Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 21 Jan 2013 11:43 pm
Sheriff Chafin and his private army of coal company paid deputies and business owners held the high ground at the entrance to Logan County. A dirt road was the most direct route — and the only workable route — the striking miners could take into Logan as they marched their way to Mingo County. The Republican Governor of West Virginia appealed to the Secretary of War (now called the Secretary of Defense) for more arms and soldiers to bolster Chafin’s army but was turned down. Washington DC was convinced that this was a West Virginia problem and West Virginia needed to handle it on its own. It sounds foreign to our ears in 2013 to hear the federal government refuse to get involved in a state matter but federalism — the right of each state to govern itself in its own way — was the law of the land from the time the Constitution was written until it began to be seriously chipped away by FDR and LBJ and the Supreme Court they stacked with their political friends later in the mid to late 1900s.
Governor Morgan decided to go over the president’s head and appeal to … the New York Times. He made a public appeal for 1,000 men to help turn back an “army of malcontents…inflamed and irritated by speeches of radical officers and leaders.” President Harding was now under pressure to do something but he still refused to send the army. Instead, he sent in General Bandholtz, a true American hero. After sterling service in the Spanish-American War and the Great War, Bandholtz had served as a special ambassador to Hungary and stopped a large scale raid by Romanians intent on looting castles and manor houses in Transylvania. He was known to be a reasonable man, a diplomat, and a gentleman. His orders from Harding were simple: make the miners turn back.
Bandholtz arrived in the wee hours of the morning on August 27th and tried to get Governor Morgan to negotiate directly with the miners and their leaders. When Morgan refused, Bandholtz said that he would. He asked Morgan to come with him and, once again, Morgan refused. At 5AM, he got Keeney and Mooney out of bed and told them to come to the governor’s office to speak with him. They came immediately accompanied by their lawyer, Harold Houston. Bandholtz appealed to the two union leaders’ patriotism. He reminded them that the entire country was enduring hard times. His argument was that there were millions of unemployed men and if they followed the union’s lead, they would all rise up in armed insurrection. What would happen to America? Keeney and Mooney said they were willing to ask the miners to disperse but only if Bandholtz gave them an official request from the president. At first, he refused saying that he did not have that kind of authority but he later relented and sent a telegram that they could read to their men.
And here, politics and politicians failed their people yet again. President Harding said he would officially endorse Bandholtz’s telegram if Governor Morgan rescinded his request for troops and used his own National Guard instead. The problem was that Morgan couldn’t call out his guard because he had never gotten around to re-establishing it after the war. He had appointed an adjutant general but failed to give him any funding, staff, men, or equipment. So the president said he wouldn’t help Morgan until Morgan called out his own National Guard and there was no guard to call out. Stalemate. Except…
Behind the scenes, a precaution was taken that turned out to be a fateful error. Washington (historians argue about whether Harding knew about it or whether this came from his War Department), alerted Major General Charles Menoher to ready some planes from the Army Air Service to be ready to fly men and materiel to West Virginia in case the situation escalated. Menoher ordered a field in Kanawha (outside of Charleston, the capitol) to be readied. The senior command officer given direct command of that operation was none other than Brigadier General William (Billy) Mitchell — the man who would later become the father of the US Air Force and be courtmartialed for his trouble.
Billy Mitchell was loved and hated by this time in his long career. No one had a neutral view of him. High officers in the army and navy hated him because it was obvious he wanted to form his own armed force — a flying one — rather than work within the armed forces of the time. And every high ranking officer had his senators and representatives and cabinet ministers who would back him up. Some in DC loved him but most couldn’t stand Mitchell and thought he was a grandstander and self promoter. Mitchell’s wife had just left him — and divorce was almost always fatal to a general’s career in that day. Still, Mitchell was demonstrably excited about his “opportunity” in West Virginia. He immediately flew to West Virginia and stepped off his plane wearing a Colt revolver, spurs, and an elaborate uniform.
His first speech upon arriving detailed how he believed air power could end civil disturbances. Imagine hearing that today — that the government could end marches and strikes and public demonstrations by bombing and strafing citizens from the air. A reporter brought up the fact that West Virginia’s terrain was not that of France. Here, men could hide in steep walled gullies under the cover of brush. How would Mitchell get to them? Mitchell’s reply? “Gas.” He elaborated, “You understand we wouldn’t try to kill people at first. We’d drop gas all over the place. If they refused to disperse then we’d open up with artillery preparation and everything.” A general in the United States Army was casually and gleefully telling reporters that he was ready to use poison gas to kill Americans on American soil in violation of the Constitution. And he was serious. And no one was going to stop him.
Keeney and Mooney hired a car and drove all day and night, talking to every group of miners they saw, begging them to disperse and warning them of Mitchell’s plans. Most ignored them and a few even pulled gas masks out of their backpacks, salvaged from their time in uniform in the Great War. Finally, they found several men who served with Bandholtz and who respected him (as it seems all did who served under him). Those men helped them talk to other strikers and tell them to disperse. They didn’t mind fighting Sheriff Chafin and they didn’t mind fighting poison gas but they wouldn’t fight against Bandholtz. To them, he represented all that was right with the USA. It took all day and most of the next to reach the bulk of the miners. Reluctantly, with tears and anger, they turned back. Special trains were laid on to get the miners to their homes, avoiding travel through Logan County. It seemed that war had been averted and the crisis was going to pass. Bandholtz left West Virginia but, privately, sent messages to DC warning them that Governor Morgan wasn’t capable of keeping a lid on things in his state. He warned them that the crisis was NOT over. He was right.
In fact, the miners of West Virginia were not happy with the way things had turned out. They were angry and felt the full weight of the injustices of the last several decades on their shoulders and, now, the march was over and they were left with no hope of resolving their grievances. Some decided to take action regardless of the pleas of their leaders, Keeney and Mooney. They took over a train at Clothier, WV and planned to fill it with miners, run it without lights, and get to Blair Mountain for a sneak attack on Sheriff Chafin and the coal company’s men. Keeney and Mooney found out about the plan and, when they tried to stop it, their own men threatened to shot them in the head if they interfered. When other miners hesitated, they were told “To hell with Kenney! They are killing women and children up at Blair.”
Three hundred men eventually joined the train. They almost caught Chafin by surprise but a tax commissioner heard about the approaching plan and called the sheriff, catching him just before he left his office for the day. Chafin called the governor but got nowhere. Once again, Morgan was ineffectual, dragging his feet and waffling. Chafin them called the state police and got Captain Brockus to bring in a strike force. Brockus, you remember, hated the miners and had a sadistic streak in him. Chafin sent Brockus after a group of 30 miners who had annoyed him in the past. It was, in short, an excuse for him to take vengeance against some men who had stood against him.
And all of this was going on within a few hours of the peace organized by Bandholtz, Keeney, and Mooney. Bandholtz was leaving the state, unaware of what was happening an hour’s drive away from the capitol. Chafin knew he was stirring the pot and risking open insurrection but it appears he craved the battle that would result from his decisions. Brockus arrested several miners and made them march in front of his troopers as a way to shame and cow any other miners he might meet. That didn’t work out very well when he came upon a group of five miners and demanded “Who are you?” They replied, “By God, that is our business.” When Brockus decided to arrest them guns blasted from every window and doorway in town and from the open mouth of the mine pits. Three of the arrested miners were shot down by the troopers before they decided to take cover in a ravine by the road. Two died of their wounds and another would survive with three wounds. Brockus had no option but to pull back. With the darkness of the night and the confusing twist of roads and paths, quite a few troopers got lost. Some were led to homes of citizens opposed to the union and given shelter but the miners found them and led them away at gunpoint.
The next morning was Sunday, August 28th and newspapers made the battle sound like a war. They claimed scores of people killed, including women and children mowed down by gunfire (either by the miners or the troopers, according to the paper’s political bent). Keeney and Mooney had the papers print a letter from them begging the miners to lay down their arms. The letter was ignored. Miners began looting coal company stores of all their guns — including Gatling guns and other machine guns. Tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition were also stolen and pressed into the union’s service. Cars and trucks were commandeered and used as transportation for men and weapons. Word of the uprising spread like fire and union miners from neighboring states began showing up on trains and in private cars. Some came from as far afield as Illinois. Governor Morgan stopped all train service to keep more from coming in so the miners just stood out in the road and took over any passing vehicle at gunpoint. Others pushed train engineers off the train and drove them themselves.
Miners told passers by that they were going to end martial law in Logan County and free the union members kept in jails there without trial. Others said they were going to Logan County to hang the sheriff. Tens of thousands of miners were on their way. Governor Morgan begged President Harding for help once again. This time, Harding issued a presidential proclamation ordering all armed men to return to their homes and he sent Bandholtz back to West Virginia. It was August 30th…
…the same day that a Baptist preacher named John Wilburn led a contingent of miners toward Blair Mountain. State troopers and deputies ran into them the next morning. The troopers had been drinking moonshine and complaining about the “redneck SOBs” who were causing them all this trouble when Wilburn’s men rose up and fired, killing three of them. One of the miners, a black man named Kemp, was also killed in the exchange.
The Battle of Blair Mountain had begun…