The coal companies, to break a strike in the spring of 1920, sent in squads of Baldwin-Felts detectives, nicknamed “gun thugs” by the miners, to evict miners and their families from company housing. Soon hundreds of families were living in squalid, muddy tent encampments. During an eviction on May 19 of about a dozen miners and their families — in which, as today, possessions were carted out and dumped into the street — Hatfield ordered the arrest of the company goons. He confronted the “gun thugs” at the train station at Matewan after the evictions. Shooting broke out. When it was over, seven Baldwin-Felts detectives, including Albert and Lee Felts, were dead. Another detective was wounded. Two miners were killed. Matewan’s mayor, Cabell Testerman, was mortally wounded. The gun battle emboldened the miners. By July there was almost no coal coming out of the mines.
“It is freedom or death, and your children will be free,” Mother Jones told the miners. “We are not going to leave a slave class to the coming generation, and I want to say to you the next generation will not charge us for what we have done; they will charge and condemn us for what we have left undone.”
Hatfield was acquitted of murder charges in January 1921. The decision infuriated the mine owners. And Hatfield became a marked man. After his acquittal of murder, coal bosses had him charged with dynamiting a coal tipple. When Hatfield and his young wife, as well as a friend, Ed Chambers, and Chambers’ wife, walked up the courthouse steps in Welch, West Virginia, for the new trial, the two men were assassinated by Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top. The assassinations set off the insurrection and triggered the Blair Mountain rebellion. The coal owners hastily organized militias and recruited units of heavily armed law enforcement officers. They hired private airplanes to drop homemade explosives on miners encamped on the mountain. Billy Mitchell, one of the early advocates of air power, volunteered the Army’s 88th Squadron to carry out aerial surveillance for the coal companies.
The armed miners, many of them veterans of World War I, fought militias and police, who were equipped with heavy machine guns, for five days. The militias and police held back advancing miners from a trench system that is still visible on a ridge top. The Army was finally ordered into the coal fields in early September 1921 to quell the rebellion. The miners surrendered. By the time the battle ended, at least 30 of those defending the mine owners had been killed along with perhaps as many as 100 rebel miners. West Virginia indicted 1,217 miners in the rebellion, charging some with murder and treason. There were acquittals, but many miners spent several years in prison. The union was effectively broken. In 1920 there had been about 50,000 United Mine Workers members in West Virginia, and by 1929 there were only 600. The union did not reconstitute itself until 1935, after the Roosevelt administration legalized union organizing.
These miners knew the dynamics of capitalism and the role of government. They knew who their friends and enemies were. They knew that only by organizing and physically defying centers of power would they ever get justice. They did not trust authority. They did not wait for authority figures to dole out justice. They were not seduced by the empty rhetoric of politicians. They knew that if they wanted a better world they would have to be their own leaders. They would have to fight for it. And this is a lesson in the nature of corporate and governmental power that we have forgotten. We must make the powerful afraid of us if we are to get any semblance of an open and free society. They are not and never will be on our side.