In the early 20th century, most of the mining companies of West Virginia controlled the lives of their workers. They did not respect the rights of their employees. They owned the property their employees worked in. When workers rioted over poor working conditions, they were run out of town and literally killed them. After a strike in 1912 at Paint Creek, the company moved workers from their houses to tents along with their families (Shogan, 2004). One thing that these companies did not appreciate was their workers joining workers’ unions.
In 1920, the United Mine Workers had managed to organize the mine workers at the northern parts of West Virginia (Humphreys, Gibson & Oyler, 2013). It was however difficult to do the same with mine workers from the southern mines. When they attempted to do the same on the southern mines, they met a lot of resistance. One mining company even erected machine guns on house tops to deal with those who attempted to participate in strikes organized by unions.
In Matewan, when coal companies attempted to force employees out of the town, the sheriff and the mayor offered the workers protection and asked the company representatives to leave. In the shootout that ensued, the mayor and nine other people were killed. Sheriff Hartfield was put on trial by the government that was in support of the mining Companies. Before he could stand trial, he was shot down on his way to the courthouse.
This and similar violent acts by the coal morning companies necessitated the solidarity of the mining workers. Six hundred armed mine workers assembled near Charleston with an intention of marching to Mingo County to demonstrate their solidarity (Swain, 2009). Along the way, they were joined by more miners. Eventually, the group grew to anything between 7000 and twenty thousand workers (Humphreys, Gibson & Oyler, 2013). They had intentions of going through the entire southern part of West Virginia and conduct union registration campaigns as well as kick out the gunmen who were hired by the coal companies to guard the coal mines and terrorize the workers.
Meanwhile, the new Sheriff Don Chaffin who largely depended on the support of the mining companies learned about the intentions of the coal miners and decided to stop them. He immediately started organizing local recruits to help with stopping the march. Eventually, the sheriff was able to gather a total of over 3000 men.
The Battle of Blair Mountain began on August 30th of 1921 (Hennen, 2006). The Spruce Fork Ridge formed a natural form of separation between the two forces. The miners initiated their assault on the Blair Mountain on August 30th. The group gathered by the mine sheriff took defensive positions on the upper parts of the slope hence greatly slowing the efforts of the miners. They dug trenches, built breastworks, felled trees, and placed machine guns. Most of the violence therefore took place along the ridgeline which is around fifteen miles long.
While the battle was going on, the defensive militia organized private planes which dropped around ten homemade bombs at the miners at Blair, Jeffrey and Hewitt Creek where the miners had their headquarters. Eleven army aircrafts arrived led by Billy Mitchell, a pioneer of aerial bombing who was eager to use his strategy on the mine workers (Hennen, 2006). Fortunately, the Army did not allow him to use it and the army planes only performed exploration flights and offered the information to the coal mining companies. Notably, only West Virginia has had the focus and potential intervention of military aircraft. During these years, the military kept off from the civil unrests that often ensued over poor working conditions.
The battle neared its end on September 3 when federal troops arrived at the scene. They were summoned by Governer Ephraim Franklin Morgan to end the bloodshed. President Warren G. Harding responded with 2500 troops which included Mitchell’s bomber squadron (Harris, 2011). Having been in the army during the first war, the union workers perceived the federal troops as their own brothers and put down their arms rather than fighting against them. In the end, the battle led to the death of about sixteen documented deaths (Hennen, 2006). The defeat led to the fall of the United Mine Workers of America. The union lost many of its members after the battle of the battle. Even then, the battle had several advantages for the part of the mine workers.
First, the battle created awareness of the cruel conditions under which the mine workers worked under to both the press and the federal government (Danver, 2011). It also paved the way for the government to create more favorable labor laws to avoid similar situations from recurring. Without the Battle of Blair Mountain, the New Deal of 1933 would have been impossible. It would also have been impossible and pointless for the mine workers to create other unions such as Steel workers Union which was created in the 1930s.
conclusion, the blood bath that took place in 1921 was something future
governments have been able to avoid. There seemed to exist few or no laws that
served to control the violence that was evident in the coal mines. The
government could have avoided the chaos by simply tending to the calls of the
mine workers. It is however evident that most of this form of violence and
abuse has been taken care of by the governments that have followed.
Danver, S. (2011). Revolts, protests, demonstrations, and rebellions in American history (1st ed.). Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO.
Harris, W. (2011). What if We Really Won the Battle of Blair Mountain?. Appalachian Heritage, 39(3), 87–91.
Hennen, J. (2006). The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising. The Journal Of American History, 92(4), 1468–1469.
Humphreys, J., Gibson, J., & Oyler, J. (2013). Upward defiance in organizations: management lessons from the Battle of Blair Mountain. Journal Of Management History, 19(3), 304–327.
Shogan, R. (2004). The battle of Blair Mountain (1st ed.). Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. Swain, G. (2009). The Blair Mountain war (1st ed.). Chapmanville, W.Va.: Woodland Press
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