- The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James Green
The late James Green’s last book studies two major “wars” in West Virginia’s coal fields—the first taking place from 1912 through 1918 and the second from 1919 through 1921. Green describes the stark conditions that led to industrial unrest in a detailed chronological narrative: unsafe working conditions that produced tragedies such as the 1907 Monongah mining disaster, in which between 361 and 400 miners died; poor company housing; exploitative credit practices; and the detested long ton system of paying the value of 2,000 pounds of coal for 2,240 pounds. Miners nevertheless tolerated such conditions as long as there was enough employment for the descendants of the first settlers (called mountaineers in this book) and, later, African Americans and European immigrants who came to the coalfields looking for work. Financial crises and economic disruptions throughout the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century prompted restructuring in mining, worsening conditions for miners, and consequent increasing popularity of socialism. Many miners turned to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which had been organizing in the coal camps since 1892 but faced determined employer resistance: mining companies blacklisted union sympathizers, turned their families out of the camps, and used private police to harass them. Inspired by leaders such as John Mitchell of the UMWA and Mother Jones, miners fought back for union recognition, freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom from the private police. For Green, the mining wars of West Virginia, far from being backward and parochial, were an essential part of the “larger history of American freedom” (9).
While mining plutocrats, puppet politicians, and hired private-police goons are the obvious villains against whom coal miners struggled in Green’s narrative, there are less obvious and more ambiguous antagonists. Perhaps the most surprising of these were American Progressives generally. Green makes clear that the armed strikes of the West Virginia coalfields were part of an unprecedented strike wave throughout the United States during the “height of the Progressive Era” (92). In West Virginia, as in the United States generally, the Progressive impulse fed off bourgeois fears that the nation was about to be plunged into a class war. Progressives could be found across the political spectrum at the time, but many, like Theodore Roosevelt, who could otherwise be aghast at industrial tragedies such as that at Monongah in 1907, clearly felt that such problems gave workers and their families no right to rise. Instead, workers should bow to the inevitability of inequality and exploitation.
Progressives favored moderate social and economic reforms that would preserve social order. This concern for order led William E. Glasscock, governor of West Virginia from 1909 to 1913, to send the National Guard to suppress fighting between miners and the Baldwin-Felt Detective Agency hired guns at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in 1912. [End Page 113] The guard’s commander, Adjutant General Charles D. Elliott, did his duty, but he could not help but be appalled by the terrible conditions under which the mining companies of the Kanawha Valley kept their workers and their families. “God does not walk in these hills,” Green quotes the general; rather, “the devil is here in these hills, and the devil is greed” (96). Such sentiments did not prevent Elliott from implementing martial law, nor did they halt Glasscock and his successor as governor, Henry Hatfield, a Republican with Progressive leanings, from supporting the arrest and court-martial of miners and their leaders, most notably Mother Jones.
Progressivism arose from bourgeois fears growing in towns and cities across America in places such as Charleston. The people of such places could be bothered by mining companies’ greed and private-police tactics, but the prospect of class war appalled them and was especially strong on the eve of the United States’ entry into the First World War. Many miners...