Battle of Blair Mountain

Miners turning in their weapons following the Battle of Blair Mountain

BLUEFIELD — President Donald Trump has told the nation’s governors that he will send federal troops if they cannot get violent protests over police brutality under control, but it would not be the first time in American history that troops have been deployed against civilians. One occurred about 100 years ago in West Virginia when conflicts between coal miners calling for unionization and mine companies erupted into armed conflict.

A heated labor dispute that simmered for years in southern West Virginia’s coalfields exploded in 1920 when the United Mine Workers started organizing coal miners in Mingo County. Miners laboring for low wages had been working under a company town system which required them and their families to shop at company stores and live in company housing. Coal companies often used private detectives to intimidate strikers and evict them for their company-owned homes.

Tensions escalated on May 19, 1920 when members of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived in Matewan to evict union miners from coal company houses. Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and Sheriff Sid Hatfield, along with several residents, confronted the detectives at the train station. An argument led to a gunfight which left seven Baldwin-Felts agents dead along with Testerman and two miners. Eventually, armed miners and their opponents faced off at Blair Mountain in Logan County.

This conflict escalated and came to be called the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Even airplanes were used in the Battle of Blair Mountain. A Sept. 3, 1921 story told readers about bombs being dropped on roads by airplanes.

The miners’ actions at Blair Mountain eventually ended when federal troops arrived that same month. The exact number of casualties was not confirmed.

“I’ve never heard of an actual body count,” County Commissioner Bill Archer said. “No, I’ve never heard of it.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

Recommended for you