The American industrial revolution brought about rapid and radical changes in the way Americans lived and worked. People who had lived a largely agrarian lifestyle of growing most of their own food and producing or bartering for needed goods had to adapt to the fast-paced, and often dangerous environments of the factory and mill.
Accidents and disabling long term health problems were fairly common, but with a constant supply of cheap, willing workers companies were not inclined to be overly concerned with the safety of the workers as they were with increasing production and profits.
In New England, women and children labored in the textile mills where they breathed cotton dust in unventilated rooms lit only with smoky oil lamps. Most of the workers in the factories and mills across the country were rural folks anxious for the promise of a better life for their families; most found nothing more than long hours in appalling conditions for little pay.
The entire industrial revolution was driven by coal. It was the cheap and abundant coal of the Appalachian region, from Pennsylvania to Tennessee that powered the steel mills, railroads, and factories. Working hundreds of feet below the surface, miners not only faced the most dangerous working conditions, but were often at the mercy of the coal companies. The coal companies set up company towns, rented houses to miners and their families, and paid in company script that could only be exchanged for goods at the company store. Many miners found themselves in debt to the company. Unable to get ahead or even to get out from under their debt to the company, they were really not much better off than indentured servants.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the United Mine Workers and other unions began fighting for reasonable pay and safer working conditions. By 1920 the union had made some inroads in many mines in northern and central West Virginia, signing up nearly half of all the miners in the state. But the mining companies in the southern part of the state had nearly complete political control and fought to keep the union out. As part of their efforts to keep the union out the coal companies hired the Baldwin-Felts private detective agency. The armed agents of Baldwin-Felts evicted miners’ families from their homes if it was even rumored that the miner had spoken of organizing.
Early in 1921, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents arrived at the town of Matewan on a coal company train. The armed thugs (as the miners called them) removed and destroyed all of the belongings of several miners homes and were on their way back to the train when they encountered Sid Hatfield, police chief of Matewan and union sympathizer. Sid Hatfield told the Baldwin-Felts agents that guns were not permitted in town and that he would have to confiscate them. In the shootout that followed several Baldwin-Felts agents were killed.
Police chief, Sid Hatfield, has arraigned on charges of murder, although no one was sure who had fired the first shot. As he was climbing the courthouse steps of Welch, West Virginia for his first court appearance he was met by a group of Baldwin-Felts agents and shot dead. His body had been riddled with eighteen bullets and no charges were brought against the company agents.
The murder of Sid Hatfield was the catalyst that brought tensions to a boil. At a rally on August 7th, 1921, Mother Jones called on union miners to march into Logan and Mingo counties and bring the union in by force. By the end of August a mass of armed union miners was on the move southward, each one wearing the symbolic red bandana around their collar, a symbol often used by unions at the time to identify themselves as union members. Some place the number of marchers in this Redneck Army, as they were dubbed, at 7,500 other accounts place the numbers closer to 13,000 strong.
Ready for the invasion, Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County and whose pay was subsidized by the coal companies, had set up heavy fortification along the ridge on Blair Mountain. The defenses included several machine guns and several thousand armed agents.
On August 27th the mass of miners started to climb the steep slopes of Blair Mountain only to be met with rapid and continuous gunfire. Sheriff Don Chafin had even paid the local private owners of a bi-plane to fly over the houses and towns at the bottom of the mountain and drop crudely made bombs. By August 30th the area was fully engulfed in warfare not seen on U.S. soil since the Civil War.
President Warren Harding ordered federal troops into the area to restore the peace. The first of the troops arrived on September 1st, Sheriff Chafin handed control over to the federal troops. By September 3rd, miners began their surrender to the federal troops. Entire train cars were filled with the bodies that had littered the mountainsides and were returned to their kin.
The coal companies may have won the battle, but the Battle of Blair Mountain set the stage for many of the workplace laws we all take for granted such as the standard forty hour workweek and workers compensation.
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