The Red Neck War of 1921The Miners' March and The Battle of Blair Mountain
By: Michael M. Meador
The assassination of Matewan Massacre defendants Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers in
August 1921 brought the West Virginia Mine Wars to a frenzied crescendo.
Outraged coal miners marched South from the Kanawha Valley by the thousands,
determined to end the nonunion regime in Logan and Mingo. They were intercepted
by Logan Sheriff Don Chafin, an infamous figure in union history. Chafin's men
met the miners along a broad defensive front just inside the northern Logan
border, and The Battle of Blair Mountain began. It took the U.S. Army to end it.
Michael Meador's articles on Blair Mountain were published in the April-June
For six days the Charleston Gazette's headlines screamed: "Troops are
Ordered Here!," "Martial Law in Five Counties," "Troops
Invade Boone County," "Hard Battle on Two Fronts of Logan Line,"
A war was in progress in West Virginia. As many as 15,000 men were involved, an
unknown number were killed or wounded, bombs were dropped, trains were stolen,
stores were plundered, a county was invaded and another was under siege. The
president had to send in federal troops, the United Mine Workers of America was
fighting for its life-and today, almost unbelievably, this war is nearly
forgotten. There is not even a roadside marker to commemorate the mine war known
variously as The Battle of Blair Mountain, the Miners' March, or the Red Neck
The general causes of the conflict of 1921 developed over many years. From the
time the first shovel full of coal was removed in West Virginia, the men who did
the mining were exploited by those who owned the mineral.
Miners and their families often existed in crowded, isolated, and substandard
coal camps, at the mercy of the mine owners who owned the camps as well. Miners
who fought for better wages or living conditions were fired from their jobs,
thrown out of their homes, and blackballed at other mines. One either accepted
the system or moved on.
A ray of hope appeared for the miners in 1890 when the United Mine Workers of
America was organized by a merger of two earlier miners' unions. By the turn of
the century unionized mine operators in the northern and midwestern fields were
putting pressure on the UMWA to organize the younger West Virginia industry,
whose cheap coal was undercutting established markets.
Threatened with the loss of their foothold in these older coalfields, union
officials set about trying to organize West Virginia. They were met with
resistance by mine' owners and the courts. Injunctions were issued against the
use of coercion or violence to force miners to become union members. West
Virginia mine owners hired special guards and deputies (called "thugs"
by the miners) for the purpose of keeping the union out.
One of the most hated tools of the mine owners was the "yellow dog"
contract which many miners were forced to sign. In the contract the miner agreed
not to join the union under penalty of losing his job and company house. These
contracts, upheld in court, were a powerful weapon in the hands of the operators
and much resented by the miners.
In the early 1900's the majority of West Virginia's mines were owned and
operated by individuals or a few investors, rather than large corporations. Many
of these operations were tiny by today's standards, although they employed more
workers than might be expected, since coal was mostly mined by hand labor.
Owners of these mines found it difficult to absorb financial losses. They feared
the union because of its insistence upon such costly practices as higher wages,
safer working conditions, and collective bargaining.
In spite of this fear of unions, roughly half the mines in the state had
accepted the UMWA by 1910. But most of these mines were north of the Kanawha
River. South of the Kanawha the mine owners and their hated guards ruled. To
assure complete control over their operations and to keep the union away, mine
owners in West Virginia gradually gained control of local and state government
through the use of coercion, wote buying, bribery and fear. The frustrated
miners soon realized that no help for their grievances would come from courts or
elected officials, and turned to use of strikes and violence to settle their
disputes. This made their cause feared and unpopular with the general public.
in 1912 the first major strike in the West Virginia Mine Wars occurred on Paint
and Cabin Creeks in Kanawha County, when 7,500 walked off the job over a wage
dispute. The operators, refusing to negotiate, fired the miners and evicted them
from their company-owned homes. Thousands of people were forced to take shelter
in the woods and slopes above the two creeks.
Mother Jones, the fiery, foul-mouthed union organizer, arrived and encouraged
the miners to take up arms. The union provided guns and ammunition, and for
weeks the two creeks were a bloody battlefield. Only when the enraged miners
seemed likely to wipe out the mine guards did the governor declare martial law
and send in the state militia to end the strike. The violence, however,
continued into the next year.
In 1917 America's entry into World War I brought a short truce to the continuing
struggle between union and industry in the coalfields. The market for coal was
good and most of the younger labor force was fighting overseas. But tension
surfaced again as soon as the war ended. In 1919 an armed band of pro-union
miners marched through Boone County in an attempt to organize the Logan and
Mingo county mines. They were stopped at Danville in Boone County when word
reached them from the governor to either disband peacefully or face the state
militia. The march ended without incident
On May 19, 1920, several mine guards (including Albert and Lee Felts of the
notorious Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency), who had been evicting miners from
company houses in Mingo County, were ambushed and slaughtered in downtown
Matewan. The battle, led by Police Chief Sid Hatfield, also claimed the lives of
Matewan's mayor and two miners. Hatfield and his henchmen were trumpeted as
champions of the union cause and were acquitted for lack of evidence when
brought to trial for the murders. The mine guards sought revenge, however, and
Hatfield and an associate were gunned down in broad daylight on the steps of the
McDowell County Courthouse the next summer.
All during that troubled summer of 1921 there was violence and unrest in the
southern coalfields. Fighting got so bad in Mingo County that Governor Morgan
declared martial law there.
To protest the murder of Hatfield and the conditions in Mingo County, the
leaders of the union called for a rally at the state capitol on Sunday, August
7, 1921. Mother Jones was invited to speak to the group. She reviled the
governor and coal companies in the foulest language and called upon the miners
to march into Logan and Mingo counties and set up the union by force.
In Logan County this would mean crushing the power of Sheriff Don Chafin, who
was paid by the coal companies to keep out the union. He sustained a force of
300 "special deputies" whose purpose was to watch all incoming roads
and railroads and to prevent rallies at the mines. Suspicious characters were
jailed without legal recourse and many persons, it was reported, simply
disappeared. Don Chafih virtually ruled all aspects of life in Logan County and
was hated and feared by the union.
At the capitol rally on the seventh, Mother Jones called for the miners to lynch
Chafin and to establish the union at all costs. Frank Keeney, the UMW District
17 president, urged the miners to return to their homes, arm themselves, and
wait for a call to action.
Mother Jones and Keeney were calling for the union to gamble its future in one
desperate show of force. They realized that if the march was successful and the
union could be carried by force into Mingo and Logan counties, the bastion of
nonunion labor, then the UMWA would be free to organize any mine in the state.
However, they surely must also have realized that if the armed march was
unsuccessful the union would probably be cast out of the southern West Virginia
coalfields altogether. It would take years to recover from such a loss.
The call to arms came on August 20, 1921. On that day 600 armed men gathered at
Lens Creek, near Marmet in Kanawha County. The area became an armed camp as
angry men swarmed in from all parts of southern West Virginia and surrounding
areas. Some reportedly came from as far away as Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and
Ohio. A few men wore uniforms and helmets, left over from army service in World
Union officials, such as Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, publicly denied
leadership of the mob. Newspaper reporters tried to determine the identity of
the leaders but were unsuccessful. Observers reported that the miners organized
themselves into small units and elected leaders of these groups, but no one
seemed to be in charge of the whole assembly.
By the late afternoon of August 21, 1,500 men had gathered at Lens Creek. Their
destination and purpose was kept a secret and reporters and law enforcement
officers were turned away. The Charleston Gazette reported that the miners were
rumored to be preparing to invade Logan County but no one in authority could be
found to verify the rumors. Residents of Charleston were thrown into a panic by
rumors that the miners, who were only 10 miles away, were going to attack the
By the 23rd the number of miners had swollen to between 7,000 and 8,000. Still
no leaders emerged publicly. Flu and dysentery invaded the miners' unsanitary
camp, and six doctors and eight nurses were brought in to care for the victims.
That night Mother Jones spoke to the assembled miners and, for reasons still
unknown, reversed herself and urged the miners to disband and go home. She said
she had received a telegram from President Harding ordering the men to disperse.
The telegram was proven to be bogus and Mother Jones left the miners' camp
discredited and in disgrace. The incident weakened her influence over the miners
and she left West Virginia, to return only briefly a few years later.
In spite of Mother Jones, preparations for the invasion continued. Finally, on
the night of August 24, somewhere between 8,000 and 13,000 men started up Lens
Creek toward Logan, 65 miles away. When the news reached Logan early in the
morning, shop whistles blew and church bells were rung in alarm. Sheriff Chafin
rushed his deputies to the top of Blair Mountain to man the fortifications that
had been thrown up in preparation. Also Chafin called out every able-bodied man
Don Chafin chose Blair Mountain as a line of defense because of several factors.
The mountain effectively divides Logan County into two unequal parts, the larger
of which is drained by the Guyandotte River which flows northwest towards
Huntington. This southern area was Chafin's stronghold, was nonunion, and
bordered Mingo County.
The smaller northern section was drained by the little Coal River which flows
northeast toward the Kanawha River at St. AIbans. This smaller section of Logan
County had union mines and bordered Boone County.
To reach Logan from Charleston, one either had to take the train to Huntington
and then up the Guyandotte to Logan, travel by dirt road, or by train up the
Coal River through Madison to the foot of Blair Mountain in Logan County, where
the rails ended. From there one crossed the mountain by foot, wagon, or horse to
Logan on the other side. The easiest route was through Huntington but the most
direct was through Boone County and over Blair Mountain.
The marchers followed a winding, mountainous, dirt road from Marmet, which is
the present-day route of U.S. 119 into Madison.
The Charleston Gazette telephoned Boone County Sheriff John L. Hill and
asked him what he intended to do to stop the thousands of miners. The sheriff
replied that he only had three or four deputies and as far as he was concerned
the miners were "perfectly welcome to walk along the highway through Boone
A fast-moving advance group of miners reached the foot of Blair Mountain early
on the morning of August 25. There they were surprised by a group of Chafin's
men and a pitched battle broke out. The miners retreated.
In the meantime the main group of marchers was stretched out in a long,
straggling, unorganized line of weary older men and excited young ones. They
carried every type of firearm, from machine guns to old flintlock mountain
rifles. Some carried banners which said "On to Mingo," Around their
necks were tied red bandannas, their union symbol.
The marchers called themselves "red necks." The name, which is now
commonly used as a slang term for someone who is uneducated, bigoted, or
reactionary, in those days referred to a radical, or "red." It may
have had a further meaning to the marching miners, in reference to the red
By the afternoon of the 25th, between 7,000 and 9,000 tired marchers overran the
twin towns of Madison and Danville in Boone County. The miners cut telephone
lines and emptied the stores of food, shoes, and ammunition as they awaited
trains to take them to Blair Mountain.
By the early morning hours of Friday, August 26, another group of miners, 1,200
strong, had managed to reach Blair Mountain. There they stole a train which was
backed 15 miles up the line to Madison, where the main body of marchers waited
As soon as the march had begun, panic broke out in Logan and Charleston.
Governor Morgan wired President Harding for Federal troops to end the
disturbance. Harding responded by sending a military advisor, Gen. H. H.
Bandholtz, to assess the situation and end the conflict if possible.
As soon as Bandholtz arrived in Charleston he met with the governor and was
briefed on the situation. He then ordered union leaders Keeney and Mooney to
meet with him. The pair was ordered to end the march and disperse all of the
participants to their homes at once. Failure to do so would force Harding to
send in troops and declare martial law.
Keeney and Mooney arrived in Madison on the afternoon of the 26th, about the
same time as the hijacked train. There they found thousands of men lying under
trees and propped against buildings, waiting for something to happen. The two
leaders herded 600 men into the ball field in West Madison and read the
President's order to them. The miners argued and grumbled, but in the end agreed
they couldn't fight the entire United States Army and voted to disband.
From the Martin Hotel in Madison, Keeney and Mooney issued the following order
to all miners: "This is to certify that the men voted today at 2:30 p.m. in
the ball park to return home. Trains are being arranged for their transportation
On Saturday, August 27, the Gazette reported the miners homeward bound, and
stated: "The March on Mingo County which started as a protest against
martial law... is now history." Or so they thought.
On the morning of Sunday the 28th word passed like lightning up and down the
line of returning men that Sheriff Chafin's guards were shooting women and
children in Sharples, a small mining camp just inside Logan County on the Blair
Mountain road. Immediately the men turned and started back toward the mountain.
Again the sirens were sounded in Logan. The miners re-grouped at Blair in less
than 36 hours.
What had actually occurred was that Chafin and Captain Brokus, head of the Logan
state police detachment, decided to cross Blair Mountain with 200 men and make
some ill-timed arrests at the town of Miflin, near Sharples. As the men came
down Beech Creek in the darkness they were surprised at Monclo by a group of
union men who were still in the area. A pitched battle broke out which lasted
for some hours. Two miners were killed and one was wounded. A Logan justice of
the peace, Fulton Mitchell, his brother Lucian, and two other deputies were
captured by the miners.
Mrs. Maggie Holt, 93, of Sharples, described in an interview how she and her
children lay on the floor of their house in Monclo as bullets ripped through the
walls and windows. She says she was "scared to death." A neighbor
finally came and led them to his house.
The next morning she found a high-powered rifle lying in front of the house. She
carried the gun inside and hid it under her "divanette." Miners from
Cabin Creek, searching the house for firearms, discovered the rifle and
By the next day Blair Mountain was a raging battle line. Fighting was heaviest
at three points where roads crossed the ridge. These places were above Blair
town, where the main road crossed, at Beech Creek near Sharples, where
a horse trail wound over the mountain, and at the head of Craddock Fork of
Hewett Creek, where an old road crossed over onto Crooked Creek near Logan.
Hewett Creek flows into the little Coal River at the town of Jeffrey in Boone
County. It was here that unknown leaders made their headquarters. Miners coming
up from Madison on the commandeered trains would either alight at Jeffrey and
walk six or seven miles up Hewett Creek to Blair Mountain, or ride on to
Sharples or Blair town before getting off.
With the fight on and thousands of angry miners attempting to cross Blair
Mountain, Sheriff Chafin sent out an appeal for help to neighboring counties.
Men soon began arriving from the nonunion areas of Mercer, McDowell, Cabell,
Wyoming and Mingo, counties. Also the state police sent in men. The defenders on
Blair Mountain wore white scarves to distinguish themselves from the red neck
Logan was transformed into a military camp and women began cooking in churches
and schools to feed the hungry men.
Chafin even resorted to offering prisoners in his ever-crowded county jail
freedom if they would go help the defenders on top of the ridge. One prisoner, a
bricklayer, was ordered to take a rifle. He refused and, according to another
prisoner, was shot and killed. The Logan Banner reported that he was shot
"while trying to escape."
By Tuesday, August 30, the situation was completely out of hand. President
Harding issued a proclamation commanding all "insurgents to disperse and
retire peacefully to their respective homes, by 12:00 &lock noon of the
first day of September 1921 and hereafter abandon said combinations and submit
themselves to the laws and constituted authorities." Unless they disbanded
he would send in federal troops.
The marchers refused to lay down their arms, fearing they would be slaughtered
by Chafin's men if they did so. Also, they had amassed their strength at the
Craddock Fork of Hewett Creek near Lake, and thought they were about to break
over the mountain onto Crooked Creek which leads into the town of Logan. They
knew that if they could break through, the defenders would have a difficult time
Sheriff Chafin in desperation hired private airplane pilots at $100 a day to fly
over the miners and drop homemade bombs on them. The bombs were made out of
four-to six-inch oil well casing. Most of the bombs were dropped over Hewett
Creek and failed to explode. One which did go off was aimed at a one-room
schoolhouse the miners were using as a hospital, on Graddock Fork near Lake. The
bomb missed the school by about 100 yards and exploded harmlessly in a field,
making a crater large enough to hold a wheelbarrow. No one was reported injured
by the bombs.
Milton White, a miner from Boone County who was drafted to fight on the union
side, remembers Chafin land mines on the top of the mountain made of cases on
The Battle of Blair Mountain by now was making front page news over the world
and war correspondents were sent in by major newspapers. One correspondent who
had served m World War I wrote that the scene reminded him of Belgium, as
refugees fled in panic from the battle area into Boone County.
Boyden Sparks, a famous war correspondent for "The New York Tribune,"
was dispatched to the scene with a female reporter who was to report on human
interest stories. Chris Holt, who was 15 at the time, remembers that the lady
was wearing a pair of riding jodhpurs which "caused almost as much of a
sensation in Sharples as the battle." He loaded the reporters into his
father's Baby Overland automobile and drove them to the front lines, where he
left them. While attempting to reach the Logan lines their group was fired upon
and Sparks was wounded in the leg. Holt remembers they were captured and thrown
in jail in Logan until they could be identified. He says they wrote some
"hair raising" articles about their adventures that weren't
complimentary to either jail or jailers.
Special trains carrying food and ammunition were brought in by the UMWA. All
local unions were drained of funds to pay for the supplies. Holt remembers his
father, who was secretary-treasurer of the Sharples local, writing a check for
$1,000 to purchase guns and ammunition.
For a week the battle on the mountain continued sporadically. Lush vegetation of
late summer provided a perfect cover for guerilla warfare and individual gun
duels, and much of the action was hidden from view. Doctors and nurses in Boone
County were pressed into service by the union to care for the wounded. Dead
miners were carried out on the trains, their names and numbers unrecorded. The
deaths on both sides have been estimated at between ten and 30, with many more
It is estimated that at least 10,000 men engaged in the battle. Even though
Chafin's men were grossly outnumbered, they had the advantage of strongly
fortified positions, several machine guns, unlimited ammunition, and an
"General" Bill Blizzard, president of Sub-district 2 of UMW District
17, was generally regarded by the miners as their leader, but the men were too
disorganized and strung out to respond effectively to his orders. One miner
said, "If the union had only organized and concentrated its forces it could
have broken through easily."
The miners almost pushed through to Crooked Creek once during the week, but were
driven back at the last moment.
The citizens of Logan panicked, and the Banner published Tennyson's poem,
"The Charge of the Light Brigade," to urge on the defenders.
President Harding's proclamation was dropped to the miners by airplane. When his
deadline to cease fighting came and passed unheeded, he called for troops to be
sent in from Kentucky, Ohio, and New Jersey. Also, a squadron of army planes was
dispatched from Langley Field, Virginia. The planes were armed with gas bombs
and machine guns, but were not used. One crashed in Nicholas County and got as
much front page coverage in the Gazette as did the battle.
When the federal troops arrived in Charleston, they found the streets decorated
with flags and lined with cheering crowds. The men were loaded into boxcars and
rushed off in the direction of Logan. Another group of soldiers was dispatched
toward Logan by way of Huntington and Guyandotte River.
The troops arrived in Madison at night and were met by Bill Blizzard, who
introduced himself. He was ordered to call a cease fire and send the miners
homeward. He disappeared into the night and by the next morning, September 3,
when troops arrived at Sharples, the miners were coming out of the hills without
guns or red scarves. They were simply a group of dirty, unshaven men trying to
Their guns were hidden all over the Mountain; in caves, under leaves, and behind
fences. Cush Garrett of Lake, who was a boy at the time, remembers a friend
finding a large number of rifles wrapped in a blanket behind a fence. It is
reported that rifles are still occasionally found in the area of Blair.
The army set up camps up and down the little Coal River to preserve the peace,
but the fight was over and the union had suffered a crushing defeat.
A grand jury was convened in Logan County and indictments were handed down
against Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, Bill Blizzard, and 982 others, charging them
with "murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason
against the State of West Virginia."
Immediately the round-up of prisoners began in the surrounding counties.
Hundreds were arrested and taken to Logan where every attempt was made to obtain
confessions. The trial for treason was moved to the courthouse in Jefferson
County, where John Brown had been convicted of treason in 1859. An appeal was
sent out across the nation to raise money for the miners' defense fund and over
$50,000 was donated.
The major union leaders who had participated in the march were acquitted through
lack of evidence and a friendly jury. It was for the lesser figures in the drama
to be found guilty and sentenced. One such pair was the mountain preacher and
minister J. W. Wilburn and his son John, of Boone County. They had joined the
miners' cause only at the last minute, declaring, "It is time to lay down
the Bible and take up the rifle." For their minor part they were sentenced
to 11 years in the penitentiary. Others were also sentenced to similar prison
terms. Governor Morgan paroled them in 1925.
The coal companies had won the battle but would lose the war. After Blair
Mountain, the union disappeared in southern West Virginia, not to return until
1933, when New Deal legislation guaranteed the right to organize. But the
spectacular Battle of Blair Mountain provoked inquiries into conditions in the
coalfields, probing that would go on quietly after the shooting stopped.
Congress investigated, and the outside press took an interest. An article in the
Washington Star identified Sheriff Don Chafin and his tactics as the main cause
of the uprising. Public opinion was shifting, and the marching miners- or their
children and grandchildren-would win in the end.
Colorful General Billy Mitchell brought the army planes from Langley Field.
Courtesy West Virginia Archives
Encampment of Federal Troops near the Blair Mountain battlefield, September
1921. The soldiers' mission took on the air of a holiday outing, as they
encountered no resistance from the miners. Photographer unknown.
Angry miners pass near Boone-Logan border on a hijacked train. Photographer
My Grandparents' Role in the Mine Wars
grandparents lived in Logan County until the
1940's. Not until I started researching information concerning the mine wars did I realize
the significance of what my grandmother, Minnie Aliff, told me years ago. I did not know that most
of the mine workers' uprising occurred in Logan County where she and my
grandfather, George Aliff, lived. I wish I could go
back in time before she died to get the answers to the questions I have
about my grandparents' participation in this historic event.
summer shortly after my grandfather had died, I was visiting my
grandmother and witnessed her target
practicing using her pistol. Her having a gun and knowing how to use it
surprised me because it did not fit the persona that I had of her. My
grandmother was a reserved, God-fearing, Christian woman. Guns and hiding
them from law enforcement just did not fit the picture that I had of
Maw-Maw always was a
strong-willed, honest woman. This was evident in the way she lived her
Christianity--never trying to force it on others but living it. One of her biggest
influences on me is that I never heard her speak
negatively of others. Because she was a doer of her faith and not just a
talker, I was drawn to what she had in her life. The Lord used her life to
draw me to Him.
like a jig-saw puzzle, all this information about my grandmother began to fit together.
all of these pieces together, I can see how she had the character and
fortitude to have been a fighter for a just cause. When I see her again in
heaven, I will have many questions to ask her.
BOOKS BY PAULINE HAGA:
This lady has done a tremendous amount of research on the
coal camps in Raleigh, Wyoming, and Fayette Counties. She is also responsible
for the preservation of the church (from Pemberton) and the superintendent's
house (from Skelton) at the Exhibition Mine.
If you would like to order her books you can write her at:
Pauline Haga, Box 1061, Crab Orchard, WV 25827
Tribute to the Coal Miner, Volume One" - Eccles, Panoramic photos of
Raleigh County Miners
Tribute to the Coal Miner, Volume Two" - McAlpin, Hotcoal, Tams, Lillybrook
"Tribute to the Coal Miner, Volume Three"
Tribute to the Coal Miner, Volume Four" - Raleigh, Affinity, Stanaford,
Wingrove, Hotcoal, others
Tribute to the Coal Miner, Volume Five" - Stphenson, Glen Rogers,
COMING SOON: "Tribute to the Coal Miner, Volume Six"
Tribute to the Railroader"
Schooldays of Yesteryear" - Schools in the coal camps
Historical Footprints" - Coal camp post offices
Here are also some private printings of books by her at the Raleigh County
Public Library, especially "Down on the Gulf," a compilation of her
newspaper articles in the Beckley Post Herald.
OUT OF PRINT BUT WORTH SEARCHING FOR:
"History of the West Virginia Coal Industry" by
Phil Conley (1960) - The inspiration for this site
The New River Company" by Robert Craigo(1976)
BOOKS FROM THE C&O
HISTORICAL SOCIETY <http://www.cohs.org/> -
CLIFTON FORGE, VA:
"Chesapeake & Ohio in the Coal Fields"
Chesapeake & Ohio, Coal, and Color"
Coal Mine Directory, October 1950"
H.B. Lee - "Bloodletting in Appalachia" (about
UMWA wars, at Amazon)
David Sibray - "Raleigh County 1899-1999: A Century of Pictures"
Tim Wood (Raleigh County history)
Mary Legg Stevenson - "Coal Towns of West Virginia" (at Amazon) and
"From Affinity to Winding Gulf"
Melody Bragg - "Window To The Past series" (Fayette County)
Stan Cohen - "King Coal" (subtitled "A Pictorial Heritage of West
Virginia Coal Mining")
Date this page was last updated: 03/06/2003