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billryan
billryan
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September 6th, 2021 at 10:14:56 AM permalink
One hundred years ago, union miners and a coal company went to war in West Virginia in what was either the largest insurrection since the Civil War or a simple labor dispute.

The battle was the result of years of disputes between coal companies and miners. The companies used any method, up to murder, to keep the coal miners from organizing.

Miners lived in leased company houses, had to rent their equipment from the company and usually were paid in company --script that could only be used in company stores that inflated prices.

In 1920, the union was beginning to make some ground in Mingo County when a posse of private detectives showed up to evict the union organizers from their homes. The local mayor and sheriff were both pro-union and gathered a mob to stop the evictions. Shots were fired and the Mayor and two miners were killed, as were several of the private detectives. The incident lead to a coal miners strike and when outsiders were brought in, both sides took to ambushing and bushwhacking their opponents. On August 1st,1921, the pro-union sheriff who started it all was assassinated on his courthouse steps by agents of the company.

Within days, thousands of pro-union men had gathered for a march on the county seat to free several union men being held in the jail. The vanguard of the march featured hundreds of WW1 vets, armed to the teeth. The new anti-union sheriff gathered a force of some 2500 men- state troopers, local deputies, jail guards and a coal backed citizen militia, declared the approaching miners to be an armed insurrection and pronounced not one armed miner would live to get to the jailhouse.

Blair Mountain was a small mountain that the miners had to go over and the new sheriff set out a line of barricades, with interlocking machine guns to stop the miners. On August 24th, a large group of miners, estimated to be in the thousands arrived in Mingo County, but representatives of the US Army managed to obtain a temporary truce. The truce lasted two days before two miners were killed in an ambush. By the 28th, some 10,000 miners were trading shots with the vastly outnumbered company men, who held the high ground and were backed by a dozen or so heavy machine guns.

On September 1st, a mob over ran a company store and obtained an old Gatling gun. That afternoon, the miners tried to storm a company position but were stopped by a single machine gun nest, until it ran out of ammo after a few hours. Without the machine gun, the miners chased the defenders out of their first line of defense, but two machine guns in the next position stalled the attack. For the rest of the day, some 10,000 miners and 2,000 company mercenaries exchanged fire and tried to outflank each other. The Sheriff hired two aircraft to fly over the union lines and drop tear gas and pipe bombs but they were ineffective and no miners were injured.

The next day, a squadron of US aeroplanes took to the sky and ended any more air attacks. That afternoon, some 2,000 Federal troops arrived and most of the miners drifted away. A hardcore group of some 1,000 continued to assault the company positions and even threatened to attack the US Army. On September 4th, the last of the miners surrendered and the Battle of Blair Mountain was over. An examination of the two positions supposedly concluded almost a million rounds were exchanged. No official death count was ever given and estimates are anywhere from twenty to a couple of hundred killed. Both sides carried off their dead and wounded so numbers are speculative.

The State of West Virginia arrested some two dozen miners and union organizers and charged them with treason. Most of the union men who surrendered were charged with murder, the company men were released and not charged with any crimes. Several dozen leaders from both sides met with tragic violent deaths in the next few years, but the West Virginia State Police didn't see any connections to the Blair Mountain affair.

The Union was forced to defend all the arrested and even though almost no one was convicted, the financial drain on their resources was such that by the mid 1930s, the effort to organize coal miners in West Virginia was almost non-existent.

Today is Labor Day, and it is one hundred years since these men died for the right to a living wage. They deserve to be honored, not forgotten.

The Union supporters wore red bandannas to identify themselves and several reporters referred to the group as the redneck army, or an army of rednecks. It may be the earliest use of the term redneck , and miners of that generation wore the name with pride.
The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction is supposed to make sense.
JohnnyQ
JohnnyQ
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September 6th, 2021 at 6:21:49 PM permalink
The West Virginia State Museum has a section on this incident. I recommend that museum, very well done if you find yourselves in Charleston, WV.
There's emptiness behind their eyes There's dust in all their hearts They just want to steal us all and take us all apart
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