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A Coal War in West Virginia circa 1921

A few years ago my wife and I traveled to Virginia for our wedding anniversary. Our destination was the beautiful Shenandoah Valley but to get there we had to travel through another beautiful area, the mountains of West Virginia.

Beautiful West Virginia. The people there seem to have always had a mind of their own. West Virginia was made a state in 1863 after they broke away from Virginia during the Civil War. Although a mixed bag of sympathies West Virginia was officially Union.

Beautiful West Virginia. The people there seem to have always had a mind of their own. West Virginia was made a state in 1863 after they broke away from Virginia during the Civil War. Although a mixed bag of sympathies West Virginia was officially Union.

West Virginia is coal country. The people (not those struck down by poverty and lack of opportunity in Appalachia) are hardworking and hard-nosed. By anyone’s reasonable standard working in a coal mine is dangerous business and those that do it are tough and largely ignored by big city dwellers who do not give energy resources a second thought.

One of the things that struck us while traveling through West Virginia’s coal country was the number of anti Obama signs. The President had declared war on coal energy (and every other energy source except windmills and solar) supposedly out of environmental concerns; this despite the fact the coal industry has conformed to clean standards for quite some time. One might suspect that the administration has a rather different agenda in mind trying to control energy resources.

Well the coal miners had no intention of letting it pass and they let their thoughts be known by erecting signs and bill boards blasting the tyranny of the Obama administration.

The miners in West Virginia are unionized and that usually means Democrats so it was surprising they just didn’t fold and follow the leader and suck up the injustice.

On the other hand these tough miners have a history of reacting to injustice where ever it comes from as I recently learned from reading an article in the American Riflemen titled, The Guns of The Battle of Blair Mountain.

Plaque commemorating the battle in a mostly forgotten coal war.

Plaque commemorating the battle in a mostly forgotten coal war.

In 1921 heavily armed miners using for the most part Model 73 Winchesters and Swiss Vetterli’s (an obsolete military weapon used mostly for hunting bear by the miners) faced down so-called government forces that were also armed with a wide array of long arms including ex-military Krags, Springfield 03’s and Thompson submachine guns.

Swiss Vettrelli

Swiss Vetterli

Winchester 1873 short rifle

Winchester 1873 short rifle

The Krag was used in the Span-Am War. Here are US Troops practicing with it. It was replaced by the famous 03 Springfield. Picture from American Rifleman.

The Krag was used in the Span-Am War. Here are US Troops practicing with it. It was replaced by the famous 03 Springfield. Picture from American Rifleman.

British soldier using the drum version of the famous Thompson. This weapon would give the "government" forces the edge in the battle.

British soldier using the drum version of the famous Thompson. This weapon would give the “government” forces the edge in the battle.

American Rifleman is a publication of the NRA of which I am a member. The main concern of the author was to discuss the wide array of weapons available to both sides but the article is much deeper than that as he explains the causes of the war and the injustices committed mostly by the government forces against the miners.

100 years ago the Union movement was a bit different from it is today. This is especially true when it came to the dangerous business of coal mining. The owners were greedy and exploited the miners most of whom lived in company housing in “mine camps.” The miner’s pay was not great and the work dangerous. There were few safeguards in the mines and the owners were deaf to change.

I am not sympathetic to modern progressive movement at all, nor to unions in general but things were different in 1921 and these guys had a legitimate beef just as they have a legitimate beef against the Obama Administration today. I find that just a bit ironic.

I am not sympathetic to modern progressive movement at all, nor to unions in general but things were different in 1921 and these guys had a legitimate beef just as they have a legitimate beef against the Obama Administration today. I find that just a bit ironic.

Many of the miners came from European backgrounds where socialism was the norm so the idea of unionization appealed to them in order to redress the obvious exploitation from the owners. That there was Bolshevik influence cannot be doubted but most of the minors were patriotic Americans just trying to provide for their families and improve safety.

On the other side of the fence there were West Virginian’s violently opposed to the unions, usually on the basis of “red scare” and seeing the minors as being unpatriotic, especially because many of the minors were recent immigrants. The sheriff where the war took place was in the pay of the owners of the mines as were many of his deputies who doubled as mine guards.  This force was supplanted by anti-union people, usually more of the middle class as well as pro-government forces from around the state. Other government forces included the West Virginia State Police who sought to disarm the minors.

At the time West Virginia did not have a National Guard. Their NG had been mobilized for WW1, served in that war and after were disbanded in a rather short-sighted way. When the war broke out officials were frantically trying to reform the guard but it was too little too late for the battle. The minors did not see the forces arrayed against them as being “fair-minded” nor as peace keepers. To say the situation was volatile is to understate it.

The prelude to the big battle was not without incident. The array of “government” forces were often brutal. They once attacked a mining camp spraying it indiscriminately with gunfire and killing a number of women and children. In another incident they killed in cold blood in front of their wives two of the miner’s heroes who had been to Washington D.C. to testify.

The minors of course were not all innocent victims and in 1920 a sheriff by the name of Hatfield (yes, same family) who sided with the minors was involved in a shoot out with “detectives” employed by the mine owners. A number of the detectives were killed. Hatfield was one of miner’s heroes mentioned above who was gunned down in front of his wife. The coal war was a small-scale civil war fought out largely by West Virginians against other West Virginians.

The forces arrayed against each other in the Battle of the Blair Mountain numbered approximately 2500-3500 in the better armed “government” forces and approximately 7000 (some say as many as 20,000) less well armed miners.

The catalyst for the Battle of Blair Mountain was the murder of Hatfield and the continued oppression of the miners by the “government” forces. The miners were urged on by an elderly lady named “Mother Mary Jones” an outspoken labor leader who probably had more in common with Boudicca and her war with the Romans than she did in being a kindly old grandmother!

But Mother Mary Jones fired up the miners and they marched on the county where the worst oppression took place. On the way they gathered strength in numbers as well as “liberating” more guns and ammo from hardware stores on the way. (As a point aside in 1921 a Winchester 73 could be had for about $13,00 while a Vetterli could be had for about half that a fact that appealed to the poorer miners.)

The “government” forces blocked the miners on Blair Mountain with a ten-mile trench line not dissimilar to the trenches of WW1. Both sides contained many veterans of that conflict so they knew something about trench warfare.

Trench line N. France, 1918. The soldiers appear to be American. http://apps.carleton.edu/events/wwi/exhibition/photos/?image_id=446138

Trench line N. France, 1918. The soldiers appear to be American.
http://apps.carleton.edu/events/wwi/exhibition/photos/?image_id=446138

Both sides had some crew-served machine guns but it has been shown the “government” forces had a high number of Thompson’s. Advancing miners reported being blocked by the withering fire of that weapon and numerous casings from the weapon have been found in abundance verifying the miner’s experiences.

The battle raged for five days. Estimates of casualties for both sides range from around 30 to a couple of hundred. Regular troops (presumably National Guard) from Indiana, Ohio and New Jersey were called in and the miners surrendered to them. Some turned in their weapons while many more hid theirs.

Miners surrendering their weapons to the regulars. The man on the far left seems to be carrying a Winchester 73, one of the most common arms used by the miners (for hunting).

Miners surrendering their weapons to the regulars. The man on the far left seems to be carrying a Winchester 73, one of the most common arms used by the miners (for hunting).

Appears to be Regular Infantry with a stack of surrendered arms. The pic came from a living history website:http://www.leehalldepot.org/en-us/calendarofevents.aspx

Appears to be Regular Infantry with a stack of surrendered arms. The pic came from a living history website:http://www.leehalldepot.org/en-us/calendarofevents.aspx

The miners did not consider themselves enemies of the Federal Government; only enemies of a corrupt local government who were working for the unjust owners of the coal mines. This is why they surrendered to the regular troops.

Whatever else we might conclude about the coal war it was, at least in part a good example of our Second Amendment rights. The Second Amendment was established to protect against a tyrannical government, in this case a local government in the pay of the owners of the mines. Some times capitalism gets a bad rap. The coal wars in West Virginia are often pointed to as one of the reasons. To the degree that’s valid today is open to debate.

In reading this article I thought of Connecticut’s recent attempts to enforce gun registration, a step that many believe could lead to confiscation. Presumably, the Connecticut State Police like the West Virginia State Police back in 1921 would be the instruments of confiscation. It didn’t go well in 1921 and I doubt it would go well in Connecticut in 2014.

The article I’ve summarized is in the American Rifleman, an NRA  publication and as far as I can tell it’s not available [yet] as a free link. I did find on the INET an article on Wiki about the battle and have linked it here.

NRA Publications Website

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One comment on “A Coal War in West Virginia circa 1921

  1. In talking about the company mining villages there is a big part of the history – and the resentment – that in leaving out, really understates the reason for the anger of the minors.

    The company mining village.

    It is a place provided for the workers to live, with stores to provide all their needs, clinics for their health, and every other sort of benefit – often even the travel expenses for many of the workers to come directly to the mines from Europe and elsewhere. Sounds great, no?

    Every last “benefit” the workers receive is taken from the workers meager pay at usurious rates because the company has a monopoly. Nothing else much can be brought in without company permission (and some sort of tax) and many of the minors would find themselves deeper in debt at the end of the month, requiring their whole family to do some sort of work to get more money to pay the Company Store.

    The company village is a PLANTATION in the Old South definition.

    The reason I am aware of this is that the oil companies used to follow the same basic program and there is a reason why it is important.

    There is a family whose name has been scrubbed from most of the records of all of this slave owner injustice and slaughter who was behind a lot of it. WV isn’t the only place this war happened either. It also happened in Colorado and in the oil fields.

    That family still exists. They control GE, NBC, Exxonmobil, and are maybe the biggest power behind the Democratic Party.

    Their name is ROCKEFELLER.

    My Grandfather started his employment in the oil fields back in the 1920’s when the echoes of the Rockefeller battles to monopolize the oil industry and their present conduct in company towns was still fresh in people’s memory.

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