One of America’s largest labor uprisings, and the biggest armed civil insurrection since the Civil War, started ninety years ago—and there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of it.
Thousands of West Virginia miners, thoroughly sick of horrid working conditions and the coal companies’ efforts to prevent them from organizing, squared off against forces led by Sheriff Don Chafin at a ridge called Blair Mountain. The ensuing “Battle of Blair Mountain” deserved its moniker, for it was a battle in every sense of the word—a five-day armed struggle along a fifteen-mile front, in which dozens died and hundreds were injured, complete with the deployment of air power. (Pilots hired by the sheriff dropped bombs on the miners’ positions, and the Army Air Force flew surveillance.)
The miners nearly broke through the coal companies’ enforcers, but finally disbanded and headed to their homes when the presence of the U.S. Army tipped the balance against them. Some of them faced indictments for murder, conspiracy, and treason afterward. Appalachian History has a more detailed post on the affair, which is well worth reading; the Battle of Blair Mountain is also the subject of a recent book by Robert Shogan.
What I find most striking about the story is the fact that it’s largely unknown. I’m ashamed to admit that until a few years ago I’d never heard of it myself, despite the fact that I’m a history aficionado who’s lived most of his life in Appalachia. How in the world has one of the largest and most important civil uprisings in the nation’s history—planes took to the air against American citizens on our own soil, for crying out loud—been such a neglected historical subject? Is it because it happened in a region that most Americans either ignore entirely or (if they think about it all) treat with contempt and disdain? I hope the answer is not so simple as that, but I’m not optimistic.
These days Blair Mountain is a battlefield again, but the modern-day Battle of Blair Mountain is over preservation. A few years ago Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was subsequently removed. It needs to be reinstated. The site is threatened by surface mining, which would destroy this historic landscape and the archaeological resources it contains.
Let me pause here to state that I’m not opposed to the coal industry’s very existence, as some people are. At the same time, though, I don’t think it should be immune from criticism. Discussion about coal shouldn’t be a zero-sum game in which any critique of the industry automatically means that you’re against fossil fuels or gainful employment. I stress this because I don’t want readers to take my endorsement of efforts to preserve Blair Mountain as a denunciation of coal or coal miners. My attitude toward the coal industry is mixed; I’m glad that it provides jobs to people of this area, and as an energy source it’s indispensable. (A popular bumper sticker in my neck of the woods reads, DON’T LIKE COAL? DON’T USE ELECTRICITY.) At the same time, though, I’m also aware that it’s a problematic industry that has created and continues to create a great many problems. Appalachia’s relationship to coal reminds me of what Jefferson said about America’s relationship to slavery: “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
At the end of the day, this is about a specific place that’s very special. Blair Mountain is an important historic site, and should be designated as such and protected. Check out the Friends of Blair Mountain website and see what all the fuss is about.