Posted by: Sally Ingraham | September 1, 2014

Thunder In the Mountains

I think Labor Day is an appropriate day to talk about the West Virginia Mine War of 1920-21. It’s been a recent obsession of mine. I live in a city that has fought harder than many to get and maintain the union, and today one of the largest Labor Day parades in the country will send 85,000 people marching through the streets of Pittsburgh, including AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka. While unions shrink country-wide and Americans forget on a yearly basis about the Pullman Strike (or never learned about it to begin with), it is worthwhile to pay attention to how hard and how long folks have fought to establish unions in this country, once upon a time…

I was poking around in the Braddock branch of the Carnegie Library a few weeks ago, and came across Lon Savage’s book Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21. Hot off learning about the Johnstown Flood, I was itching for more local history, so I took it home and inhaled it. It was a lively and very detailed account of the events, written by the son of a fellow who had fought in this now forgotten mini civil war (on what one might call the wrong side…!).

The strike that developed into an all out war on Blair Mountain began in the usual way – with folks realizing that they were slaves to a coal company (a company that had also more-or-less stolen their land right out from under their feet) and deciding that they deserved better treatment and wages. When the miners decided to join the union, the company sent Baldwin-Felts “agents” to squelch any trouble, and these hired guns took pleasure in kicking families out of their company-owned homes with gleeful violence.

In the town of Matewan, WV, mayor C. C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield stood up to the Baldwin-Felts men and sided with the striking miners. There was a sudden terrible street battle, and when the gunfire ended and the dust settled, Mayor Testerman was dead, along with 7 Baldwin-Felts agents and 2 miners. Sid Hatfield was a local hero after this, and continued to fight to protect the striking miners. The next summer, however, he and his best friend Ed Chambers were murdered on the steps of a courthouse in Welch, right in front of their wives.

Rebellion and unrest accelerated into warfare within days, and before long there were thousands of union minors on the march. They were met by state and private police, militia, and federal troops. Whole counties were in open rebellion, military rule was imposed, and before it was all over bombers from the U. S. Army Air Corps had been deployed. The Battle of Blair Mountain was one of the largest civil uprisings in American history, and over the course of 5 days 10,000 union minors sat on one side of the gap and exchanged approx. one million rounds with the 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers on the other side of the gap. Surprisingly few folks were killed, but it took presidential intervention and the United States Army to end it. The miners were willing to battle the coal company and the hated Baldwin-Felts men to the death, but going up against the army of the country many of them had just spent WWI fighting with and for, was crossing a line.

The miners went home, and the whole thing was something of a wash. While the war brought attention to the appalling conditions of the coal camps and the violence the company was willing to unleash against it’s workers, it was a long time before any good seemed to come of it. The union wasn’t fully organized in southern WV until 1935. However, the war did help lead to a much larger and more strongly organized labor effort in the country.

The events leading up to the shootout in Matewan are the topic of John Sayer’s 1987 film, Matewan. Chris Cooper plays a union organizer who helps push the miners toward striking. The cast also includes James Earl Jones as one of many folks brought in by the coal company to work the mine during the strike, and Mary McDonnell as a widow who must let some atrocious Baldwan-Felts agents board in her company-owned house. David Strathairn plays Sid Hatfield (without much enthusiasm).

The director’s choice to focus on a union organizer instead of the compelling character of Sid was interesting, but it worked pretty well and Chris Cooper was quite good in it. The pacing is slow, but the build-up of tension is well done. The soundtrack is full of Appalachian music, the cinematography is lovely, and together this builds such a strong sense of place that it becomes a character on its own. I recommend the movie purely on these merits, but if you’re at all interested in a brief look at the historical events it’s also a worthy tool.

To round out my education on the West Virginia Mine War, I also read Denise Giardina’s 1987 novel Storming Heaven. I really enjoyed it and am pleased to have stumbled across such an excellent writer. It is based on the events of the Mine War, sometimes quite loosely, but starts long before that, tracing the lives of four people who eventually got caught up in the storm.

Like John Sayer’s movie, but in even more detail, Giardina brings to life the Appalachian mountain villages and the rough and lovely folks who called them home. C. J. Marcum picks up the tale first, watching as the coal companies come through and forcibly buy up the land. He manages to avoid working in the mines, and later becomes a socialist and the mayor of Annadel, a non-company town. Rondal Lloyd spends his boyhood in the mines, then escapes the life and becomes a union organizer. Carrie Bishop grows up on the outskirts of the whole coal mine scene, but becomes a nurse and falls in love with Rondal and finds her life changing forever. Rose Andelelli, a Sicilian immigrant who loses four sons to the mines, gets the least amount of page-time but is no less powerful of a character. Carrie is the best drawn among them, and kind of the cornerstone of the story, but all the characters – even the ones briefly met – are well crafted.

As the story progressed I could see how certain characters and events were slipping into the shoes of the real people and circumstances, and this was occasionally heart-breaking. The street fight and later assassination of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were worked into the tale pretty subtly, but I guessed they were coming and was terrified for several different characters before the story sorted out who was who. In fact the switch from pure fiction, in the beginning of the book, to historical fiction later on was very well done and I only noticed because I’d been reading up on it.

There are beautiful passages about the land and about loving people, but the story is never slow. It cracks along, current people and events racing through the mist of ghosts and history that fills those rugged Appalachian valleys. It’s not the happiest tale, but it’s weight is worth shouldering. Even if you’re not interested in the Mine War at all, this is a gripping tale about a part of America that is overlooked and sometimes not very well loved, but very deserving of respect. I highly recommend it. (Giardina has written quite a lot of other books, so this discovery may lead to many more hours of good reading!)

I think this obsession has run it’s course and I can leave the West Virginia Mine War behind for a bit – but I won’t forget it. Folks in WV are struggling to keep at least part of Blair Mountain out of the hands of today’s coal companies and preserve this national historic site. The fight for decent working conditions and wages goes on and on. Labor Day rolls by every year, but we mostly munch burgers and watch baseball, and don’t think about the people who were willing to die (or, equally notable, to kill) for their rights and dignity. Today I’m choosing to remember. I hope you will too.

That said, enjoy your labor-free (I hope!) day, if you’re here in the states. And of course I hope the rest of you have a pleasant Sept. 1st as well!


  1. Ordered the book, Storming Heaven!

    • I think you’ll like it. Have you already finished those other books?!

  2. […] I had some big reading adventures this year. I finally tackled Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, via the one group read I took part in (thanks again Richard!) I explored Cuba‘s lands and history through Margarita Engle’s beautiful books, and became obsessed with the story of the Johnstown Flood and the West Virginia Mine War. […]

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