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By SOFIEA CLERICO
The villains of this story are few: the coal barons who operated mines in southern West Virginia and those in their employ, including the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin.
When a very few people hold nearly all the money and power, and the many have only their love of God and country, things can go wickedly unbalanced.
In 1920-21, the coal barons were conspiring to eliminate -- through brutal means -- unionization of southern West Virginia coal mines.
The famous labor organizer Mother Jones often spoke of medieval West Virginia. It was where workers endured the worst explosions, the worst working conditions, the worst housing.
The men were forced to work under the company town system -- criticized as exploiting workers to the point of near slavery -- which permitted high prices, driving the miners into debt for basic necessities. They earned less than was needed by their families.
Sid Hatfield, descended from the Hatfields of the Hatfield-McCoy feud, started work in the mines as a teenager and worked his way to blacksmith. In 1919, he was appointed chief of police of Matewan, W.Va., by Mayor Testerman. Both were union sympathizers.
Hatfield was soon called to action. On May 19, 1920, a woman waiting anxiously for her husband's return to their home on Stone Mountain Coal Co. property became the first victim of the Battle of Blair Mountain. Without warning, Albert Felts, Lee Felts and 11 other agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived at their door to evict the woman and her children at gunpoint.
As a steady rain fell, the agents dumped their meager possessions into the road. The miners who saw it were in a cold fury and sent word to town.
Hatfield arrived soon after and attempted to arrest the Felts -- and Albert Felts tried to arrest Sid and his men. A gunfight broke out with Hatfield fatally shooting Felts. Mayor Testerman suffered a fatal shot. The gunfight, later called the Matewan Massacre, ended with 10 men dead.
Newspaper readers across the nation read of the plight of the innocent children of West Virginia who faced a bleak or nonexistent Christmas. Americans everywhere helped send a train carload of two thousand hams, toys, fruit, nuts and candy. Every child found a well-stuffed stocking waiting and they overlooked not a single child.
Christmas was all too brief.
On Jan. 26, 1921, Sid Hatfield's trial for killing Felts began. National newspapers carried detailed accounts. The trial ended with all miners acquitted.
In mid-May, the enforcement of martial law against the miners began. Hundreds were arrested and deprived of all legal rights, including habeas corpus. They were imprisoned for the smallest infractions while the anti-union men were immune.
Newly married Sid Hatfield was to be tried for dynamiting a coal tipple in McDowell County. His friend, Ed Chamber and their wives accompanied him there. As they walked up the courthouse steps, a group of company agents at the top of the stairs opened fire and killed the two men as their wives watched in horror.
The miners reacted with outrage. The murder of Hatfield brought the miners out of the hills and hollers of West Virginia in great numbers to avenge him. They self-identified by tying red kerchiefs around their necks, a practice that led to the term "rednecks."
Miners along the Little Coal River began to gather and set up guards for the area. Sheriff Chafin sent troopers to the same area. Soon the miners had caught and disarmed the troopers and sent them packing. More were to come.
Somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 coal miners battled coal company militia from Aug. 25 to Sept. 4. Many carried the rifles they used in World War I, while the Baldwin-Felts detectives, Sheriff Chafin's troopers and the state police were considerably better armed.
President Warren G. Harding invoked force and soon federal troops were on trains to Blair Mountain, accompanied by Martin MB-1 bombers. Gen. Billy Mitchell, deputy director of the Air Service -- resplendent in his rows of ribbons, pistol and spurs -- was asked how he would handle masses of men under cover in gullies.
"Gas," said the general. "You understand we wouldn't try to kill these people at first. We'd drop tear gas over the place. If they refused to disperse then we'd open up, with artillery preparation and everything." And so he did. But several bombs didn't explode -- and one became an exhibit used in a later trial.
After the battle, as many as 100 miners were dead, and many more were wounded. The strike busters lost 30 men. Nearly 1 million rounds were fired. Some have said the coal industry lost 40,000 miners during the coal wars, a number of whom came to California and its San Joaquin Valley.
Hatfield's assassins were never punished for his murder. William H. "Bill" Blizzard, president of District 17 of the UMW, was tried for treason and acquitted for leading the miners against Sheriff Chafin. The unexploded bomb revealed to the court his opponents' brutality. Nearly 985 miners were imprisoned, but were paroled in 1925.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was the biggest but not the bloodiest battle fought in U.S. coal country and the largest insurrection since the U.S. fought the Civil War.
On Sept. 2, federal troops arrived and by Sept. 4 it was over.
"When the moment came that (the striking miners) must fight federal troops, who were serving in the same army in which they, the miners had served, there was no question in their minds," Lon Savage writes in "Thunder in the Mountains."
"The refusal by operators to let them join a union, the eviction at gunpoint of their wives and children from their homes; their imprisonment without charge or hearing; the savage, brutal, planned murder by operator-employed detectives of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers with their wives on their arms; the killing of miners and shooting into miners' homes late at night; even the dropping of bombs on them -- all paled into insignificance when compared with shooting at soldiers of the United States Army.
"The miners knew this so well they did not need to talk about it. There was no decision, no judgment to make. They would not, could not, make war against their own country," Savage wrote.
The victory for organized labor did not come until a decade later, after the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and the New Deal. Legislation proved mightier than the gun.
Sofiea Bussell Clerico of Bakersfield, retired from various careers, has written extensively about her four brothers' contributions during World War II.