I have written before about the battle of Matewan, [stderr] which was a small engagement in what later was known as “The Coal War.”
It’s a tribute to the relentless propaganda Americans grow up in, that most of us have heard of the minutemen and virtually nobody has heard of the battle of Blair Mountain. [wik] If you want to talk about riots and civil unrest, the coal war was the big leagues. Among other things, it’s where the term “red neck” comes from – the rebel miners wore red bandannas around their necks to identify them – thus the name. The lead-up to the coal war, and the battle of Blair Mountain is too big a topic to touch on seriously in a little blog posting, but I will try to summarize it fairly.
In the late 1890s, as coal began to become increasingly important to the industrial economy, capitalists began to employ increasingly ruthless tactics to control and manage their labor force. Basically, they set up a system we’d call “debt peonage” today, in which miners’ and their families entire economic output was captive: they were paid in company scrip, lived in housing that belonged to the company, in towns and barracks that were corporate private property, shopped in company stores (that had on average a 20% mark-up over outside stores), and were not allowed to leave. They were expected to provide their own equipment (bought at the company store) and if anyone left the camp, they were blacklisted and told not to come back – and their family was evicted, too. When the workers, who were paid by the ton of coal their team collected, had their work measured, it was measured by a company agent, whose judgement could not be questioned. Replacement workers were brought in by trainloads, and the company bosses sought to find a sweet spot in which they were screwing the workers just hard enough that the lid wouldn’t blow off, and maximum profitability. And, need I add, because this was all happening on private property belonging to a corporation, the company could hire private security guards to beat the shit out of whoever they wanted – because if there was a law officer around to intervene, the law officer was paid overtime by the company, to be there.
I must digress onto two points: first, this is where the practice of police working “on their own time” comes in. And, it’s why it ought to be illegal: cops are getting paid public money and are taking money from mine bosses to enforce the company’s agenda. Even today, police work as private security details and “off duty cops” maintain their notorious reputation as head-crackers that have impunity. Back at the turn of the century, they were just a bit more obvious about it. Second point: this is where the “right to work” and “right to employ” arguments first began to collide with “free speech” arguments. The companies maintained, accurately, that miners on company property had no right to free speech; if a miner even said the word “union” they could be evicted and blacklisted. The capitalist system in effect in coal country enforced this because all of the mine bosses maintained the same blacklist, so effectively there was no free speech at all in West Virginia, unless you were a mine boss or a gun-toting mine guard. This is why I cringe inside whenever I see a modern atheo-skeptic make an argument that “you have no right to free speech because this is not a public forum” – that argument has a long history of serving corporate interests in a particularly nasty way, and that’s why I try not to make it, myself. Playing the “corporate rights” card is, basically, an authoritarian maneuver. I’d like to encourage anyone, who is about to suppress someone else’s speech because they are obnoxious, to grapple with their obnoxiousness for long enough that it’s clear you’re not just reaching for the authoritarian lever that american corporatism gives you.
Mining is and was labor-intensive and deadly activity. The life expectancy of a coal miner, in those days, was 45 years. By the time they were old, they were often suffering constant breathing problems, limping from injuries, and arthritic from crawling around on hard rock for years. The system the mine bosses set up used humans as interchangeable parts that could be discarded when they wore out. All of this was done with the tacit approval of the rest of the country, which greatly appreciated the new electrical services, railways, and skyscrapers that the steel, smelted by the coal, built.
You probably noticed, in the picture above, that a lot of the miners are children. The vertically integrated economy that the capitalists set up made it such that parents and children wanted their kids to work, because otherwise they were just non-productive mouths to feed. If you think about it: what else is a child going to do, in a mining town? There were even incidents in which children left the camp and their parents were evicted and blacklisted for not controlling their kids. Industrial capitalism made its victims appreciate being victimized, or it silenced and punished them if they dared complain. Or, it killed them outright. Today’s police thug who shoots an unarmed black man in the back is sitting at the apex of a long tradition of granting police and security guards impunity for suppressing labor.
Unions, and it’s worth mentioning Marxists and socialists, were the only tool that labor had; the Marxist analysis of labor’s value in production was critical in helping miners to understand the economic trap they had been forced into, and there were entirely legitimate (in my opinion) arguments made by union organizers that a socialist system would be both more productive and more fair. It was clear to laborers at the time that additional mechanization and automation would ease their work, but the mine bosses didn’t bother because they could just throw people’s lives at the problem. There is an entire separate history (of which many books have been written) regarding the absolutely shameless way that the US government stepped in and ‘legally’ suppressed union organizers. If you have the stomach for it, you can read a biography of “Mother” Jones (Mary Harris Jones) [wik] who spent her life bouncing between West Virginia’s coal country and the oil fields in Texas and California, speaking for labor, and socialized industrialism. [wc – I have not read this yet but it’s on my list] There was Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president from his jail cell after being imprisoned for exercising his 1st amendment rights to free speech. The Maxist/socialists were suppressed, in the end, using a massive propaganda campaign sponsored by the industrial capitalists and military tribunals that gave the defendants no legal representation and no jury of their peers. That was the end-game of crushing the labor movement; the propaganda campaign against socialism continues to this day and you should think of it every time you hear a republican in Washington paint an opponent as “socialist” or “anarchist” (the anarchists in play at the time were mostly people like Emma Goldman [wik] and Lucy Parsons [wik] – these were not people calling for the collapse of civilization; mostly they were asking for things like an 8-hour day.) In the mining camps, the bosses got to decide the work-shift schedules and they’d have the teams down in the pit for 10 or 12 hour shifts; whatever they could get them to survive. Remember this, too, when some politician in Washington talks about those evil anarchists – they are not just a bunch of deranged nihilists who want to see the world burn – they are political skeptics who want to see politics based on a balance between autonomous individuals. The industrial capitalists arranged their system of mining camps deliberately to minimize the workers’ autonomy to, basically, zero. That was what the anarchists were fighting. [Oh, and one of the reasons ‘conservatives’ are scared of Jews is because Marx, Goldman, Bronstein, etc. were educated people and in Europe that often meant they were Jews. You can substitute “educated person” in, whenever they foam at the mouth, and there is no semantic change. I.e.: “educated people will not replace us.” etc.]
The coal wars seemed to flare up around Matewan, but the problems were going on in the entire area. Between 1890 and 1920, when the depression started, there were thousands of independent coal mines. Some of them were vertically integrated captive economies and others were not. Matewan probably stands out as a locus for trouble because, while it was a town controlled by the coal companies, it was not owned outright by the coal companies. People – including union organizers – could go in and out. And the coal companies’ thugs tried to drive them away. [smith] This stuff had been going on for some time, and not only in Matewan. But it serves as a good place to introduce the villains of the piece, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. The eponymous Baldwin-Felts were run by a bunch of nasty characters who were the unabashedly brutal tip of the spear. They made Blackwater look like sissies. No, I am not being hyperbolic. Baldwin-Felts thugs’ idea of how to suppress a mining town that was trying to unionize was to send 100 men up with Winchester repeating rifles, and start firing bullets through peoples’ tents. Nobody knows how many people they killed, because they controlled the information that got out about actions in the mines.
The Baldwin-Felts ‘detectives’ built armored cars mounting .30cal machine-guns, which they’d use to block roads or chase miners. They’d have loved to have Humvees, I bet, but they were enthusiastic enough with what they did have.
These running engagements went on for about 30 years, and finally exploded when the great depression upset the economics of coal mining. Prior to the great depression, the coal miners had gotten doubly screwed by the government. First, the government decreed that coal was strategic (naval transports burned coal at that time) and mandated forced labor, excuse me, mandated production targets from the coal fields. Second, entire towns of miners were stripped of their adult men to go fight in France. America even temporarily put its racism on hold, because cannon-fodder knows no color, and black coal miners found themselves defending “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!” in Flanders, none of which they had back at home unless it was through their union.
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, or are a student of revolutions, you ought to be able to see what’s coming: economic collapse, suppression, and the injection of military-trained veterans into an otherwise unstable situation. The Baldwin-Felts were suddenly trying to scare people who had gone “over the top” at Ypres. Take a look at the face of the tall man standing behind the gravestone in the picture above – is that the face of someone who is going to back down when a greasy corporate thug tells them to? Fuck, no. That is the expression of someone who has seen the elephant.
As another side note: the UMW (United Mine Workers) and other unions at the time were often quite progressive. That’s not unexpected, because they included powerful spokespeople like Debs and Mother Jones, who were socialist/progressive in matters of gender equality as well as race. At the time, the corporate capitalists did a “divide and rule” strategy along racial/ethnic lines, and the miners’ unions leveraged that to build solidarity, instead. Another side note: do not call a place in a city “little Italy” – many cities have a “little Italy” but it’s a reference to the segregated mining camps, which had an Italian section, often a Polish/Russian/Ukrainian section, and – of course – a black section. The union’s message, which was gratefully heard, was that this was a tactic being deliberately used by the mine bosses (it was) and that solidarity was more important than racist division.
Labor unrest was usually cast as a “riot”; that’s the traditional call for police and Baldwin-Felts to charge in and start shooting. Whenever the miners got recalcitrant, a few of them would be evicted from the company-owned lodging and thrown into being destitute. Eventually, the bosses blew it, and triggered a few strikes, then evicted the strikers and – instead of leaving, the strikers (with some help from the unions) leased some large acreages and built tent cities and stayed. They started blocking replacement workers from coming in, too. So the Baldwin-Felts ran their machinegun cars through the encampment and shot people. This time, that didn’t work; one man sent his wife running with their child, went outside to yell at the goons, and took a high-powered bullet in the face. A child’s head was blown apart with a random shot from a Winchester. The dead started to pile up, and people had had enough.
Like their white cohorts, black miners found that something of slavery remained in the lives of men who sold their labor and sacrificed their liberty for the right to work for a coal company, and live in a company town under the watchful eye of deputy sheriffs and private detectives. A miner who had been a slave later testified that the gunmen, who were called “The Baldwins” did not believe that striking coal miners were citizens and they “took away from us our rights and privileges as freemen – both the black and the white.”
While Edmunds relied upon eloquence and logic to make his case for industrial freedom, Dan Shane employed different talents to the same end. Known as “Few clothes” he weighed more than 200 pounds and knew how to use his fists in a brawl. When the first strike-breakers arrived in Eskdale late in August, Shane joined two other strikers in an assault on a car-load of new recruits. After being attacked at the train station, the replacement workers hit the tracks and headed down the creek to a train station where they could catch a train that would take them home.
It was rumored that Shane had once belonged to the notorious black army regiment President Roosevelt had discharged in 1906 because some of its members refused to testify against fellow soldiers who were accused of raiding a white neighborhood in Huston, TX. “Anyway,” one striker recalled, “Shane knew how to handle a gun.” And when strike leaders in the Eskdale camp decided they needed to protect themselves from an assault by the guards, they recruited Few Clothes along with ten other experienced marksmen, who became known as the “Dirty Eleven.” While this band protected the strike community from attack, the miners and their families settled in for what they expected to be a long haul.
Ralph Chaplain, a radical organizer and journalist, found the strikers “doing pretty well in their tent colony. They seemed proud of themselves and even seemed to be enjoying themselves as they spent long days visiting and sometimes singing together.” The scene appalled local respectables, wrote Chaplain, people who were not used to this kind of mixing and socializing among men and women of different races and nationalities. “The lord has been on our side as far as the weather is concerned,” one miner wrote from Eskdale during the last days of summer, “almost from the first day of the strike.”
As I sit here, comfortably in my expensive desk chair, my belly full of bagel and lox, with a cup of fine Earl Gray tea, it’s hard for me to imagine what subsistence living was like in the camps – but the thing that jumps out at me is that it wasn’t much different from working in the mines, only it was a whole lot easier. The strikers had acreage and guns and there were deer and woodchucks, potatoes and ramps, and a big canvas tent wasn’t much better or worse than a drafty wooden slat-house owned by the mining company. I am reminded of Kris Kristofferson’s brilliant “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” When you push people down hard enough, far enough, they’re not going to take your shit, anymore. The Baldwins had gotten used to miners that could be cowed, and next they had to deal with miners that couldn’t.
The Events of 1921: The whole story merits a book [see notes] or a movie, but you can imagine a movie won’t get made because it would be hard to figure out how to fit a heroic white savior in, who can turn the situation around. In fact, Mother Jones was the closest that there was to such a thing, and she wound up horribly discrediting herself later on in the stand-off, when she claimed to have a telegram from the president (she did not) and was challenged when the claimed to be reading from it. In point of fact, the government was watching the situation from a distance, with horror, because at the time there were general insurgencies cropping up all over the place. Ludlow, Colorado, also turned into an armed stand-off between strikers and mine owners. [wik] John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards, backed by the Colorado national guard, attacked a 1200-person striker camp and killed 21 people. The national guard let the company guards use their machinegun. Rockefeller Center is still a place in New York, the Ludlow camp is long gone.
The miners in West Virginia bought guns. Several thousand military surplus Krag-Jorgensen rifles and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The Baldwins brought in more men. The strikers started sending out what can only be called “sniper teams” to patrol the ridge-lines and fire down at the Baldwins whenever they appeared. Some of the strikers raided corporate offices and fired bullets through the windows, which caused mine managers to decide to manage the situation from New York City, instead. The situation continued to build, and the strikers did not back down – nor did the Baldwins, because they knew that a defeat like the Pinkertons suffered at Homestead would break their reputation for toughness and they’d be targets for ever more. The Baldwins were already losing the situation, badly: several of their machineguns wound up in the hands of the strikers, who had learned how to outflank and take a machinegun nest full of Germans, the Baldwins were nowhere near as competent as the Kaiser’s troops.
By the time the situation reached a head, there were almost 10,000 miners under arms, including units of miners that were led by veterans still wearing bits of their khaki military uniforms, maneuvering and sharpshooting the way they had learned in Flanders. The Baldwins’ armored cars were not tough enough, so the Baldwins built an armored train with steel plate-sided cars – which was duly driven off the battlefield when the Baldwins (not strategic geniuses) discovered that it’s a lot easier for a sharpshooter behind a rock to hit a train, than for a machinegunner in a train to hit a sharpshooter behind a rock. There are similarities, here, with the Boer War except that there were no regular military on either side.
There was no regular military, that is, until the US Air Force got pulled in to perform reconnaissance for the anti-strike militia, and dropped bombs on some of the strikers. There seems to be a bad tendency on the part of strikers and resisters to expect the national guard or military to intervene on their behalf, followed by crushing disappointment when they discover that the military exists to protect property rights, i.e.: corporations.
Wikipedia’s description of what happened is good and I see no reason to write my own narrative: [wik]
At a rally on August 7, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones called on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties and set up the union by force. Accused by some of losing her nerve, she feared a bloodbath in a battle between lightly armed union forces and the more heavily armed Logan County deputies. Yet, feeling Morgan had lied to them again, armed men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain, near Marmet in Kanawha County, on August 20. Four days later an estimated 13,000 had gathered and began marching towards Logan County. Impatient to get to the fighting, miners near St. Albans, in Kanawha County, commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners the Blue Steel Special, to meet up with the advanced column of marchers at Danville in Boone County on their way to “Bloody Mingo”. During this time Keeney and Mooney fled to Ohio, while the fiery Bill Blizzard assumed quasi-leadership of the miners. Meanwhile, the anti-union Sheriff Chafin had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. He was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association, creating the nation’s largest private armed force of nearly 2,000.
That is, in terms of military force structures, an entire division of strikers. 13,000 armed men, with machineguns they captured from Baldwin-Felt goons, and military bolt-action rifles they had purchased or looted. One description of the miners is that they marched in orderly columns, led by experienced soldiers, with their rifles on their shoulders. Now, that is a “riot.”
The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of August 25. The bulk of the miners were still 15 mi (24 km) away. The following day, President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers. After a long meeting in Madison, the seat of Boone County, the miners were convinced to return home. But the struggle was far from over. After spending days assembling his private army, Chafin would not be denied his battle to end union attempts at organizing Logan County coal mines. Within hours of the Madison decision, rumors abounded that Chafin’s men had shot union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, just north of Blair Mountain – and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. Infuriated, the miners turned back toward Blair Mountain, many traveling in other stolen and commandeered trains.
Perhaps if they made a movie of this, Chafin would be the hero. After all, he was the corporate capitalist fulcrum of all this activity.
By August 29 battle was fully joined. Chafin’s men, though outnumbered, had the advantage of higher positions and better weaponry. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I were dropped in several locations near the towns of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair. At least one did not explode and was recovered by the miners; it was used months later to great effect as evidence for the defense during treason and murder trials. On orders from General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance. One Martin bomber crashed on its return flight, killing the three crew members.
On August 30, Morgan appointed Colonel William Eubanks of the West Virginia National Guard to command the government and volunteer forces confronting the miners. Sporadic gun battles continued for a week, with the miners at one time nearly breaking through to the town of Logan and their target destinations, the non-unionized counties to the south, Logan and Mingo. Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and 50–100 on the union miners’ side, with hundreds more injured or wounded. Chafin’s forces consisted of 90 men from Bluefield, West Virginia; 40 from Huntington, West Virginia; and about 120 from the West Virginia State Police. Three of Chafin’s forces, two volunteers and a deputy sheriff, were killed and one miner was fatally wounded.
That’s the kind of action the “boogaloo bois” seem to think they want. They want to be in the role of the authoritarians, though, not in the role of pop-up targets that have be rescued by the US Army. Before you started reading this, would you imagine the US Air Force dropping bombs on civilians, including military gas?
Is there a point to all this? Well, yes. While I read about the action in Portland, I think about what happens to rental cops when they push things past the point where people are going to back down. I remember that, when the federal rental cops throw tear gas into a crowd, there are Iraq war veterans in the crowd, thinking “why am I putting up with this shit?” The only reason that people put up with this kind of shit is because they have a lot to lose. Once the government starts to take that away from them, the situation will harden, irrevocably.
The coda of the battle of Blair Mountain and the miners’ unrest is that the US government set aside its rule of law and ruthlessly suppressed socialists, anarchists, and labor organizers. American corporate capitalism has continued its attempt to suppress labor organization, riding along on the coat-tails of the massive propaganda campaign that was unleashed to demonize labor activists. The Battle of Blair Mountain was fought in 1921, and the Bonus Army (32,000 strikers) was driven with tanks and military gas from Anacostia Flats in 1932. The great depression opened fault-lines in the US pseudo-democracy that caused it to deploy its military against strikers again and again. The thing that saved the country from having to reform was Adolph Hitler stepped up to the plate and provided the regime with a foreign enemy we all had to pull together in order to defeat.
We are raised to remember the Boston Tea Party and the minutemen, but not the striking coal miners. We are raised in a sea of propaganda that reveals that the capitalist oligarchs that run the country are flat-out terrified of socialism because it threatens the social dominance that they achieved by climbing over a whole lot of dead bodies. The names of the industrial capitalists, Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Frick, etc, are carved into granite to remind us of the beneficences that they threw to the people, which were mostly table scraps. Besides, they weren’t even thrown to the people, they were thrown to the upper class that those capitalists aspired to become part of. [How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Over a lot of dead miners bodies] Right now, the US is experiencing an economic crisis resulting from its failure to heed its established plans for responding to a pandemic. Right now, there are many people out of work, without medical care, without anything to do except get pissed off. I don’t think the US is ripe for a revolution, or even significant civil unrest, because it hasn’t gotten anywhere near as bad as it got for the West Virginia coal miners, before they finally snapped. But: if you believe (as I know many do) that the republicans are trying to kill you or your family by taking away your medical insurance, remember that a proper riot is the voice of people who have been shut out, disenfranchised, and threatened. It is justified when rental cops start beating on people. The government understands that power comes from the barrel of a gun, and they act like it. It is important to understand this, because otherwise peaceful protesters and unarmed civilians are the mice asking the cat to bell itself.
I am adding James Green’s The Devil is Here In These Hills [wc] to my official recommended reading list [stderr] including my “money back guarantee” [stderr] that you’ll find it worth reading. It’s a full detailed account of the coal wars in West Virginia including the battle of Blair Mountain and – most importantly – the political aftermath and suppression of the unions. It’s not a fun book, by any means.