The West Virginia mine wars culminated in the nation’s largest armed uprising since the Civil War.
West Virginia miners first went on strike at Hawks Nest in 1880, their principal grievance then and in every strike since has been inadequate pay. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was formed in 1890. For the next 43 years, the UMWA tried to organize southern West Virginia miners into the union. The UMWA’s only leverage was to pull miners off the job and shut down the mines. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these strikes became increasingly violent.
National labor leader Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was one of the principal leaders and agitators in the West Virginia labor movement from 1902 until the 1921 march on Blair Mountain. The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike was one of the deadliest in American history. In April 1912, miners along Paint Creek in Kanawha County walked off the job, demanding higher wages, the right to organize, and an end to the hated mine-guard system. They were joined shortly by miners from nearby Cabin Creek. Due to continuing violence, Governor William Glasscock declared martial law and dispatched the National Guard to restore order three times. In 1913, new Governor Henry Hatfield essentially dictated a resolution to the strike, meeting few of the miners’ demands. Miners, National Guard troops and the companies’ mine guards set up camps and fought pitched battles for more than a year. The most notorious event occurred when mine guards shot blindly into a miners’ tent colony, killing a man. A shootout at Matewan in 1920 started a war that raged between coal operators and the UMWA in Mingo and McDowell counties for more than a year.
On August 1, 1921, Sid Hatfield, the union hero of the Matewan Massacre, was killed by company-hired detectives. UMWA leaders provoked outraged miners to march on Mingo County in an attempt to force coal operators to accept the union—at gunpoint, if necessary.
On August 24, 5,000 armed miners began marching from Marmet, just outside Charleston. Standing between the marchers and Mingo County was Blair Mountain, a rugged mountain that guards the town of Logan. Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin gathered troops and established fortifications atop a high ridge on Blair Mountain. The first shooting occurred at Sharples on August 27 and soon escalated into a full-scale battle on Blair Mountain. On September 1, President Warren Harding dispatched U.S. Army troops to the region. Two days later, the miners began surrendering. When the fighting ended, at least 16 men, including 12 miners, had been killed. Blair Mountain was the last major battle of the southern West Virginia mine wars.
The mine wars nearly destroyed the UMWA. By the end of the 1920s, the union’s membership in West Virginia had dropped to less than 1,000. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal finally turned the tide and allowed the UMWA to organize Mingo, McDowell and other counties in 1933.
The UMWA’s new-found success gave the union extraordinary political power, choosing and electing congressmen, legislators and governors. The UMWA-supported Democratic Party has controlled the state legislature since Roosevelt was first elected in 1932.
The UMWA’s membership dropped in the 1950s and 1960s as mining jobs disappeared. Today, UMWA membership is about one-half of its peak number in 1946; however, the numbers have declined far less dramatically than the drop in mining jobs.