On a Dreary Morning in May of 1920 Seven Men Carrying Winchesters and pistols boarded the Norfolk and Western's No. 29 at Bluefield, West Virginia, bound for the little mining town of Matewan on the Kentucky border.
- Robert Shogan
It was the only time in American history that government airplanes intentionally bombed its own citizens. It was the largest armed insurrection fought on American soil since the Civil War.
And it has been almost totally forgotten outside of the lore of the United Mine Workers of America.
The Rise of the UMWA
"Ain't but two sides to this world. Them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you got to know about the enemy."
- character Joe Kenehan, from the movie Matewan
The UMWA was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1890.
At the time, miners were often immigrants from central and eastern europe that didn't speak english, thus making them easy to exploit. This was reflected in the first UMWA constitution which barred discrimination based on "race, religion or national origin".
Most often miners were paid in company script that could only be used at company stores and to pay for company housing. This left them vulnerable to high monopoly prices. A miner was completely unable to save money.
Miners were only paid for tonnes of ore mined. The owners picked out the man who weighed the ore, thus leaving the miner vulnerable to being cheated. Miners weren't paid for any other necessary duty such as laying down tracks or putting in supports so the mine didn't collapse on them. The average workweek was 6 day, 10 hours a day.
Mining safety laws were either nonexistent, or simply ignored. Besides Black Lung and other occupational hazards that the mine owners ignored, mine explosions and collapses were far too common for any moral defense. Having children work in the mines was common practice.
But the most common complaint from miners was the Yellow Dog Contract that they were forced to sign when going to work. Until it was outlawed in 1932, any miner who even talked about unionizing was legally fired and blacklisted. Of course this also meant having his family kicked out of their home. Mine owners employed dozens, or even thousands of thugs (depending on the size of the company) to enforce company policy.
The suffering of America's miners was largely ignored by a country that often didn't want the immigrants anyway, and their strikes were often met with deadly violence. The Pinkerton Agency cut its teeth on murdering immigrant miners in the 1870's.
Shortly after its creation the UMWA met with its first crisis - the Lattimer Massacre.
"I bet I drop six of them when I get over there."
- one deputy boasting shortly before killing unarmed miners
19 unarmed miners were shot down by a local posse, and 6 more later died of their wounds. Most of the miners were shot in the back as they ran towards a schoolhouse for safety. Although 78 deputies stood trial for their crime, none of them were ever convicted, despite the fact that the strikers inflicted no violence.
While the massacre may have crushed the 1897 strike, it was also directly responsible for 15,000 miners joining the UMWA.
"We'll give you hell, not water, hunkies!"
- one deputy telling a mortally wounded miner who begged for water
"It was not a battle because they were not aggressive,
nor were they defensive because they had no weapons
of any kind and were simply shot down like so many
worthless objects, each of the licensed life-takers
trying to outdo the others in butchery."
-Inscription on the Monument erected at Lattimer, 1972.
After this sort of treatment it wasn't surprising that in the next major strike the miners were armed. At Virden, Illinois in 1898 the strikers and the strikebreaker's armed guards engaged in a shootout that left eight miners and four guards dead. The mine owner caved into the union, and the UMWA began its rise which would eventually make it the most powerful union in America.
When violence revisited the UMWA during the Colorado Coal Fields War (1913-1914) the same lessons of past strikes were learned.
On October 17, 1913, Baldwin-Felts detectives in the Death Special shot up the Forbes colony, killing several people. One young boy running from the gunfire had 9 bullet holes in his legs.
The miners had 7 demands, such as an 8-hour workday, payment for all the work they do on the job, and enforcement of Colorado mine safety laws. The mine owner, John D. Rockefeller, rejected all the demands.
As the strike drug on, Mary Harris Jones (aka Mother Jones) arrived in Colorado in January, 1914. Mother Jones had been fighting for working men since the 1870's and was now old enough to be a great-grandmother, but her reputation among America's workingmen and women was spotless.
Even though she was over 80 years old, the mine owners had her arrested immediately and confined in a psychiatric ward at Mt. San Rafael Hospital.
On January 21, 1914, some of the miners' wives and children organized a parade to protest her arrest. Adjutant General Chase, commander of the Colorado Militia, was so furious he confronted the women and, in the excitement, fell off his horse. The women laughed and humiliated him with derogatory remarks about his prowess as a horseman. Embarrassed, he gave orders to "Ride down the women!" His mounted troops then attacked the women and children with their sabers drawn and injured quite a few.
By spring the cost of having the national guard contain the strikers was bankrupting the state, so the guardsmen were gradually replaced with company thugs from Baldwin-Felts. Both the guardsmen and the thugs were on the Rockefeller payroll.
On April 20, 1914, a series of 3 signal bombs went off in the military camp. After the third one, bullets began ripping through the tents at Ludlow. Women screamed and people dodged. Children ran for their lives and hid in the basements under each tent. That evening, soldiers raced into the colony on horseback with burning, kerosene-soaked brooms, and torched the tents. Louis Tikas, leader of the Ludlow tent colony, was captured soon after the firing of the tents and was taken back to the National Guard camp. There, a Lieutenant Linderfeldt swung once and bashed the side of his head in with a rifle, and as Tikas turned and staggered away, Linderfeldt shot him 3 times in the back. Accounts say that his body and those of two others killed in the same fashion lay on the ground where they fell for a long time. Many of the families were marched by the bodies as the militia gathered people up and transported them to Trinidad on the train.
At the camp itself, the death toll included 4 men, 2 women and 11 children. All the women and children were found suffocated in the dugout beneath one of the burned tents.
At the funeral of the Ludlow victims, a stack of guns was placed near the exit for the mourners to grab on their way out. The miners began attacking the mines of Colorado. This prompted federal troops to be sent in, and more miners were shot down.
All over the country there were meetings, demonstrations.
Pickets marched in front of the Rockefeller office at 26 Broadway, New York City. A minister protested in front of the church where Rockefeller sometimes gave sermons, and was clubbed by the police.
Eventually the strike was crushed. Sixty-six men, women, and children had been killed. Not one militiaman or mine guard had been indicted for a crime.
National Guard in the remains of the Ludlow camp
"the State of Colorado through its military arm was rendered helpless to maintain law and order because that military arm acted, not as an agent of the commonwealth, but as an agent of the coal operators against the striking miners."
- from the federal report on the Ludlow Massacre
I've typed this extensive background information because otherwise it would be impossible to understand the actions of the UMWA in 1921. Their radical, reckless, ill conceived plan that ended with such disastrous consequences would make no sense without being put in context.
By 1920 the miners of this country were like dogs that had been beaten too much. They had been repeatedly massacred with absolutely no consequences ever paid for it. They were treated less like men and more like work animals, and the general populace of the country didn't seem to care. They had been shown no mercy, and they no longer expected any. As far as the miners could see their enemy only respected force, so force is what their enemy would receive.
When word reached tiny Matewan that seven armed men from the murderous Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency were on their way to break a strike, the miners reacted in exactly the way that they had been trained by their tormentors.
The Battle of Matewan
John Sayles' "Matewan" is my favorite union movie. It ranks just ahead of the documentary "Harlan County U.S.A." on my all-time list.
While Matewan may be fictional, it stuck to the actual events relatively closely.
In early spring 1920, the miners of Mingo County, West Virginia began seeking to join the UMWA. The Stone Mountain Coal Corporation reacted by locking out the miners, bringing in strikebreakers, and gave eviction orders to the miners and their families.
The coal operators' plans were quickly thwarted in two ways:
- the miners talked the strikebreakers into joining the strike, and
- the Matewan Chief of Police Sid Hatfield refused to carry out the evictions of the families without a court order, and even interfered with the Baldwin-Felts detectives when they attempted to arrest miners without warrants.
Sid Hatfield was not a man to be trifled with. While only 26 years of age, he already had a reputation for brawling and being quick with a gun (not a surprising condition since he was part of the Hatfield/McCoy feud when he was growing up). He had earned a nickname of "Smilin Sid" for his tendency to laugh and smile in the bloodiest of fights.
The Baldwin-Felts detectives were led by Albert Felts and his brothers Lee and Thomas Felts. Both of them should not have underestimated Hatfield, as he had told the miners of Matewan to arm themselves (some of who were deputized) and meet at the train station when the detectives arrived.
Hatfield strolled up to Felts, meeting him along the railroad track. He shook hands and clapped the detective around the shoulder, informing him that he and his agents were guilty of carrying guns in town without authorization. Arrest warrants, Sid told Felts, were on their way - coming in on the No. 16 train. Sid's demeanor may have been a little puzzling to Albert Felts. Although the constable was placing the detectives under arrest, he never stopped smiling. He even laughed a little.
"I can return the compliment," said Felts, describing his own warrant, ordering Hatfield to Bluefield.
The group of them went into a nearby hardware store to sort it out. When Felts produced his "warrant" Mayor Testerman was called over to determine its authenticity.
Albert handed him the paper, which the mayor promptly declared as "bogus."
"Might as well have been written on a piece of ginger bread!" said Isaac Brewer from inside the store. The miner then stepped up to Felts, clapped him on the shoulder, and laughed in his face, telling him he'd never take Hatfield. Sid stood inside, several feet behind Brewer, facing Felts and Testerman, both visible in the doorway. As Brewer stepped back, a shot rang out and Felts went down.
In the ensuing gun battle Testerman, Albert and Lee Felts, five other detectives and two miners were killed. Thomas Felts and a couple other detectives managed to escape by the narrowest of margins.
On January 28, 1921, Sid Hatfield and 22 other defendants were tried for the murder of Albert Felts. 40 armed Baldwin-Felts agents lined the street to the courthouse to try to intimidate the jurors. They failed. After months of testimony the jury acquitted Hatfield and all the defendants.
On August 1, 1921, Hatfield and his friend Ed Chambers were approaching the courthouse in McDowell County on an unrelated case when Baldwin-Felts agents C. E. Lively, "Buster" Pence, and Bill Salter approached them from behind and murdered them in public. They were acquitted of the Hatfield and Chambers murders on the grounds of self defense, although neither victim was armed.
Hey Sid Hatfield
I heard they shot you dead
As you lie bleedin' on the courthouse steps they put another bullet into your head
Hey Sid Hatfield
What would you have done
If you'd gone to town that day carrying your guns
-ballad of Sid Hatfield
The Red Neck War
The Battle of Matewan was just the latest events in a decade-long struggle to unionize the coal fields of West Virginia that dated back to the Cabin Creek riots of 1912. The assassination of Sid Hatfield was a catalyst for this simmering conflict to explode into outright war.
By this time the UMWA (now boasting 600,000 members) had managed to unionize all the coal fields north of West Virginia, so when the miners near Matewan decided to unionize the UMWA couldn't pass up the chance. By May 1921, 3,000 of the 4,000 miners in Mingo County has signed up with the UMWA.
At a UMWA rally at the state capitol just six days after Hatfield's death, Mother Jones, now 91 years old, called on the miners to march into Logan and Mingo counties and set up the union by force. What Mother Jones probably had in mind was a victorious strategy from the Cabin Creek campaign.
Late in July, the union turned towards the non-union miners on Cabin Creek, attempting to persuade them to join the strike. Mother Jones made her way through armed guards to speak to the Cabin Creek miners at the town of Eskdale, and they went on strike shortly thereafter. [...]
As pitched gun battles between miners and guards broke out, Mother Jones' verbal attacks on the operators and the guards became ever more virulent and militant and she soon brought strikers to the state capitol. As Jones recounted in her autobiography, she "got three thousand armed miners to march over the hills secretly to Charleston, where we read a declaration of war to Governor Glasscock who, scared as a rabbit, met us on the steps of the state house. We gave him just twenty-four hours to get rid of the gunmen, promising him that hell would break loose if he didn't. He did. He sent the state militia in, who at least were responsible to society and not to the operators alone."
Mother Jones didn't take into account that the situation was significantly different. Nevertheless, the call went out and men soon began organizing for the march. The UMWA never claimed nor attempted to be part of this march. Despite the lack of a leader, the thousands of men who gathered near Charleston began to form military-style units (not surprising since many were veterans of WWI). Their only identifiable "uniform" was a red bandana knotted about their neck or right sleeve. The badge gave them the name Red Necks.
Still, no single leader emerged—none, in fact, has ever been positively identified—but by Tuesday night the mounting tensions spilled over. The men had grown restless and irritable. Wild rumors of atrocities and lynchings by Chafin’s men whipped their passion for revenge. They milled noisily about a dozen bonfires, and their hoarse exhortations and rebel yells, punctuated with the erratic crack of rifles fired into the air, reverberated from the dark surrounding hills. "On to Logan!" they yelled. "Let’s get the dirty thugs!" "Remember Sid Hatfield!"
At two o’clock the next morning the fire sirens in the county seat of Logan roused the startled citizens from their beds. This was the prearranged signal that brought hundreds of Sheriff Chafin’s men to the courthouse, the arsenal from which the dreaded invasion was to be repelled.
Sheriff Chafin is infamous in UMWA history. He was on the payroll of the coal mine owners and by the summer of 1921 he had filled the jails of Logan County with people guilty of nothing but talking to a union organizer. Many felt that his primary job was to keep the unions out.
On August 24, between 10,000 and 13,000 miners began marching towards Logan County. The following morning skirmishes began.
A series of high ridges known collectively as Blair Mountain forms the boundary of Logan County where the main road from the north and the Coal River branch of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad snake in through a narrow defile. To this natural barrier Sheriff Chafin rushed about three hundred of his irregulars, deploying them in a fifteen-mile-long battle line along the crest and commanding the high passes.
Frank Keeney, president of UMW District 17, met with the Governor of West Virginia and federal General J. H. Bandholtz, and federal troops were promised to the region. Keeney set out on the road to try and head off this violent confrontation.
"I’ve told you men God knows how many times that any time you want to do battle against Don Chafin and his thugs I’ll be right there in the front lines with you. I’ve been there before and you know it. But this time you’ve got more than Don Chafin against you. You’ve got more than the governor of West Virginia against you [boos]. You’ve got the government of the United States against you!
"Now I’m telling you for your own good and for the good of the cause, you’ve got to do it. Break up this march. Go home. Get back to your jobs. You’ve got Uncle Sam on your side now, and he won’t let you down. You can fight the government of West Virginia, but by God you can’t fight the government of the United States."
The appeal worked. The men grumbled but began to head home. Trains began arriving to take the miners home. It looked like a showdown wouldn't happen after all.
Then a rumor spread among the miners: They are shooting women and children at Sharples!
What had happened was that irregardless of the truce between General Bandholtz and the Governor, Chapin and his men had crept down from Blair Mountain intent on arresting the ringleaders of the miners. A shootout erupted and several miners were killed before Chapin and his men were driven off.
The miners returned to their march and the battle was on.
the Sharples-Blair sector may well be compared to Belgium in the early days of the World War."
- Associated Press
The following day the miners made a major push on the front line.
"Logan County deputies were driven down the hillside in a skirmish with an armed force from the other side of Spruce Fork Ridge, Captain I. G. Hollingsworth reported at 7 o’clock. Heavy fighting continued on two other sectors of the line during the afternoon and evening.
"‘We intend to hold our lines with all the power at our command,’ Colonel W. E. Eubanks [commanding officer of the militia] said. ‘We have 1,200 men in the line and fighting is continuing in the Blair sector and along Crooked Creek.’"
The battle raged for nearly a week. Chafin called in reinforcements from other counties, and even offered prisoners freedom if they fought for the non-union defenders.
By August 30 the defenders had massed themselves at Craddock Fork of Hewett Creek and felt they were about to break through. At that point Chafin began contracting private airplane pilots at $100 a day to fly over the miners and drop homemade bombs on them. The bombing was largely ineffective, but it made the event interesting enough that newspapers from around the country began sending war correspondents.
Several times the miners nearly broke through the defenses, but were driven back each time. Eventually President Harding intervened and sent federal troops. He also sent a fleet of bombers, but they were never used except to drop a couple bombs in a demonstration of military potential.
The federal troops met with Bill Blizzard, the de facto leader of the miners, and gave the presidential order to desist. Blizzard spread the word and then high-tailed it out of there. The rest of the miners hid their guns on the side of the mountain and headed for home. It was no longer an army, just a bunch of tired and dirty men trying to get home.
The union had suffered a crushing defeat. Between 20 and 50 people had been killed in the battle on both sides. An unknown number had been wounded, probably in the hundreds.
Hundreds of arrests were soon made, 985 in all, including all the local leaders of the UMWA. The charge: treason.
However, attempts at charging the defendants for treason quickly fell through so the prosecution resorted to lesser offenses. Many were imprisoned for several years.
As a resort of the failed military action, UMWA membership in West Virginia collapsed and the mines remained non-union until after the Wagner Act was passed in 1933.
The entire action was a disaster in every way except for one - the media and Washington politicians began to investigate the mining conditions of the Appalachia.