Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 12 Feb 2013 06:52 pm
In the aftermath of the Battle for Blair Mountain, rumors persisted about the number of dead and injured miners. After all of these years we still don’t have firm numbers. The best estimates run from a dozen to fifty. Those are very low numbers for a battle that had forces of this size, aircraft, howitzers, machine guns, and grenades but the numbers were huge in the eyes of the residents of the tiny communities of West Virginia. The total size of the forces involved – miners and government – is also impossible to state with any certitude. The best guesses run from ten thousand to twenty thousand. This blog is being written in mid February 2013. Just the prior week, the National Geographic Channel had a program focused on this battle, but in a strange way. The show is called Diggers and focuses on two men with metal detectors who go around the nation getting way too excited about finding a coin or a nail. This time, they were all around Blair Mountain and were shocked that no matter where they pointed their detectors they found brass from fired cartridges – most 30.06 but other calibers were represented as well – and more than a few live rounds.
The fact is that the miners lost and lost big. They didn’t even win a moral victory for national press outlets painted them as reds and wild mountain men with guns going against their government. The nation sighed in relief that their troops had reestablished law and order. Miners appealed to Washington to hear their reasons for taking up arms and also begged the government NOT to pull back federal troops for, now, they feared retribution from Baldwin-Fett goons, sheriffs and deputies on the take, and the economic power of the mine company owners.
Washington held meetings for weeks – the Kenyon Committee – but got nowhere. No action was taken, no recommendations made.
You might be wondering why John L. Lewis wasn’t mentioned in the last couple of blogs. The reason was that he was pursuing a different path. He felt that someone high up in the union – that would be him – should become friends with the ruling Republican administration in DC. There is every reason to think his plan was a failure. He asked Harding’s labor secretary to keep the troops in West Virginia and have them disarm the coal company operators and create a safe place for miners to engage in collective bargaining. He got nowhere. Another union leader got an audience with President Harding himself and asked him to set up a conference where both miners and mine owners could meet and work out their differences, perhaps bringing an end to the struggle between them. Harding said he was sympathetic to that goal but that, as president, he had done his job by bringing peace back to West Virginia and that anything else had to come from the state’s own leadership (the nation was more federalist then than it is today). This worked against the miners in this case but in their favor in another case: coal company owners and others called for Bandholtz to use his troops to arrest miners but Bandholtz replied, correctly, that federal troops could not be used to arrest people who broke state laws.
Stalemate? Not so much. The coal company owners changed their tactics then and asked Bandholtz to arrest the miners for violating federal laws. Bandholtz turned to his military law expert, Colonel Walter Bethel, for an opinion and got a dandy one handed to him. Bethel said that since the president had asked the miners to disperse and disarm and since they did not, they were guilty of insurrection – a federal crime that could be punished by death. It looked like this tactic would work until President Harding refused to approve of it. Some conspiracy theorists say he was afraid that any investigation would shed light on the close ties that existed between the government and the mine owners. I think that is overreaching. In my opinion, Harding was a committed federalist who believed he was only to get involved in matters of national import and, then, only when given express authority in the Constitution.
I could be wrong, however. One assistant attorney general is on record as saying Harding refused to let his Department of Justice get involved because “it may embarrass the state officials.” But he might have been speaking for himself.
But while the president didn’t want to get involved, West Virginia’s Republican governor – Morgan – was ready to get revenge on the miners for embarrassing him and causing him to spend money, time, and political capital on driving them back from Blair Mountain. Mooney and Keeney returned from Ohio in order to avoid extradition. After a time hiding in this or that miner’s home, they turned themselves into the Governor himself on September 18th 1921. They were charged with murder. Neither man had wanted the insurrection and both had publicly and privately fought against their own membership in an attempt to get them to go home and lay down their arms and neither of them were in the state when the battle occurred but Morgan was out for blood. John L. Lewis sent a telegram to Morgan asking him to provide protection for them (for he was sure some hired assassin would shoot them down in jail) and received a blistering reply from Morgan who called Keeney and Mooney Leninists, Trotskyites, and Bolsheviks.
Keeney and Mooney were able to post bail but were soon faced with a new charge: treason against the state of West Virginia. This was the nuclear option. It was designed to be a charge so heinous that even their friends would pull away from them. The problem was that the treason clause in the West Virginia Constitution is almost exactly the same as that in the US Constitution and both of them were written to make it very hard to convict someone of that crime unless there were many witnesses and their actions fell into a narrow definition of “levying war…adhering to its enemies…giving aid and comfort.” When legal authorities in other states heard about the charge levied against Keeney and Mooney they unanimously hooted in derision. The New York Times said “In West Virginia indictments for treason seem to be thrown about as carelessly as if they were indictments for [stealing] a chicken.” Some lawyers appointed by the state to press the case withdrew saying the charge was inappropriate and a waste of time since it was doomed to fail.
The governor finally found a prosecutor ready to press the charge, but he wasn’t a government prosecutor. He was Anthony Belcher, the chief lawyer for the association of coal companies! He would press the government’s case. They decided to go after an easier target first – William Blizzard, the miner who lead the battle after being told to stand down by Keeney and Mooney. They moved the trial from Chafin’s Logan County in order to find a fairer jury pool. By some ironic twist of history, they sent it as far from southern West Virginia as they could – to the eastern edge of the eastern panhandle. Why was it ironic? Because 63 years before in that same Charles Town courthouse they held the trial for John Brown, charged with treason and murder at Harper’s Ferry.
Even the judge at the trial was skeptical about the charge. He charged the jury to be careful to understand the difference between riot and treason and told them that unless they were prepared to believe that the miners intended to overthrow the entire government, they couldn’t find Blizzard guilty of treason. The jury listened and acquitted Blizzard on May 25th 1922. The coal company lawyers billed the West Virginia government $125,000 for their time. It was a complete failure by Governor Morgan’s administration. The coal company lawyers weren’t done, though. They had been searching for a better candidate for the treason charge and were convinced they had found one in Walter Allen, a minor player whose role in the uprising is even today questioned.
However…something had happened to the judge. Most sources I have read indicate he was “gotten to” by the governor and/or the coal companies. For some reason, he changed his tune in his jury instructions, allowed jury members to be seated even after they said they were biased against the unions, and ruled against most defense motions during the trial. It was a farce and a guilty verdict was brought in against Allen. The judge must have felt a twinge of guilt for he allowed Allen to be released on bail pending appeal… and Allen disappeared, never to be seen or heard of again.
The state was fed up and tired of losing (and being ridiculed nationwide). It dropped charges against the other twenty men charged with treason, dropped the murder charge against Mooney… but decided to press the murder charge on Keeney…and lost that case, too.
Failing in the courts, the coal companies decided to win in church. They brought fire and brimstone preacher, Billy Sunday, to West Virginia to rail and preach against the unions. Sunday was an over-the-top caricature of a preacher. He was immensely popular in some circles but most educated Christians viewed him as half entertainment and half embarrassment. He said he’d rather be in hell with John Wilkes Booth than to live on earth “with such human lice” as union miners. “If I were the Lord for about fifteen minutes, I’d smack the bunch so hard that there would be nothing left for the devil to levy on but a bunch of whiskers and a bad smell.” In a state where religion was entirely “old time” and full of snakes and brimstone, Sunday swayed a great many away from the unions.
And then John L. Lewis showed up and made one of his biggest blunders. The need for coal had dropped dramatically after the end of the Great War and he decided this was a good time for a nationwide strike. Why? We’ll never know. Stockpiles of coal were at all time highs across the nation. The strike went on but it was a loss for the union. West Virginia miners even lost money and had to agree to lower wages by the time it ended. Lewis was furious and declared “Not one backward step!” but Mooney and Keeney called his decision a disaster and it was. The companies cut the price they would pay for coal along with the amount of daily wages owed to the miners. Lewis wanted to be president of the union and was afraid that backing down would hurt his chances so he plowed ahead while the union crashed and burned. In West Virginia, before Blair Mountain, the UMW went from 50,000 members to less than a thousand. Nationally, membership dropped from 600,000 to 100,000. There are still people in West Virginia today who can barely mention John L. Lewis’ name without spitting.
Smelling blood in the water, courts went after the unions and issued strike breaking edicts. The AFL lost 25% of its membership. Lewis responded by grabbing control of the rapidly shrinking UMW and forcing Keeney and Mooney out. The only ones left in the union were Lewis loyalists so Keeney and Mooney were given no love and no help on the way out. Keeney ended up working as a parking lot attendant, alone. Mooney left West Virginia and drifted for years with his sons (his wife divorced him) doing carpentry work. He tried to enter politics but lost every race. He returned to West Virginia and worked in a non-union mine for a short time before killing himself with a gunshot to the head. You can read his autobiography “Struggle in the Coal Fields” by contacting West Virginia University press.
The UMW was saved not by Lewis but by FDR. He used the union to help organize the vast numbers of unemployed men who were starving during the Great Depression. Lewis abandoned the AFL and joined the radical, Marxist CIO during this time. He organized strikes at General Motors, riots against management at other car companies and steel companies, and so many other out of control “work actions” that FDR publicly broke with him. Lewis would go further during World War Two, calling for a national strike right during the middle of the fighting. He was never forgiven for that by the bulk of the nation.
I won’t try to write more on the history of unions. Others have done that. I just wanted to cover this long forgotten period of history. It explains why fiercely conservative West Virginia (and other states) would vote for liberal Democrats – their parents and grandparents taught them to distrust anything Republican.
The union members of West Virginia and – more recently – Wisconsin and Michigan — had alienated the American middle class in their attempt to better their own lives. It would take a long time for them to learn that they could not win unless the middle class backed them and were sympathetic to their cause. Some haven’t learned that yet.