Around this time in 1921 a very important, but unknown, situation was occurring in Logan County, West Virginia. Unions were gaining popularity and power, but the major mining corporations, and their owners, were hell bent on keeping unions far away from their workers. Union organizers wanted to spread their influence to Mingo County, which neighbored Logan County, but was more favorable to unions.
In the independent town of Matewan a young sheriff was appointed named Sid Hatfield, who also claimed to be a member of the notorious Hatfield family. With the mining companies worried about unionizing, they began to blacklist, or kick out, any worker who was pro-union, and housed them in makeshift tent colonies. The residents of these colonies were understandably outraged and they numbered somewhere near 3,000 ex-coalminers.
The mining companies brought in Baldwin-Felts agents to restore order to the town and regain their workers, but met some push back. Albert Felts, of Baldwin-Felts, attempted to arrest the town’s sheriff, Hatfield, but he wasn’t having it and the meeting turned into a gunfight where 10 men were killed. This became known as the Matewan Massacre, and was a hugely symbolic and significant event for the miners.
With a new found confidence the union gained influence in the area and continued to battle with the mine operator, while the miners actually took up arms and waged low-intensity warfare throughout the region. They even fired on state policemen when they raided their tent colony.
Just a few months later the mines were being reopened, due to the replacement miners brought in, and the signing of yellow dog contracts, which made joining a union illegal. The mines were now 80% operational and the union was losing the battle for their workers. The union miners were fed up and in May 1921 launched the “Three Days Battle” which engulfed the whole Tug River Valley. From which Sid Hatfield was charged with dynamiting a coal tipple.
When he went on trial for this in McDowell County in August 1921 he and his good friend were slain by a group of Baldwin-Felts agents on top of the county courthouse stairs, in front their wives no less. This egregious act enraged the miners and led them out of the mountains bearing arms. After having their list of demands rejected by the Governor, they decided they would march to Mingo and Logan Counties and free the miners who were confined by martial law.
13,000 miners met Lens Creek Mountain anxious to get fighting and on August 25th first encountered anti-union Sheriff of Logan County Don Chafin. The next day the President of the United States, Warren Harding, threatened to intervene with federal troops and bombers. Therefore forced to negotiate, an agreement was reached which convinced the miners to go home, but Chafin was not ready to go home and he saw this as an opportunity to exterminate any sign of unions in his county. Hours after the agreement was reached Chafin’s men began deliberately firing at union sympathizers, catching families in the cross-fire. The miners who were now heading home turned around in their commandeered trains and headed toward Chafin’s men.
Just four days after the first skirmish the battle was in full swing. The miners outnumbered Chafin’s men, but he had weapon and position superiority. Not to mention the Army’s assistance on providing aerial surveillance. Chafin, with the financial backing of the mine companies, hired private planes to drop a combination of gas and explosive, bombs left over from World War I.
By the time federal troops had arrived on September 2nd, fighting had become sporadic, with the unionized troops almost breaking through to the south. In the end, the leader of the union’s troop, Bill Blizzard called off the hound and asked the miners to go home before they lost too many good miners. Chafin reported up to 30 deaths, while the union miners had upwards of 100, with both sides having hundreds injured.
As a result of the battle, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia. Some were acquitted by understanding juries, but many were imprisoned for a couple of years until they were paroled in 1925.
In the short term the corporations won, seeing union membership fall from 50,000 to 10,000 over the next several years. The UMW (United Mine Workers) did not fully unionize West Virginia until 1935.
In the long run however this event raised awareness of the horrendous conditions miners faced. While the unions were forced to shrink because they were no longer financially sustainable, it forced the leaders to rethink their strategy and come back stronger after FDR’s New Deal. It also led to the unionization of steel workers and similar trades.
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