1921 was the year
Seems like yesterday to me
Let me tell you about what happened then
Back in the mine country
We were fightin’ hard to build a union
‘Cause at forty cents a ton
There was no way to feed a family
When the minin’ day was done
The strike had lasted for a year
When they shot down Smilin’ Sid
He was a lawman who stood up for us miners
That’s the only crime he ever did
A hundred miners locked up with no trial
There in Mingo-town
But the last straw came in Sharples
When they gunned the women down
We’re marchin’ on to Mingo
Ten thousand men and countin’
Here in the hills of West Virginia
At the Battle of Blair Mountain
We shouted through the hillsides
In every union hall
We’re marchin’ on to Mingo
Teach them a lesson, once and all
We commandeered every freight train
To the Kentucky line
Took every car that crossed our path
And all the guns and ammo we could find
The union leaders tried to stop us
Mother Jones told us to turn back
But we had learned ourselves from the gun thugs
There’s a time to talk and a time to attack
We had no leader, we didn’t need one
We all knew the way through Logan County
And we all knew once we got there
We’re gonna hang Sheriff Chapin from a sour apple tree
For three days and nights we fought them
The front was ten miles wide
All the cops and scabs in West Virginia
Were there on the other side
They dropped explosives from their airplanes
Such a thing you never saw
They shot us with machine guns
It was the operator’s law
We dug trenches and wore helmets
That we brought from the Argonne
All the way from France to Logan
We fought from dusk to dawn
President Harding sent in the Army
And we left our line to them
But the hills of West Virginia
Will long remember when
“The Battle of Blair Mountain” first appeared on the 2004 CD, Songs for Mahmud. It has also been used in a documentary by West Virginia Public Television.
I first heard about the battle, and then wrote a song about it, because I found Lon Savage’s wonderful book, Thunder in the Mountains: the Coal Mine Wars of 1920-21, on someone’s coffee table in that part of the world.
Although the IWW had been recently crushed or driven underground by the Palmer Raids, labor militancy was far from dead. The Coal Mine Wars of this period represented probably the most militant of labor militancy in the history of the US labor movement.
As depicted in John Sayles’ movie, Matewan, gun thugs working for coal operators were frequently committing massacres of women, children and men in West Virginia, if these women, children and men were involved with the union movement. After the authorities arrested 100 union miners and held them in detention without trial in the town of Mingo, over 10,000 union miners decided to lay siege to the town and free their comrades.
They commandeered vehicles, looted armories, and assembled on the mountainside just opposite the town of Mingo. Defending Mingo was a similar number of men who identified more with the interests of the coal mine operators than with those who worked for them. Their ranks included every cop in the entire state, as well as lots of members of the “well to do.”
Both sides were made up large of World War I veterans, and, having learned the hard way about the consequences of such actions, neither side ever attempted to run and storm the lines of the other. For three days and nights they shot at each other, but due to the thick foliage, nobody could aim for shit. After all that, the known death toll was 16. The dead were on both sides.
The Battle of Blair Mountain involved the first attempt of the nascent US Air Force to drop bombs on people, and it didn’t go well for them. Most of the planes they attempted to send to West Virginia crashed before being able to do anything. Those that didn’t crash failed to drop bombs that actually blew up anywhere near people.
On the third day of the battle, the US Army arrived in force and relieved the front lines on both sides. They told the miners to go home, which they did. For years afterwards, West Virginia prosecutors tried to convict miners who had instigated the revolt. They changed state law to allow trials against the miners to take place anywhere in the state, rather than just in the county where things had gone down. But nowhere in the entire state of West Virginia could a jury be found that would convict any of the rebel miners.
Prominent labor leaders such as “Mother” Mary Jones beseeched the marching miners to turn back and avoid a massacre. Many of them listened to her and did as she suggested. Then they heard of another massacre of women and children that occurred in the town of Sharples, and they turned back around to march toward Mingo.