History The Coal Wars Were The Largest Working-Class Uprising In American History  

Dave Smith
7.4k views 14 items

Routinely throughout their history, Americans have had the need to consider the injustices committed against the blue-collar working class by fat-cat corporate bosses. Hardcore facts about the WV Mine Wars illustrate just one of these many moments. Not only do people often forget the past and increase the risk of repeating history, but they also frequently fail to see the connection between historical labor movements and the gains and impacts they have on workers' everyday lives today. Workers in the motor vehicle, oil, textile, meat processing, construction, and mining industries have all suffered at the ands of their employers. And, as a result, all of these industries have seen subsequent movements and violent insurrections to push for change, rights, and representation.

The Coal Mining Wars of West Virginia (and other parts of the country) provide a heartening story of the largest labor uprising in American history. It is a story about suffering workers, struggling families, and heroes who spoke out in the name of working people. The series of conflicts finally came to a climactic confrontation in 1921 that had been bubbling for decades. Though violent, confusing, and enraging, the West Virginia Coal Wars helped lay the foundation for more rights on behalf of miners, women, people of color, and the working class. 

The Pre-Mine Wars Working Conditions For Coal Miners Were Abysmal

The Pre-Mine Wars Working Cond... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Coal Wars Were The Largest Working-Class Uprising In American History
Photo: HIne, Lewis Wickes/US Library of Congress

Mining is backbreaking, dangerous work, regardless of whether it’s for coal, gold, silver, or other resources. Your typical workday as a pre-Mine Wars coal miner would've involved waking up at the break of dawn and descending into the dark underworld, with no protective clothing and just a small lantern for light.

Then, of course, there was also the high risk of fire and collapse that miners faced everyday while at their subterranean livelihoods. As seen in the still-burning coal mine fires of Centralia, Pennsylvania, a mine could catch fire by accident. Risk of fire was an ever-present reality, and if a fire began, any oxygen in the mine would feed the inferno, and the combination of decreasing oxygen and increased smoke would asphyxiate anyone inside. 

Just your average, day-to-day additional mining risks and hazards would have also included: mines collapsing, floods, methane gas explosions, and exposure to dust, mercury, radon, and fumes from welding. Other risks miners faced involved injuries from heavy lifting or pushing that came in the form of joint problems, back problems, broken bones, and even getting crushed. Naturally, with the risks that came along with the job, miners and their families felt bitterness towards the companies they worked for when the companies exploited them and didn’t protect them on the job with physical or financial protection. 

It Was Essentially World War One All Over Again, Machine Guns And All

It Was Essentially World War O... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Coal Wars Were The Largest Working-Class Uprising In American History
Photo: Charleston Gazette, 1921/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Fed up with their unbelievably exploitative working conditions, WV miners were angry with and distrustful of the coal companies they were laboring for by the Summer of 1921, and they went on strike to prove it. However, their strike was met by private security forces who were employed to control and put down the strikes on the part of the coal companies. With small arms, improvised explosives, and machine-guns, the fighting soon spiraled out of control into all-out war. 

The West Virginia coal fields became battlefields, and miners resorted to building fortifications in towns and in the wooded hills. Machine gun emplacements were constructed, and guerrilla tactics were used in the form of raids on opposing breastworks. This is not surprising at all considering that by 1919, there were many veterans of World War One who had returned to civilian life and were working in the coal mines. By 1921, when the National Guard stepped in to stop the fighting, Army Air Force planes were flying overhead and dropping improvised explosives. 

Women And Girls Ripped Up Train Tracks And Smuggled Guns

Women And Girls Ripped Up Trai... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Coal Wars Were The Largest Working-Class Uprising In American History
Photo: Project Gutenberg/Public Domain

With the outbreak of hostilities between striking miners and coal companies, the first tactic used by companies to keep business going was to lock out miners and bring in replacement workers by train to isolated mines and camps. Commonly known in the labor world as "scabs," workers who wouldn’t strike or join unions are sometimes used as cheaper and more reliable labor over workers who attempt to bring big corporations to the bargaining table. 

Understandably, the miners and their families were infuriated by this. While the miners and union members responded with more strikes, women and girls took the fight to the rail tracks, tearing up entire sections of railroad tracks, which effectively stopped companies from bringing in replacement workers. 

Women contributed to the effort before, during, and after the fight by operating as effective gun smugglers. Willie Helton supported the strikers and did her part by helping to supply the miners who were striking. Years later she recalled: "I slipped one gun down into my dress on this side. I had one gun on either side of me, and I had a pocket full of shells. I couldn't hardly walk.”

Another eyewitness to the events of the time, Grace Jackson, recalled that many women even participated in armed opposition by shooting at trains that were used to bring in non-union replacement workers and guards. A train would be spotted approaching and women would hide in the woods on either side of the railroad tracks. When a signal was given they would all begin shooting at the train with shotguns, rifles, pistols, and even machine guns. 

The Battle Of Blair Mountain Pitted The US National Guard Against 10,000 Miners

The Battle Of Blair Mountain P... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Coal Wars Were The Largest Working-Class Uprising In American History
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Battle of Blair Mountain took place in August of 1921 after a series of smaller confrontations in the spring of that year. Now considered to be the largest armed uprising in US history next to the Civil War, the Battle of Blair Mountain saw 10,000 unionized mine workers storm the area and begin shooting at roughly 3,000 local deputies, law enforcement officers, and private coal company personnel. The company men fired back, and the engagement snowballed into a battle that lasted for about a week. 

The term ‘battle’ is quite appropriate as the fighting involved 13,000 people total, and by the week’s end, President Harding had declared martial law. Once the decision was made, General Bandholtz arrived in the area at the head of 2,100 National Guardsmen, and their mere presence quelled the fighting. Amazingly, the majority of miners seem to have welcomed the arrival of soldiers. This is not surprising considering that the violence that had been occurring over the past several decades evolved out of desperation on behalf of the miners who felt that the injustices inflicted on them by the coal companies and biased law enforcement were going unnoticed by the highest echelons of power. Therefore, very few of them were actually eager for the conflict; they simply wanted some concessions that would give them a quality of life.