Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 29 Jan 2013 10:59 pm
To recap: the striking miners have had enough. They are marching toward McDowell County right through Logan County. The sheriff of Logan County – Chafin – is in the pocket of the coal companies. He has amassed a private army of hundred of deputies and citizens of Logan County to stop the march as it enters the valley underneath Blair Mountain. West Virginia has no National Guard (except on paper) and Washington has turned down the Republican governors’ requests for federal troops. Washington DID send Billy Mitchell, later to become the father of the US Air Force, and some planes into the state to monitor and report on the situation.
John Wilburn, a Baptist preacher, led an small group of armed union miners up the lower slopes of Blair Mountain and right into a patrol led by Chafin’s chief deputy, John Gore. Gore had two deputies with him named Colfago and Munsie. The lawmen had been drinking moonshine and most accounts have them half drunk when they see the miners. After shouts at each other demanding that the other group disarm both groups opened fire. All three deputies died and one of the miners, a black man named Eli Kemp, was mortally wounded.
News spread quickly in both camps. Miners rallied even more quickly toward Blair Mountain and the road that led into Logan. On the state/federal/company side of the equation (for the companies and the government were so intertwined as to be one side) the organization was fast and fierce. While the state had no National Guard it DID have a general in charge of it – William Eubanks. He recruited 250 American Legionnaires from Welch, a town so in the fist of the coal companies that Sid Hatfield could be (and was) killed on the courthouse steps and no one would arrest those who did it. The sheriff of that county made himself absent on the day of the murder, giving the Baldwin-Felts men free range and control of the city. Now, that same town was sending in men to fight the striking miners and keep them out of Logan County. Six hundred more men came from Welch and its county (McDowell). Some put the number from McDowell County closer to 800 men.
Charleston’s former police chief – another coal company employee – couldn’t find many man in the capitol that would fight against the union miners so he rounded up the 30 high school ROTC students in town and made them join the anti-union army. Government officials opened up state and local armories, equipping the anti-union forces with machine guns, high powered rifles, over a hundred thousand rounds of ammunition… and airplanes.
To differentiate themselves from the miners whom they called rednecks (for the red kerchiefs hung around their necks) they adopted a de facto uniform of khaki trousers and campaign hats (the flat brimmed hats still worn by most state police) and topped it off with white armband. Being on the government side, they were well equipped with food, gum, cigarettes, etc. all on the taxpayers’ dime.
The miners were dismayed to find out that their leaders, Keeney and Mooney, had left the state. There is no reason to believe they were cowards; they had made no secret of the fact that they thought war against the state was a bad idea. They had tried to cancel the march but the miners were tired of their lives and the lies told them by government officials. They wanted action and they wanted it now. Keeney and Mooney had also been informed that warrants were out for their arrest in connection with extortion and murder in McDowell County. They were innocent of those charges but knew they would face a rigged jury in the county where the sheriff would allow Sid Hatfield to be shot down on the courthouse steps. They crossed the river to Point Pleasant, Ohio and then on to Columbus where they monitored the situation as best as they could – which, to be fair, wasn’t that good.
Bill Blizzard, a difficult, aggressive man who was head of the union’s District 17, took control without asking anyone what they thought about it. He organized the miners as quickly as possible and sent some toward Blair Mountain from the southwest and others from the north. He told them they would all meet up in Logan where they could dance on Sheriff Chafin’s grave.
While many on both sides of the approaching conflict had military experience in the Great War, that was trench warfare. This was warfare in mountains, thick brush, woods so thick that sunlight rarely reached the ground, cliffs and ravines cut by creeks and rivers that twisted left, right, and back on themselves. No plan of battle on either side held up. There was no real communication, though the government side strung telephone wires all over the place in order to keep in touch with its men. One lesson learned from the war, however, was evident in the lack of frontal assaults. The Great War had proven that those days were over; the machine gun would rule the field and any charging army would be slaughtered before it reached halfway to the defenders.
The miners tried pincer movements to reach the defenders (that is what I am calling those who were in the defensive positions. Remember that they were Chafin’s private army, the state police, and the men they could gather and pay to fight against the union miners). Most attacks were very slow as men worked their way through the brush and trees and fired only to receive machine gun fire in return. Not much progress was made by the miners against overwhelmingly superior numbers and guns.
Every direction the miners tried to use was blocked by men with machine guns. A group of miners went after their own gun and found one in the mine company’s store. They liberated a Gatling Gun and brought it up to their lines, immediately bringing it into play against government/company forces on the other side of Craddock Fork. The battle lasted three hours with neither side gaining ground until the government’s machine gun jammed. Miners pushed through their lines and got to Crooked Creek, less than four miles from Logan.
The defenders pulled back quickly and hastily arranged defensive works with dirt, rocks, and trees. They mounted their one remaining machine gun in such a way as to block any miners who wanted to pass by them and get to Logan. About ten (the number is uncertain) miners were badly wounded in their attempt to flank the machine gun or charge the defensive works. Others were wounded when they ran out to drag their union brothers off the road.
Sheriff Chafin decided to use the planes. They had dropped flyers the day before, telling the miners that they would be crushed if they did not lay down their arms and go home. This time, they dropped tear gas canisters and pipe bombs. They weren’t too careful with either armament load. Some pipe bombs landed near women washing their clothes. Mercifully, those were duds and didn’t go off.
President Harding wanted government representatives to go to the miners and ask them personally to retreat and stop this rebellion but he found no one willing to risk death working their way to the miners. Harding then went against the Constitution and ordered federal troops to enter West Virginia and fight. He chose two of the best infantry regiments in the entire Army – the 19th and 10th out of Columbus, Ohio and the 26th out of Fort Dix, New Jersey. These were battle hardened warriors the federal government had not sent home after the war. They wanted to keep them around and now it seemed they had found a purpose for them. Harding also ordered a Chemical Warfare Unit into action with a large number of tear gas bombs, 21 aircraft, and artillery pieces (howitzers).
This was a scenario out of Billy Mitchell’s dreams but the rouge general had annoyed too many people in his chain of command by this time and was pulled out of the action. Major Davenport Johnson would command the federal troops. Keeney and Mooney heard about the oncoming attack by America’s finest and called for their men to disperse and return home. There are many who think they would have done just that had it not been for the actions of a group of state police who shot some innocent men who were walking along the road with no weapons. How could miners return home if the police were just going to shoot them down?
The miners decided to launch one last major attempt to take Blair Mountain on September 1st before the bulk of federal troops and armament could arrive. They failed to blow a railroad bridge (the dynamite charge was discovered and disarmed by a deputy) and so had no way to keep the defenders from reinforcing themselves. The miners attacked anyway, feinting up the middle and then rushing in from both flanks. Machine guns fired back at them from all along the defenders’ front. The battle went on for most of the day but it was clear the miners would not take the mountain. As they backed away, the federal troops arrived. Two thousand one hundred crack troops came on to the scene.
Oddly, the miners thought this might be a good thing. They thought the soldiers would keep the private army of Chafin and the coal companies from attacking them. They were wrong. They sent out notices to all of the union marchers and then sent messages to the federal troops that no miner would fire on any of them. This seems to have been a sincere reflection of the union miners’ intention.
The troops moved into positions throughout Logan and McDowell County. They called for Bill Blizzard to come down and parlay with them. He did so and they searched him, finding a pistol. They were angry and almost arrested him but he showed them a Logan County permit to carry a concealed weapon so they gave it back to him. They told him to go home. “Does this mean you are going to only allow men with permits to keep their guns?” Blizzard asked. The soldiers said that was true (two reporters were nearby, one from the Tribune, who wrote this story down and made sure it got out). Blizzard said if that was true, what about the men on the other side? Would they also have to lay down their guns unless they had permits? The soldiers conferred for awhile and said that the other side could keep their guns if they had permits. This didn’t please Blizzard for he felt his men would be shot down on the road home if the soldiers didn’t disarm everyone on the government/company side – permit or not. They could not come to any further agreement and Blizzard left to talk to his men.
Later, reporters and witnesses said they saw tired, grubby, haggard looking miners walking along the road in groups… but no guns. When they were asked where their guns were, the answer was “When we need them again, we’ll know where to look for them.” They had cached their weapons in fear of being forcibly disarmed by the army or Chafin’s men.
Two small groups of miners didn’t get the memo, so to speak, and kept plugging away at defenders around Blair Mountain. The state police got so jumpy that they started shooting anyone who approached including two reporters who were out to interview them. Neither reporter died but they were arrested (!) and jailed for being in the way. Later, they wrote about their ordeal but were shocked to find out that the army would not let them post their report until they had censored it. The reporters protested that this was against the Constitution and were ignored. All mentions of miners or their families that might put them in a good or sympathetic light were struck from their dispatch.
By September 4th, it was clear it was all over. Miners were openly walking to and from stores or along the rivers with their families and no one was shooting anyone any more. A thousand miners – more or less – had officially surrendered to federal troops. Many thousands just melted away through the woods. Only 400 guns were captured. The rest had been cached, ready for another day.
It seemed peaceful… but it wasn’t over.