Against All Odds — The Wildcat Strike of Blair Mountain
In 1921, ten thousand West Virginia coal miners took up arms against their bosses, and nobody had seen it coming.
Imagine, for a minute, that somewhere deep in the mountains of southern West Virginia there’s a rogue army on the move. Most of them are immigrants hailing from all across Europe, some of them are black Southerners, and a contingent of these militants was displaced from nearby farms. As they march, the August sun spills through the towering trees overhead. They’re singing about how they want to hang the local sheriff, who’s deputized hundreds of men to meet them in pitched battle just across the county line.
This may seem implausible to you, but not too long ago upwards of 10,000 coal miners – even double that number, by some estimates – participated in an armed revolt in the United States, going against local, state, and federal authorities as well as their own union. Back in 1921, when a decade of class war in the area culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, people couldn’t fathom it either. And yet, against all odds, it did happen: the largest armed rebellion in the country since the Civil War.
“The time has come… for me to lay down my Bible and pick up my rifle and fight for my rights,” one participant told a reporter at the time, according to Lon Savage’s book Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-1921.
What makes these miners’ armed resistance so remarkable isn’t the size of their force or their willingness to use violence. It’s that despite a seemingly hopeless and desperate situation, when most of their official leadership had begged them to give up, they didn’t.
At the time, miners in West Virginia lived primarily in unincorporated towns that were completely controlled by mine owners. They lived in company housing and were generally paid in scrip to be used at company stores with heavily marked up prices. Their bosses controlled the political system as well, and operated with impunity. They forced workers to sign “yellow-dog contracts” disavowing union activity as a condition of employment, and employed ruthless mercenaries from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, a notorious private paramilitary squad, to suppress any attempts at organizing.
“Southern West Virginia had generally become the possession of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and London,” historian Corbin writes in Life Work, and Rebellion, referring to the distant cities where these companies’ wealthy owners resided. “By 1900, absentee landowners owned 90 percent of Mingo, Logan, and Wayne counties… By 1923, nonresidents of West Virginia owned more than half of the state and controlled four-fifths of its total value.”