By James Green, author of The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and their Battle for Freedom
August 31 marks the anniversary of the largest civil insurrection in U.S. history after the Civil War. This uprising, which has been all but lost to memory, was the climax of two mine wars fought in the West Virginia coalfields from 1912-1921.
At a time when many citizens are worrying about “economic inequality,” when conservatives are bewailing the use of “class warfare” language, when “insurgents” are still being imprisoned without due process, when police forces in poor communities are being privatized and militarized, when banks are ordering evictions, it is worth discovering, exploring and understanding the West Virginia mine wars—a profound but largely unknown expression of class struggle.
Armed insurgency erupted in the coal mining counties of southern West Virginia in late August of 1921, when an army of more than 8,000 rifle-bearing union miners marched toward Mingo County on the Kentucky border. They intended to liberate other miners and their families from the tyranny imposed by private mine guards who had terrorized the region for more than a decade, and from a regime of martial law imposed by the governor.
Armed warfare erupted on August 31, 1931, on Blair Mountain in Logan County when the miners’ army clashed with armed forces marshaled by the county sheriff, the coal companies and the state police.
The three-day Battle of Blair Mountain was the climax of a war that had rocked West Virginia since the early years of the twentieth century when the United Mine Workers, led by Mother Jones, tried repeatedly to penetrate tightly controlled company coal towns.