Dark as a Dungeon – Mining in Appalachian Kentucky: Part 4

The following is a collection of quotes, paraphrases and thoughts I had while reading/watching from the sources listed at the top of Part 1 of this post. Additional sources are noted directly. – Part 2Part 3

A Wild West-Virginia Shootout, train warfare and dropping bombs on American soil


“Kentucky is an Indian name. It means ‘the dark and bloody ground’… Its history is an endless repetition of wars between the mountain and valley peoples. Its soil is soaked in the blood of the Iroquois, the Shawnees, the Cherokees…Today Kentucky is again a “dark and bloody ground.” … For the pioneer peoples have become rebellious protestants of His Majesty, King Coal.”

Lester Cohen’s ass – 1932

This is from the second chapter of Theodore Dreiser’s Harlan Miners Speak. The quote stands out but I can’t find anything aside from Cohen’s words to corroborate that Kentucky means ‘dark and bloody ground’. Dreiser’s collection of interviews and essays might hold some truths, but it is not above exaggeration and lies. For me, reading through it was a stark reminder that sensationalized, exaggerated and fake news is not something new.

For what it’s worth, everything I can find says that Kentucky derives its meaning from native words meaning, prairie, meadow, or land of our fathers. This likely refers to the western end of the state, far away from the coal mines. But ‘dark and bloody ground’ calls for more attention, turns more feelings and sells more books, and it fits whether you’re referring to conquest, slavery or king coal.

The Feud of the Hatfields and Felts

On a late spring day in 1920, a wire thin man in a three piece suit approached 13 strangers on an empty, dusty street. Descriptions of the scene are indecipherable from a western shootout, one where the white hat was hopelessly outnumbered by shadowy black hats. But this wasn’t the old west, they were in Matewan, West Virginia. The strangers had just returned from the nearby Stone Mountain Coal Corporation town, where they forcefully evicted hundreds of workers who had signed on with the United Mine Workers of America. Based on the success of unionization in other areas of the country, the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) with president John L. Lewis and organizer Mother Jones pushed and signed up nearly 3000 miners from the area into the union. The Stone Mountain Coal Corporation responded in kind by firing and evicting any of the miners who they even suspected were involved.

Issuing an eviction notice might be enough to get some to move, but not these miners- many had nowhere to go and no way to get there. Stone Mountain now faced the problem of having hundreds of families to forcefully evict from their private town. They appealed to the nearby town of Matewan, asking their elected officials to enforce these evictions, but the Chief of Police said no, and Mayor Cabell Testerman sided with the miners, decisions which would eventually cost both men their lives.

The Chief of Police’s name was Sid Hatfield, and now he alone approached the 13 company ‘gun thugs’ in the streets with the intention of placing them all under arrest. Hatfield’s namesake does actually connect him to the famous KY/WV family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, but he had little direct interaction. About 30 years from the height of the feud and a few half-brothers and distant cousins removed, Sid Hatfield’s loyalties did not lie just with his own blood- he was concerned with all of the people the Tug Fork Valley, his home. He had watched long enough as investors from big cities sent managers and gun thugs in his region to terrorize and rule over his family and friends, kicking them out of homes, threatening their lives, beating them into submission.

“That stuff over in West Virginia around Matewan had happened and they pretty much started a war, not only with the coal miners but the federal government. My dad was there, at fourteen, he was in the thick of it.”

Hatfield conformed the men and told them he had a warrant for their arrest. The “gun thugs” or as they would call themselves, upstanding employees of the Baldwin-Felts Detective agency, dismissed Hatfield’s threat of a warrant and countered by pulling out their own warrant for Hatfield’s arrest. Hatfield’s warrant was likely real but didn’t exist in hand, while the Baldwin-Felts warrant already existed but later turned out to be fabricated. 

Who fired the first shot is unknown, but it was likely one of the dozens of miners, friends of Hatfield, who had surrounded the high-noon like showdown on the streets of Matewan with rifles at the ready. Numbers vary, but around 10 people died in what would be called the Battle of Matewan by the unionists, and the Matewan Massacre by anti-unionists and unionists alike, as both sides were trying to claim justice and morality to be on their side in the aftermath. Hatfield made it out of the scrum alive somehow, while 7 of the Baldwin-Felts agents died. The remaining 3 deaths were bystanders, including the mayor of Matewan, Cabell Testerman. 

Matewan pre 1930’s. Source – Tony Santon via the WV Encyclopedia

This event is captured in dramatic fashion by the Oscar nominated 1989 film “Matewan” and is depicted as the penultimate episode in the West Virginian Coal Wars. But the mine wars weren’t limited to West Virginia. The wars had been going on for decades and would go on for decades more. The struggle seems eternal. There have been battles big and small, from scrums broken up by onlookers to presidential declarations of martial law, from tussles with rocks and sticks to battles involving aircraft, from the late 19th century up to WWII, the Appalachian region played part in the largest armed insurrection on American soil since the civil war. 

A Wild West-Virginia Shootout, train warfare and dropping bombs on American soil

The Battle of Paint Creek 1912-13

“Medieval West Virginia! With its tent colonies on the bleak hills? With its grim men and women? When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virgina!”

Mother Jones
Union organizer Mother Jones – 1915 (Library of Congress)

One reason that such a large conflict is largely not talked about in overviews of American History is because it was so remote, but it also wasn’t intensely covered during its time. Reportedly, newspapers were sending writers to Mexico to cover their bloody revolution, but wouldn’t send them to West Viriginia because they did not consider it safe for newspapermen to enter that field. The fighting in the Appalachians might not have been as bloody as Mexico, but if you were a reporter who was believed to be on the wrong side of a strike, your safety and possibly your life would be in great danger. 

When referring to the Baldwin-Felts agents (and other similar agencies), Gun Thugs might be a strong word to an outside observer. But to the workers in Appalachia, these men were outsiders literally hired to gang up and intimidate people out of homes and into compliance at gunpoint. From everything I’ve read, Gun Thug is a pretty decent description- sometimes the bad guys are just bad guys and the caricature fits. Sure, you could say that they were just doing their jobs, but that defense has fallen flat before.

Like them or not, the Baldwin-Felts agency was extremely effective. The head of the agency stated that their purchase of new Winchester rifles had “‘good effect’ on the miners: “They are afraid if they raise any disturbance, they will be killed or sent to jail.”” (Excerpt). In the early 1910’s, proprietors of the Paint Creek/Cabin Creek mine companies employed between 300-2,500* Baldwin-Felts guards to quash strikes and rebellious attitudes. This was to control a population of about 7,500 miners. 

*(conflicting data in sources)

This labor dispute was about what most labor disputes are about- money. The owners had refused to resign a new version of the union agreement that they had cooperated with 10 years earlier*. The strike dragged on at Paint Creek and eventually spread to nearby Cabin Creek. The strike began in April of 1912 and by June it had attracted enough attention in union circles to attract the famous/infamous** Mother Jones. At this time the agents were removing people from homes (and they would say that the homes were owned by the company and for the use of workers, so they were making way for new workers to come in). The replacement workers, or ‘scabs’, were sometimes recruited into the ranks of the striking miners upon arrival, but were also beaten and intimidated by the miners when they wouldn’t cooperate. 

*I didn’t see any mention of the details of the “new version” of the deal so it’s hard to say who was asking too much. However, when dealing with Appalachia, the good money is always siding with the miners
**Much like the infamous El Guapo

The most ardent of the strikers, some 3,000 of them, actually delivered a declaration of war on the Company to the Governor of West Virginia and attacked a mine operation leaving 12 of their own behind while killing 4 guards. Martial law was declared and state troops disarmed the two groups, abating tensions for a few months. Martial law would eventually be lifted, imposed, and lifted again. The ‘peace’ lasted until early the next year when the company men engaged in an attack of their own with a drive-by shooting out of an armored train called the “Bull Moose Special” with machine guns and high powered rifles, laying down fire on some 5,000 miners as they camped in a tent town outside of the coal camp. The miners responded in kind with another raid and then martial law was clamped down on the region for the duration of the conflict, effectively stamping it out. Mother Jones and other “instigators” were arrested on ground of agitating the insurrection, but would be released later that year when the US Senate began to investigate what was happening in the region. 

I cannot find confirmation that this is THE “Bull Moose Special” but it seems that it is a “Bull Moose” locomotive. The Bull Moose used in Paint Creek was armor plated and driven through a coal miners camp, shooting down on them with machine guns and high powered rifles. IMAGE CREDIT

In response to the uprisings, a new Governor, yet another of the Hatfield clan named Henry D. Hatfield, broke tension by traveling to the area, demanding the release of several prisoners and negotiated the “Hatfield Contract” which was accepted by Paint Creek in May and eventually signed by Cabin Creek in July after some death rattles of the war continued to play out. 50 are said to have died ‘violently’ in the conflict, along with the uncounted deaths of disease and starvation in the tent camps the miners were living in. 

Most of the organizers recognized the new ‘peace’ in the Appalachian region and moved on to Colorado, where they organized another movement that was called the Colorado Coalfield War, where 50+ more would die. 

The tensions remained quite high up until WWI, but the war and increased demand seemed to stem the tide of violent outbreaks as contracts had been renegotiated and relative stasis was met. Perhaps the miners had lost hope that they could push back against the companies and their hired men as well as the state which seemed to always be against them. But after the demand of the Great War subsided, in 1920, the strike in and around Matewan happened, leading to the Battle of Matewan, or the Matewan Massacre, with Sid Hatfield and the 13 Baldwin-Felts Gun Thugs.

Announcement of Hatfield’s assassination in Yorkville Enquirer. Library of Congress.

One of the surviving Felts was incensed when Hatfield was acquitted of murder by a jury of his peers. His family had all but been wiped out, leaving him, Tom, as the last remaining Felts brother. Tom Felts took justice into his own hands and sent out operatives to assassinate Sid Hatfield. He and a friend were gunned down on the courthouse steps in August of 1921. Hatfield died instantly, while his friend struggle for a bit until a gunman walked up and executed him with a pistol pressed to his head. Just as was the case in the Matewan Massacre/Battle, nobody was found guilty for the assassination. The attack had taken place in broad daylight and many were arrested, but all were acquitted.

The fleeting hope that the miners felt by the actions of their friend and ally, Sid Hatfield, only months before was replaced with outrage. The outrage would boil over a month later after the entirety of Mingo County was placed under martial law. Miners from all around the county rallied and wanted to liberate their ‘imprisoned’ brothers and sisters. But to get there they would have get past Blair Mountain. 

A Wild West-Virginia Shootout, train warfare and dropping bombs on American soil

The Battle of Blair Mountain

“There’s a mountain that separates Madison county and Logan County, the call it Blair Mountain. And they had regular pitched battles out there, they had trenches, there was a lot of bloodshed. They used airplanes, they shot down from airplaines.”

The anger in the air was thick. Sympathizers from counties all around in West Virginia and Kentucky joined the ranks of the what would be called the Red Neck Army*, gathering strength just south of Charleston, WV. The miners, who had already captured, disarmed and embarrassed some county troopers trying to dissolve the tension. Mother Jones, the person who essentially rallied the Paint Creek and later Colorado coal wars, balked at the idea of violence this time. Too many were bound to die in her mind. The miners had the numbers and some guns, but they were bound to be overpowered by the professionally furnished deputies. 

*Red Neck referred to a union member or a communist sympathizer, it didn’t have the same connotation in the 1920’s-30’s as it does today. Union members would wear red scarves to show solidarity

The violence at Blair Mountain was different from the ‘battle’ of Matewan, which was intense but lasted only a few minutes, or Paint Creek where the fighting was sporadic but lasted for months. The Battle of Blair Mountain lasted from the morning of August 25 to September 3. It took place in 4 counties and pulled in miners from all over the region to march on the mountain, where between 70-140 people would die.

After organizing outside of Charleston, WV, the miners began marching south to free their fellow miners in Mingo County, who were being held under martial law. The miners started off with a surprising victory, commandeering a train and renaming it the “Blue Steel Special”, though it’s unclear what they were going to do with the train once it had been captured. But it very clearly pissed off Don Chafin, who was ready to answer with his small private army of deputies.

From the Washington Post, September 1921. Image Courtesy Library of Congress

Don Chafin was elected Sheriff in Logan County in 1912 and immediately began operating with in iron fist, controlling almost all government appointments in the county, but more importantly keeping the mine operators happy by keeping the unions from organizing in Logan County. He directly took extra payments from the coal companies and so did his deputies- Chafin was undoubtedly corrupt, which made his arrest for moonshining 4 years later unsurprising. In 1921 he was outnumbered by the Red Neck Army, but he had them outgunned.

The Red Neck Army advanced south, gaining numbers well beyond 10,000 and were becoming more brazen, but standing between them and their goal was Logan County and Sheriff Chafin’s small army of deputies. They only numbered about 2,000 but had military grade weaponry, trained soldiers, train access and even airplanes. The miners had no quarrel with Chafin (at least they didn’t that day) and only wanted to pass through to Mingo County, but Sheriff Don Chafin wasn’t going to let that happen.

The momentum from the victory of the Blue Steel Special and a few early Blair Mountain skirmishes was soon wiped out, halting the impending war that was forming, when President Warren Harding threatened to send in the US army, equipped with newly outfitted aerial bombers to put the dispute to rest. Many miners started to disperse in the after the threat spread through the ranks, but the Sheriff Chafin didn’t want to pass up his chance to put down the miners once and for all.

Chafin ordered his men to fire down on organizers as they were dispersing and heading home, reigniting a conflict which might have been over. The most intense warfare on the continental US since the Civil War soon followed. Trenches were dug miles long. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. While the US Army eventually did send a dozen or so planes, they were stripped of their munitions before takeoff and were only used for surveillance and intimidation. But Chafin’s private planes weren’t held back at all, and they went on to drop homemade explosives on the Red Neck Army. Keep in mind, bombing runs at this time were extremely rudimentary. There weren’t many purpose built bombers, most bombing in WWI happened from zeppelins. And while the US Army planes sent to the conflict might have been equipped, it is likely that Sherrif Chafin’s private planes weren’t purpose built for bombing runs at all. I imagine that some dude loaded up in the back seat of a prop plane with a bunch of homemade bombs in his hands, between his legs, and just dropped them out the side by hand, though I can’t find how they actually did it. We do know that the miners experienced no casualties from the bombing raids, while a handful of planes crashed on their own and 3 pilots died. (Further Reading, very good stuff.)

Eventually the presence of federal planes and troops overwhelmed the miners. The army of miners had grown in number to over 13,000, compared to the Logan County Sheriff’s private army of 2,000. When the federal troops were brought in, rifles were laid down and hidden as they retreated. Almost 1000 miners were arrested as a result, and union sympathy plummeted, dropping union participation immediately by almost 80%. 

The fields of southern West Virginia wouldn’t be organized until 15 years later during the great depression. On the Wikipedia page for the Battle of Blair Mountain it was described as a Pyrrhic Victory, where the victory inflicts a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. But this defeat wasn’t felt in the immediate aftermath, especially by those in Kentucky and West Virginia. The uplifting feeling of hope they had felt a year earlier when Sid Hatfield had shown that the gun thugs weren’t invincible was replaced by years of despondency and oppression by the companies and allowed/exacerbated by the state governments. Stating this as a victory for miners in any sense of the word is revisionist- they lost and paid the price badly. For another decade they had to continue living on the dark and bloody ground.

A Wild West-Virginia Shootout, train warfare and dropping bombs on American soil

Dark As a Dungeon
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3