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  • What if We Really Won the Battle of Blair Mountain?
  • Wess Harris (bio)

What if we, the union miners of West Virginia, really won? The first Battle of Blair Mountain, fought in 1921, was the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. Logan County, West Virginia, was the site of this battle between ten thousand miners seeking to take the U.S. Constitution to southern West Virginia and perhaps half that many well-armed mercenaries fighting for the corporate interests seeking to keep the United Mine Workers Union from the coal fields. The original battle was sparked by the murder of Matewan's pro-union Chief of Police, Sid Hatfield, by Baldwin-Felts gun thugs in the employ of local coal operators. The real cause of the conflict ran deeper. The heavily unionized northern coal fields were under pressure from the non-union southern fields. Perhaps even more importantly, the abominable horrors of life in the non-union camps made the fight personal. This was beyond wanting the Union. No longer would miners endure being told they could not visit with neighbors. No longer would miners endure evictions, beatings, and even killings for daring to speak their minds. The Union provided hope that the freedom and dignity won for the Europeans in the Great War could now become reality to the miners of southern West Virginia.

Today, the battle continues as coal companies want to mine the mountain using mountaintop removal technology that will destroy it. This would forever desecrate one of the foremost historical sites of the American labor movement. The prevailing narrative that the battle of Blair Mountain was a Union defeat is generally accepted by scholars, government agencies, coal companies, and even Union supporters looking back with pride on a noble but unsuccessful effort. Well-intentioned scholars, facing a wall of silence from miners maintaining a tradition of secrecy and less than accurate spin from a variety of seemingly authoritative sources, have long repeated a tale of defeat that no longer withstands scrutiny. However pervasive and time tested, this spin on events fails to meet the major requirement of any historical interpretation: external validity. The time has come to re-evaluate standard interpretations of Blair Mountain and its significance. What if the Union really won? [End Page 87]

Viewing the events on Blair Mountain as a crushing defeat for the miners results in part from a compartmentalization of our understanding of events: Mine Wars—Paint Creek, Cabin Creek, Blair Mountain—were fought and miners were defeated. Historian David Corbin observes that in the early 1930s, "Overnight, mine workers flocked to the union." This seemingly spontaneous organization appears as a unique event untied to the earlier "defeats." Providing a view of history that is internally consistent, externally valid, and of use to modern youth as they build a future, mandates a major change of paradigm. From defeat to victory; from unique mine wars to a fully connected thread, the Great West Virginia Mine War: 1890 to the present. Blair Mountain was not a distinct "mine war" the Union lost, it was a battle the Union won.

Militarily, current knowledge leads to the inescapable conclusion that the Red Neck Army, Union miners wearing red bandanas as a uniform, was on the brink of victory with operators desperately calling for federal intervention. Without question the arrival of federal troops brought about the end of fighting on Blair Mountain. In retrospect, the troops certainly did not come to further the Union cause. Yet not a shot was fired between the federal troops and the Red Neck Army. Bill Blizzard, leader of Union forces, actually approached the arriving troops. Miners, many veterans of the Great War and others survivors of digging the coal that fed the American Navy, welcomed the arrival of "Our Boys." While one need look no farther than West Virginia's new $17,000,000 State Museum to find accounts describing troops as suppressing the revolt and defeated miners surrendering, the reality at the time was quite different. Archeologist Harvard Ayers, long time Blair Mountain researcher, is clear: "Absent the feds, I believe that the miners may have overrun the coal operators, and it would have been a bloody...


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