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The Battle of Blair Mountain

The content below is from Episode 106 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast

RECOMMENDATION SEGMENT

  • Recently I was scrolling through Netflix and saw a movie from the 90’s that I hadn’t seen in ages called Gattaca. And don’t worry, even though this movie came out in 1997, I won’t spoil anything for you.
    • Starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman, and a bunch of other familiar faces, Gattaca is a movie I would see scattered scenes of while flipping through the HBO channels on my TV at home.
    • When I did get around to watching the entire movie I was shocked by how deep the experience was.
    • The level of detail that went in to making that movie feel like it was really in the future was astounding.
    • And my favorite part of the movie is how they took a what I thought was a mere subplot, and turned out to be the most important part of the movie.
    • I told Shannon that the one scene in this movie changed how I saw the world afterwards.
    • The movie was a box office flop, but critically acclaimed. It is a hidden gem of a movie and it is on Netflix right now.

NOW FOR THE MAIN EVENT

  • The largest uprising in the history of the United States of America is simply known as the American Civil War.
    • Since then there have been a few uprisings within the states. The largest uprising since the Civil War is known as The Battle of Blair Mountain.
  • This battle was the largest encounter of what came to be known as the Coal Wars.
    • The Battle of Blair Mountain occurred in Logan CountyWest Virginia, as part of the Coal Wars, a series of early-20th-century labor disputes in Appalachia. Up to 100 people were killed, and many more arrested. The labor union United Mine Workers  temporarily saw declines in membership, but the long-term publicity led to improvements in membership and working conditions in the mines.
    • As for the battle itself, it was five days from late August to early September 1921, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers (called the Logan Defenders) who were backed by coal mine operators during the miners’ attempt to unionize the southwestern West Virginia coalfields when tensions rose between workers and mine management. The battle ended after approximately one million rounds were fired and the United States Army, represented by the West Virginia Army National Guard led by McDowell County native William Eubanks, intervened by presidential order.
  • PBS made a documentary on the subject titled The Coal Wars.
    • Their description of the documentary was written very well.
    • It reads: “At the dawn of the 20th century, coal was the fuel that powered the nation. Yet few Americans thought much about the men who blasted the black rock from underground and hauled it to the surface. The Mine Wars tells the overlooked story of the miners in the mountains of southern West Virginia — native mountaineers, African American migrants, and European immigrants — who came together in a protracted struggle for their rights. Decades of violence, strikes, assassinations and marches accompanied their attempts to form a union, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. The West Virginia mine wars raised profound questions about what freedom and democracy meant to working people in an industrial society.”
  • This all started with the coal miners wanting better working conditions from the coal companies.
    • There were unions and big successful coal companies involved here.
      • Now, I am no expert on labor unions. In fact, I consider myself to be quite in the dark on the subject. But I’m aware the topic is quite polarizing and tends to turn into a political issue. I’m also aware that organized crime is heavily involved in the history surrounding labor unions. I won’t pretend to know if labor unions are good or bad.
      • But from what I’ve read about the Battle of Blair Mountain, I’m 100% on the union’s side.
  • These coal miners were subjected to some of the most blatantly immoral working conditions I have ever heard of before.
    • These coal companies owned EVERYTHING in the area. They build entire towns, homes, general stores, schools, etc. So their power and influence was all-incompassing.
    • They even had complete control over the economy by distributing their own currency known as company scrips.
  • The coal companies made it so their stores only accepted scrips. So the miners and townsfolk that lived there were financially bound to the town they lived and worked in…
    • Miners lived in company owned houses, shopped in company owned stores, only allowed to spend company money, and had their entire lives ruled by the company they worked for.
    • They weren’t even given the proper tools to use on the job. They had to lease the mining equipment they used.
    • If that level of influence wasn’t enough, the miners were forced to sign “Yellow-Dog” contracts. These contracts stricly forbid miners from joining a labor union or even associating with anyone in a union. Penalty for breaking these yellow-dog contracts was immediate termination from their job… in a town where you couldn’t find any other type of work.
      • Just imagine trying to find a job in an area where EVERYTHING is owned by the company that just fired you…
      • The miners that were caught joining a union or even caught being seen with someone in a union didn’t just lose their job. They were blacklisted from the company/entire town, and evicted.
      • This was the 20th century version of being banished. It was common for Yellow-dog contract breakers to be beaten by company security on their way out of town.
  • Despite all the companies’ efforts to discourage unionization, the WV coal miners did band together in the effort to improve working conditions.
    • But the coal companies had lots of wealth on their side. They hired men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to be their muscle. It was the Baldwin-Felts boys who kept the miners in line. But they weren’t official law enforcement and they didn’t abide by any official form of morality or code. They simply did as their employer told them.
    • At any sign of uprising or pushback against the coal companies, the Baldwin-Felts “detectives” would perform drive by shootings at miners’ homes. This didn’t only endanger the miners, but their families as well.
    • Women and children were being injured or killed over this dispute and that escalated things further.
  • Nine years before the Battle of Blair Mountain:
    • A group of miners were on strike. They wanted their union to be recognized by their employer. The striking miners were delt with by the Baldwin-Felts agency.
    • The agents forcibly evicted miner families at gunpoint. They threw all of their property out onto the street. When the miners and their families were evicted this way they resorted to living in tents and even creating tent colonies with other evicted miners.
    • The agents drove an armored train through one of these tent colonies and open fired on the evicted miners with machine guns. At least one person was killed.
    • A few years later the same agents were employed in Ludlow Colorado where they burned women and children alive in a mining camp cellar.
      • These were bad men.
  • In Spring of 1920, shots were fired between the Baldwin-Felts agency and a pro-union group of miners including a West Virginian Police Chief.
    • the result was 10 killed, including the town mayor.
    • Less than 1 year after the shootout, the Police Chief was acquitted of all charges related to the shootout. As he and his deputy left they were gunned down by Baldwin-Felts agents on the courthouse steps.
      • This shit played out like a movie and I haven’t the faintest idea why it hasn’t been made in to one yet.
    • The Police Chief’s name was Sid Hatfield. And he was a friend of the miners of Matewan, West Virginia. He took the role of public servant seriously. He did things like instead of arresting the miners when they got drunk and rowdy, he’d walk them home.
  • The Baldwin-Felts’s blatant disregard for the people’s court ruling was a step too far. I mean, they gunned down a freshly acquitted POLICE CHIEF on the steps of the courthouse.
    • If a coporate security force did that today and no government entity did anything about it, a mob would probably rip them to pieces.
      • Our society is a thing that we all subscibe to and recognizing the law is probably the most important part of that subscription. Individuals or groups disregard the law all the time and for that they are considered criminals. But when a well armed group of thousands assasinates a police chief… they are calling upon the full force of society to show them what it means to go against it… what it means to completey cast aside the law as if you are more powerful than society itself.
    • This was the spark that lit Blair Mountain ablaze with fury.
      • and I’ll admit it kind of got me fired up just reading it
  • A force of about 10,000 miners and unioners took up their hunting rifles prepared for an all-out war.
    • A lot of these men were veterans of the first World War and were prepared for a proper fight.
    • These miners were up against a force of about 3,000 men from the Baldwin-Felts agency, the coal companies, and eventually even the federal government intervened at the order of President Harding.
  • The Smithsonian Magazine summarized the battle as such:
    • The Battle of Blair Mountain saw 10,000 West Virginia coal miners march in protest of perilous work conditions, squalid housing and low wages, among other grievances. They set out from the small hamlet of Marmet, with the goal of advancing upon Mingo County, a few days’ travels away to meet the coal companies on their own turf and demand redress. They would not reach their goal; the marchers instead faced opposition from deputized townspeople and businesspeople who opposed their union organizing, and more importantly, from local and federal law enforcement that brutally shut down the burgeoning movement. The opposing sides clashed near Blair Mountain, a 2,000-foot peak in southwestern Logan County, giving the battle its name.
Miners surrendering their weapons after the battle.
  • What does thi all mean?
    • Well this was a power of the people moment. Those who took up arms knew they were up against those who had oppressed them for so long. And while the Baldwin-Felts agency had broken the law when they killed the Police Cheif Sid Hatfield, the miners were now the ones on the other side of the law. The 10,000 fighting force of the miners were up against society.
    • A historian by the name Chuck Keeney is a descendant of one of the labor union leaders Frank Keeney, and he has a wealth of knowledge on the Battle of Blair Mountain. He says the miners never gave up any leaders of their army due to a vow of secrecy. They wanted to avoid any pinpointed legal retaliation on any man who lead their cause.
    • Though these miners don’t have a name of a general that lead them in to battle written anywhere in the history books, they did consider themselves an army.
    • They had a large force and a uniting cause. They rebelled against the security system that kept them in line all those years, but they were also seeking vengeance for their friend Sid Hatfield. And just becuase they were full of secrets and were officially leadlerless doesn’t make them unorganized. Remember, a great deal of these men had faught in the Great War. They knew how to put up a fight.
    • The Battle included military-grade machine guns and even aircraft was used to bomb the rebels.
    • This was a class war, or at least the closest thing our country has ever seen to it.
      • Forget what you’ve been seeing on the news in the past few years with protests and looting. That all pales in comparison to a force of 10,000 blue collar workers taking up arms and marching across the Appalachian mountains to confront their employers and politicians. COULD YOU IMAGINE THE MEDIA COVERAGE TODAY?
    • After days of marching and taking fire from enemies across valleys and mountain tops, the fighting did end. It was September 2nd of 1921 when President Warren G. Harding agreed to the pleas of WV policitians. Mr. President sent federal troops (the United States ARMY) in to the conflict to break it up.
    • The veterans of the miner army were most likely seen as leaders in all this. So when they refused to take up arms against their own government which they had faught for so recently, it persuaded the entire force to do so as well. Their fight wasn’t against their beloved Uncle Sam. It was against the coal companies, the ones who had made their lives a living hell.
    • In the end men had died. Historians fight it difficult to find an exact number, but somewhere between 100 and 200 men had been killed. Also, 958 of the miners were brought up on charges for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and treason against the state.
    • Some of these men were acquitted by juries of their sympathetic peers, but other spent years in prison. The last miner of Blair Mountain was paroled in 1924.
  • Another mentionable point in all this is the diversity of the miner army
    • Back in 1921 the civil rights had not happened yet. Most towns were segregated (WV coal towns being of no exception). Brown v. Board of Education (the landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional) wouldn’t come across the desks of the supreme court until 1952.
    • From the Smithsonianmag.org’s article:
      • “However, Wilma Steele, a board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, says Matewan was one of the only towns in the United States where Black and white children, most commonly Polish, Hungarian and Italian immigrants, went to school together. Other miners were white Appalachian hill folk. Most all were kept apart in order to prevent organization and unionization. It didn’t work. Keeney recalls one incident during the Mine Wars, Black and white miners held cafeteria workers at gunpoint until they were all served food in the same room, and refused to be separated for meals.
      • ‘We don’t want to exaggerate it and act like they were holding hands around the campfire, but at the same time they all understood that if they did not work together they couldn’t be effective,’ Keeney says. ‘The only way to shut down the mines was to make sure everybody participated.'”
  • After the Battle of Blair Mountain the Coal Miner unions saw a drastic drop in memberships, which hinted that the uprising had a negative affect on its cause.
    • But that didn’t last long. Soon memberships shot back up.
    • And even though the miners had lost the battle, they had made their plight known to the nation.
    • The years and decades following the Battle saw working conditions greatly improve in the mines.
  • What do I think about all this?
    • While reading about all-out warfare that occurred just 100 years ago within the USA I thought to myself “how have I never heard about this?”
    • I live within just a few hours drive to Mingo county and where this all went down. How am I just now hearing about it as I look up obscure topics for podcast episodes?
    • THIS WAS A BIG FREAKING DEAL
    • Then I put on my tin hat and thought that maybe, just maybe, it is the elites of the world that have made this topic seem less important than it is. The same organizations and governments that ban movies like the Battleship Potempkin.
      • A story about sailors on the Russian ship Potemkin that revolt against their harsh conditions. The sailors kill the officers of the ship to gain their freedom. The people of the nearby city Odessa honor the sailors as a symbol of revolution. Tsarist soldiers arrive and massacre the civilians to quell the uprising. A squadron of ships is sent to overthrow the Potemkin, but the ships side with the revolt and refuse to attack.
      • This film was banned in so many countries around the world for fear that it would call their citizens to revolt.
    • But who am I kidding? the elites didn’t bury the story of Blair Mountain. I mean, I was able to find it myself with a simple google search. Dozens of credible sources documented the battle with great detail. Perhaps it is us, the people who chose to forget.
      • One thing I do know, the miners of Blair Mountain took a stand and made a difference in this world. And for that I am grateful.

THANKS FOR LISTENING WHO’D A THUNKERS!

Until next week.

CREDIT:

2:50

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