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Thunder In the Mountains

Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21

Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 216
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    Thunder In the Mountains
    Book Description:

    The West Virginia mine war of 1920-21, a major civil insurrection of unusual brutality on both sides, even by the standards of the coal fields, involved thousands of union and nonunion miners, state and private police, militia, and federal troops. Before it was over, three West Virginia counties were in open rebellion, much of the state was under military rule, and bombers of the U.S. Army Air Corps had been dispatched against striking miners.

    The origins of this civil war were in the Draconian rule of the coal companies over the fiercely proud miners of Appalachia. It began in the small railroad town of Matewan when Mayor C. C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield sided with striking miners against agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who attempted to evict the miners from company-owned housing. During a street battle, Mayor Testerman, seven Baldwin-Felts agents, and two miners were shot to death.

    Hatfield became a folk hero to Appalachia. But he, like Testerman, was to be a martyr. The next summer, Baldwin-Felts agents assassinated him and his best friend, Ed Chambers, as their wives watched, on the steps of the courthouse in Welch, accelerating the miners' rebellion into open warfare.

    Much neglected in historical accounts,Thunder in the Mountainsis the only available book-length account of the crisis in American industrial relations and governance that occured during the West Virginia mine war of 1920-21.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7142-9
    Subjects: History, Business

Table of Contents

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  1. Foreword
    (pp. vii-viii)
    John Sayles

    History is a picture filtered through the lenses of time, language, and point of view. The history of the moment, of the daily headline, has immediacy and heat but can often lack the depth and accumulation of detail a later look can provide. Language can alter the perception of an incident without altering the “facts,” can turn “striking workers” into “unemployed rioters” and back again with a brushstroke. As for point of view, accounts of an event vary not only with the witnesses’ physical perception of the instant but also their political and philosophical perception of the world and of...

  2. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    John Williams

    The West Virginia mine wars–and particularly their climactic episode, the miners’ march on Logan in August and September 1921–make for a rousing good story, and no one has told it as well or as fully as Lon Savage does inThunder in the Mountains. Drawing on his years of experience as a professional journalist, Savage has written a masterful narrative, full of apt description and colorful characterizations, yet based solidly on the historical record.

    History is more than a story, however. Historians ask why as well as how events happened. Approached from this angle, the mine wars and...

  3. 1 “On to Mingo”
    (pp. 3-9)

    In August of 1921, West Virginia’s miners began pouring into Lens Creek Valley near Charleston. They came first in hundreds and then in thousands. They overflowed the seats, aisles, vestibules, and even engine tenders of incoming trains. Nearly a thousand miners arrived on a single train at Cabin CreekJunction, and formed an armed mob that moved forward like a swarm of angry bees.

    All day men walked along mountain roads, carrying guns and packs. Others rode in big spoke-wheeled cars that bumped over rocky roads or through creeks, hub deep in water. In some places the creek was the road....

  4. 2 Everyone called him “Sid”
    (pp. 10-18)

    He Came from the head of Blackberry Creek in the wilderness of the West Virginia–Kentucky border. Everyone called him Sid: farmers, coal loaders, shot firers, trap boys, and the legless beggars who had been crushed in the mines. He knew them all, liked them all, was one of them.

    He was born in 1893 in the Hatfield-McCoy feuding country of the Tug River, where a few years earlier the Hatfields had tied three McCoys to a pawpaw bush and shot them dead, and he grew up with that meanness in him. They say he was the bastard son of...

  5. 3 The Battle of Matewan
    (pp. 19-24)

    Thirteen Baldwin-Felts detectives, tall, heavy men in dark suits, arrived in Matewan on the noon train. The group was headed by two of the three Felts brothers who ran the company, Albert, the field manager, and his younger brother Lee. Miners watched sullenly as the men–“thugs” as the miners called them–stepped down from the train car. The detectives made their way on foot to the Urias Hotel on Mate Street, a block away.

    It was Wednesday, May 19, 1920. Gray clouds blotted out the sun, and a light rain fell intermittently. Idle miners, men who had lost their...

  6. 4 “We have organized all the camps”
    (pp. 25-31)

    Sid was a miner’s hero. Someone at long last had stood up to the hated Baldwin-Felts detectives. For twenty years these extra legal strike-breaking guns-for-hire had harassed union miners all over the country. Stories of their atrocities were told in every miner’s cabin: it was Baldwin-Feltses who burned the women and children at Ludlow in Colorado; Baldwin-Feltses tracked down miners with bloodhounds and throwed ’em in jail; “Baldwins” forced little children from their home at gunpoint; Baldwins machine-gunned sleeping miners at Holly Grove; even a buddy might turn out to be a Baldwin-Felts in disguise. These were the thugs of...

  7. 5 “The most complete deadlock of any industrial struggle”
    (pp. 32-41)

    As John L. Lewis had predicted, Mingo County’s coal operators applied all of their considerable power during the fall and winter of 1920 to break the strike and to bring Sid Hatfield to bay. But Sid and the union miners found they had power too.

    At Governor Cornwell’s request, federal troops occupied Mingo in late August. In a flood of leggings, Sam Browne belts, and campaign hats, they arrived by train, nearly five hundred strong, with machine guns, a cannon, motor trucks, motorcycles, and pack mules. One of their largest detachments camped at Matewan, where little children watched in awe...

  8. 6 “It’s good to have friends”
    (pp. 42-49)

    Finally came the trial: Sid and twenty-two defendants charged with a single murder, that of Albert Felts. It was the biggest in West Virginia’s history, and people crowded into Williamson days beforehand in anticipation. Hotel rooms were booked, and townspeople pointed out the defendants, lawyers, prosecutors, and newspaper reporters like celebrities. The lawyers drew special admiration as they strode through town: Harold W. Houston, tall, handsome, literary, white-haired, “brains” and general counsel of the UMWA in West Virginia; John J. Conniff of Wheeling, one of the state’s foremost attorneys, employed by the union in his first murder case in years;...

  9. 7 “Our citizens are being shot down like rats”
    (pp. 50-54)

    Spring came to the Tug with breathtaking beauty. Birds sang along the river. The vast mountainsides turned from brown to many delicate shades of green, dotted with pink blossoms of mountain laurel and white of dogwood. Climbing roses bloomed on miners’ cabins.

    To America’s miners, Sid was now a greater hero than ever. TheUMW Journalheadlined the Matewan trial every issue and praised the verdict: “It is believed that it will really result in the complete elimination of the brutal gang of gunmen” in West Virginia. The union hired a small moving picture company which made a silent movie...

  10. 8 “… to clean up Mingo County”
    (pp. 55-63)

    Captain Brockus called them the “better people” of Mingo County: lawyers, physicians, clergymen, insurance men, merchants, leaders of the American Legion and YMCA. It was with a sense of crisis that they were called together in Williamson following the “Three Days Battle” along the Tug. They filled every seat in the great courtroom of the county courthouse where Sid had been tried. They sang “My Country, Tis of Thee,” and a legionnaire explained the purpose of their gathering:

    It was “a call for men who will stand up for law and order in Mingo County.”

    It was time for them...

  11. 9 “You saw nothing wrong in that?”
    (pp. 64-67)

    When Sid walked into the Senate hearing room in Washington, it created a little stir. Harold Houston, his union attorney, introduced him, and Senator William S. Kenyon of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, which had called the hearing, noted his presence: “There are a few questions that the committee will ask Mr. Hatfield.” Kenyon mentioned the criminal indictments against Sid and emphasized to Houston, “We do not want to try Mr. Hatfield’s case…. If you want to object to any questions you are at liberty to do so.‭”

    Sid was duly sworn. Under questioning, before...

  12. 10 “Don’t shoot him any more!”
    (pp. 68-71)

    Sid and Jessie got up before daylight to catch the early train for Welch. Ed and Sallie Chambers went with them; Ed planned to testify in Sid’s defense. Jim Kirkpatrick, a Mingo deputy sheriff and good friend, went, too, to provide protection. They met at the depot. “Uncle Eb” Chambers, Ed’s uncle and founder of the Matewan bank, was there, and he begged Sid not to go. Sid was firm, and they boarded a coach when the train steamed in.

    The train wound slowly eastward, puffing around bends, gliding alongside the river, as the sun’s first rays found their way...

  13. 11 “There can be no peace”
    (pp. 72-75)

    Two thousand persons walked in the procession. Still more lined the street. The pallbearers were Knights of Pythias, Oddfellows, and Redmen. They started from the Chambers’s home with Ed’s massive, metal casket and moved up Mate Street. The procession stopped in front of Sid’s store, where Sid’s even larger casket was borne to the street. Again the procession moved down the muddy street, Sid’s casket at the head, Ed’s a short distance behind. It had rained sporadically all morning. The procession moved across the railroad trestle over the rain-swollen Mate Creek and onto the swinging wire footbridge across the Tug...

  14. 12 “We’ll hang Don Chafin to a sour apple tree!”
    (pp. 76-80)

    Lens Creek springs from the mountain just below the Boone County line and tumbles and falls among beeches and oaks. Dropping four hundred feet in its eight-mile run, it gathers strength and widens as it passes Six Mile Branch and Four Mile Run, a cluster of buildings called Hernshaw, and an intermittent line of miners’ cabins. As it nears the bottom, it flattens; its hollow grows wider; its pools grow deeper. Then, suddenly, it debouches from the mountains, sluices beneath a railroad track, flows out through the bottomland and the town of Marmet and empties into the broad Kanawha. In...

  15. 13 “No armed mob will cross Logan County”
    (pp. 81-85)

    At 2:00 a.m. Thursday, a fire siren wailed in the mining town of Logan. Men jumped from their beds, dressed, and hurried out into the night: bankers, clerks, lawyers, merchants, mine officials, a few nonunion miners.

    It was the army of Don Chafin, fabled sheriff of Logan County, hastily organized to stop the miners’ march. Chafin’s county lay fifty miles south of Lens Creek, directly across the miners’ road to Mingo, and West Virginians knew that if anyone in their state could halt the miners, Chafin could.

    By car and on foot they rushed to the county courthouse, where men...

  16. 14 “It’s your real Uncle Sam”
    (pp. 86-89)

    The miners’ army began moving again in the early hours of Friday, again without control or direction, but inexorably southward toward Logan and Mingo counties. Their route was the crude dirt road that led along the Big Coal River to Peytona, up Drawdy Creek and over the mountain, then down Rock Creek to Little Coal River, and they would follow the Little Coal into Danville and Madison. From there, the road turned up Spruce Fork to Sharples and Blair, then wound over Blair Mountain to Ethyl and Logan. By then they knew they would be in battle.

    General Harry Hill...

  17. 15 “By God, we’re goin’ through”
    (pp. 90-97)

    As Keeney made his ballpark speech, an airplane droned overhead in a long, slow sweep across the sky. The pilot looked down on the miners as they dispersed from the Madison ballpark, and he turned the aircraft toward Logan.

    There, Chafin already knew of the ballpark speech and plans to end the march on Mingo. A Madison informant had telephoned him with the news almost as soon as the men knew it themselves.

    At three o’clock, Chafin recalled his troops. Cars and trucks carried the word to the front, where more than a thousand men waited in trenches and barricades,...

  18. 16 “We wouldn’t revolt against the national guv’ment”
    (pp. 98-101)

    Keeney and Bill Blizzard struggled into the temporary state capitol Saturday morning in Charleston, exhausted; they had been up all night. They had a good report for General Bandholz: the miners’ insurrection was all but over; the men were going home. Trains had arrived at Danville and Madison in the early morning hours to take miners back to their homes; other trains were picking them up along Coal River. Hundreds more were returning on foot. Keeney and Blizzard had returned with the men from Madison, nearly eight hundred of them, on a special train that took them to Saint Albans; there...

  19. 17 “The thugs are coming”
    (pp. 102-105)

    State police had a score to settle before the end of the miners’ march on Mingo. They still remembered the incident in early August, twelve days after Sid Hatfield’s death and before armed miners assembled on Lens Creek, when a mob of fifty union miners captured, disarmed, and humiliated several state policemen and deputy sheriffs near Clothier in Logan County. Since the incident, they had obtained the names of more than twenty miners who had participated, including “Bad Lewis” White, the leader. To maintain law and order, to show who was in control of southern West Virginia, it was important...

  20. 18 “There was a different feeling”
    (pp. 106-110)

    Frightened miners, their wives, and children spilled out of their cabins along Beech Creek, shouting and crying: the thugs had come, had shot people, had killed people. They hurried out onto the road. The bodies lay there, blood still flowing from them, bathed in bright, unearthly light of floodlamps from the company store. Greer was dead, Morrison dying. Clark seemed near death. Women screamed, babies cried, men cursed and yelled. Some families ran, panic stricken, back to their cabins and hid in their cellars. Some pointed to bullet holes in their homes and tried excitedly to count them. Several moved...

  21. 19 “I, Warren G. Harding … do hereby command”
    (pp. 111-113)

    In Washington, the War Department had trouble keeping up with events in West Virginia. General Bandholz returned Sunday morning, unaware of the Sharples battle that had renewed the march on Mingo in even greater fury. As union miners rose again in insurrection all over West Virginia on Sunday, he reported his findings of Saturday morning: that the rebellion was all but over.

    To make the misjudgment greater, his report apparently did not reach President Harding and Secretary of War Weeks until Monday, when thousands of armed miners were on the march again. While newspapers reported the new outbreak of fighting,...

  22. 20 “Bring your raincoats and machine guns”
    (pp. 114-118)

    As the miners’ rebellion reescalated, an emotion of war swept across West Virginia. Sheriff Chafin’s dramatic pronouncement–“No armed mob will cross Logan County!”–stirred leading citizens to the marrow of their bones, awakening patriotism that had been dormant since American boys had gone “Over There.” Sid Hatfield’s death now was fast receding into history; what seemed at stake was full-fledged civil war, and West Virginia’s established citizenry responded accordingly. In an outpouring of feeling, hundreds of West Virginia’s most prominent young men came forward as volunteers to help Logan County fight off the invading “rednecks.”

    McDowell County, where Sid...

  23. 21 “Bullets were hissing back and forth”
    (pp. 119-129)

    Blair Mountain was wild, hilly, wooden country, with underbrush so thick in places one could hardly see twenty feet. The mountain actually is a twin mountain, with a pass separating the two sides. A dusty road ran down the pass. Don Chafin’s deputies and volunteers, looking down from their defensive line into the valley, could see the road as it turned sharply left below them, ran along the face of the left side of the mountain for about a quarter mile, then dropped down toward Blair. They considered the road as the battle line. On the crest of the mountain...

  24. 22 “Things slacked off after we ate”
    (pp. 130-141)

    President Harding’s Deadline passed at noon Thursday. The miners to whom it was directed simply ignored it. At the time of the deadline, they controlled five hundred square miles of southern West Virginia, and within that area they took automobiles and trucks from citizens at will; they operated the C&O trains and controlled the railway tracks, stations, and rail-yards; they patrolled the highways and regulated automobile and pedestrian traffic and issued passes to authorize citizen movements within the battle area; they refused to allow mines to operate; they commandeered school buildings and used them as mess halls, first aid stations,...

  25. 23 “These strange new craft”
    (pp. 142-146)

    At 11 o’ clock Thursday morning, Lieutenant Rex K. Stoner’s twin-cockpit Dh-4B biplane taxied down the runway at Langley Field and lifted into the air. Behind him, sixteen other army planes, equipped to carry bombs and machine guns, prepared to follow on a trip into the West Virginia mountains.

    Billy Mitchell selected the 88th Air Squadron at Langley in Virginia to perform West Virginia duty. When President Harding issued his proclamation, Mitchell alerted the squadron, and he issued the field order at 10:30 that morning, a half hour before the first take-off.

    The movement had been planned carefully. In addition...

  26. 24 “The miners have withdrawn their lines”
    (pp. 147-159)

    West Virginia’s miners periodically had risen in varying degrees of violence since the turn of the twentieth century, although never to the extent of the rebellion following Sid Hatfield’s death and the subsequent killing of miners at Sharples. Despite their trigger-happy ways, despite their cruel treatment by many coal operators, despite the dangers and outrages of their vocation, they had never entertained real thoughts of trying to overthrow their national government. The idea, in fact, was totally unthinkable to them. Their enemy was nearer home: the coal operator; the deputy sheriff hired by the operator to enforce the law the way...

  27. 25 “It was Uncle Sam did it”
    (pp. 160-164)

    All Weekend, West Virginia’s rebelling miners surrendered in large numbers to the United States Army along Coal River and Spruce Fork. Some came forward voluntarily, surrendered their arms, gave their names to federal officers, and were carried away from the battle zone on special trains to Saint Albans. A larger number hid their guns in the mountains or in the cabins of their friends and simply made their way home–on foot, riding in flivvers, on horseback, or in wagons.

    Colonel Martin set up headquarters at Madison and established strong detachments at Sharples, Jeffrey, and Clothier. By Saturday evening, six...

  28. Epilogue
    (pp. 165-168)

    The suppression of the West Virginia miners’ rebellion did not end with the surrender of the miners.

    During September and October of 1921, special and regular grand juries in Logan County returned 1,217 indictments for complicity in the insurrection, including 325 murder charges and 24 indictments for treason against the state of West Virginia.

    Hundreds of union miners were jailed, and many of the cases were transferred to other sections of West Virginia for trial.

    In the most celebrated of these, Billy Blizzard was tried for treason in Charles Town in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, in the same courthouse where...