was in full swing, with 13,000 miners fighting against 1,000 law officials and the coal mining companies own personal armed force of 2,000 men, which quickly swelled to 30,000, and wore white armbands to recognize themselves from the 'redneck' miner army. When word came that union sympathizers were being killed in Sharples, the miner army marched to help. Only the 1,952-foot tall Blair Mountain and the mining companies stood in the way. 

As the miners advanced, the mining companies and their allies set up on the ridges above the miners and used rifles and sub-machine guns. They hired planes to drop homemade bombs and bombs leftover from World War I. President Harding threatened to send in the United States Army to break the union if the miners didn't cease their attack. The Army's 88th Squadron was used to provide aerial surveillance for the coal companies.

The miners refused to stop and pressed their attack onward. Five days later, they broke through the coal company's defensive perimeter just as the U.S. Army arrived, as promised by the president. The miners stood down, refusing to fight the newly arrived soldiers. 

In the end, 100 people were dead, 1000 miners were arrested for murder and treason, and over one million rounds of ammunition were fired. Not a single company fighter was charged with anything.

The union had been broken and the second largest civil uprising in U.S. history had finally come to a close.

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