How West Virginia Almost Ushered in a Communist Revolution in 1921

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Child_coal_miners_(1908)_cropWest Virginians are a proud and patriotic people who love America, her flag and the way of life it represents.  This is a reality that has been proven countless times over, both on the dusty streets of home as well as in the jungles of Southeast Asia and sandy deserts of the Middle East.

Yet, it was the Mountain State and her residents that had leaders in Washington, D.C., shaking in their high-priced suits in the autumn of 1921, fearing America was in the midst of a communist revolution.

To properly appreciate this story, you must first understand the setting where the seeds of America’s “almost communist revolution” were first sown – the dark and dusty coalfields of Mingo County, West Virginia.

Created by the state government in 1895 in order to tighten the noose around illegal moonshiners, “Bloody Mingo” as it would soon be nicknamed, quickly garnered a reputation as being a lawless and murderous mountain locality whose inhabitants feared neither God nor the governments of men.  The county’s legends would live on for generations as tall — but all too often true — tales would abound of the people’s “don’t cross me mentality.”

Home to the likes of Devil Anse Hatfield (the notorious clan leader from the Hatfield & McCoy saga), Bloody Mingo would play host to some of the most incredible exploits in America’s history, most of which are largely unknown to the rest of the country.

As king coal grew in power throughout the mountains of Southern West Virginia in the early 1900s, so too did the census counts of places such as Delbarton, Williamson and Matewan.  Towns sprang up almost overnight as the wealth of Bloody Mingo was carted off to distant cities one shovel load at a time.  Sadly, the companies which profited so greatly from West Virginia’s black gold did very little to reinvest into the communities or lives responsible for making them rich.

Meanwhile, half a world away, a similar injustice was taking place in the streets of Imperial Russia.  With peasants slaving on farms and in factories, workers in Eurasia had reached a state of all out discontent.

Living in overcrowded housing with deplorable sanitary conditions, while working long hours in the face of constant risk of injury and death, workers faced harsh discipline (often in the form of a foremen’s fist). The unimaginable conditions led to a state in Western Russia where the people were ripe for revolution against the unspeakably wealthy monarchy that ruled over them.

With the empire’s military forces engaged in a world war against Germany, the country’s workers seized the opportunity and rose up against their oppressors, proclaiming themselves to be a liberated people.

In the midst of the chaos, communists known as the Red Guards took control of key governmental facilities and within a matter of months were successful in gaining sovereignty over the entire nation.  Their flag was a plain red cloth, red had served served as a symbol of socialism, communism, or left-wing politics since the French Revolution (1789–99) and was adopted by socialists as their symbol during the Revolutions of 1848 and became a symbol of communism during the Paris Commune of 1871.

Sadly, as all too often is the case, the result of Russia’s Red Revolution was an even greater form of tyranny – one unlike the world had ever before seen, even unto this day.  Joseph Stalin’s rule has been credited with directly attributing to some 20 million deaths (on top of the estimated 20 million Soviet troops and civilians who perished in the Second World War – many of which died from bullets to the back from their commanders), for a total tally of 40 million people.

But in the year 1920, few could have ever dreamed of just how deplorable communist rule would or could be.

Back in the company towns of Bloody Mingo, life too was harsh during this same time period. While the rest of the nation had ridden itself from the scars of slavery a half-century earlier, the people of West Virginia’s Tug Valley region had become victims of the industrial revolution — the limitless resources buried deep beneath their homes proved to be an irresistible lust to many of the nation’s wealthiest corporations.

Companies owned nearly every community in Mingo County and just about everyone, including police, school teachers, politicians and even local pastors were on their payrolls.

The miners themselves were viewed as an expendable commodity by the coal barons, who paid their employees in script (a form of private currency that could only be spent in company-owned stores). There, the miners were forced to purchase essential goods at considerably marked up rates — in essence, the companies benefited from a nearly free workforce.

Giving no concern to the safety of their workers, early 20th century mines in West Virginia were among the the most dangerous in the world. One historian has suggested that a U.S. soldier fighting in World War I stood a better statistical chance of surviving in battle than did a West Virginian working in a coal mine.

Forbidden from unionizing or striking, coal companies dolled out swift retribution against anyone wishing to join the United Mine Workers of America.

In May 1920, miners in the Mingo County community of Matewan defied company orders by signing union pledges.

In no time at all, hired guns from the mine companies arrived via the train and began evicting miners from company-owned houses.

Meeting them, however, was Mingo County lawman Sid Hatfield (a nephew of Devil Anse Hatfield).  Hatfield led an armed revolt against the mercenaries on the streets of Matewan that culminated in the deaths of ten individuals – seven hired company guns, two striking miners and the town’s mayor.

The following year, Hatfield would be executed in cold blood by relatives of the mercenaries – an act that would serve as a rallying cry for West Virginia’s jaded miners.

Six days following Hatfield’s death, Mingo County coal miners rallied at the state’s capitol building in Charleston, demanding the right to unionize.

Upon receiving news that their demands had been rejected, the miners became restless and began making plans to march back to Mingo County and revolt against their oppressors.

On August 24, 1921, an estimated 13,000 miners had gathered and began marching toward the mines in Mingo County.

“Impatient to get to the fighting, miners near St. Albans, in West Virginia’s Kanawha County, commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners as the ‘Blue Steel Special’, to meet up with the advanced column of marchers at Danville in Boone County on their way to Bloody Mingo.” But standing between the miners and the Mingo County mines they sought to capture was the West Virginia county of Logan and its fiercely anti-union sheriff Don Chafin.

Chafin was on the payroll of the Logan County Coal Operators Association and had assembled the nation’s largest private armed force of nearly 2,000.

Taking the high ground, Chafin’s men positioned themselves atop Blair Mountain, along the path of the miners’ march.

By August 29th, the standoff had escalated into a full blown civil war between the mine-owned sheriff’s office and the marching miners.

In an effort to avoid friendly-fire, all the miners agreed to wear handkerchiefs around their necks – red handkerchiefs.

“I remember Daddy leaving home to join the marching miners and he was wearing that red cloth around his neck,” recounted one woman who was just a young girl at the time of the march. “The people who stood up to the mines were called rednecks.”

Fearful that the same passions that had put an end to the +200 year old Russian government across the ocean less than four years earlier were being birthed in the hills of West Virginia, the White House was quick to respond.

On August 26, 1921, President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers to squelch the rebellion. After a long meeting in the town of Madison, the seat of Boone County, agreements were made convincing the miners to return home.

“However, the struggle was far from over. After spending days to assemble his private army, Chafin was not going to be denied his battle to end union attempts at organizing Logan County coal mines. Within hours of the Madison decision, rumors abounded that Sheriff Chafin’s men had shot union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, West Virginia, just north of Blair Mountain—and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. Infuriated, the miners turned back towards Blair Mountain, many traveling in other stolen and commandeered trains,” writes one article.

In the days ahead, as many as 100 miners lost their lives in the uprising and nearly 1,000 men were arrested, charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia.

With the conflict growing each day, President Harding made good on his promise, dispatching federal troops to squash the uprising.

Fiercely outgunned (most of the miners were armed only with hunting rifles and shotguns), union leaders called off the march and ordered the miners to return to their homes.

The immediate result of the battle was a decisive win for the mine companies and the United States government, as union membership in the coalfields of West Virginia plummeted – but the “rednecks” of West Virginia never gave up.

In 1935, more than a decade later, the miners of Mingo County finally tasted the fruits of their labor — winning the right to organize.  Fortunately for the nation, they achieved this right without a communist revolution.

Interestingly, roughly fifty-years later, in the height of the Cold War, the people of Mingo County would again have their loyalties questioned following an incident that occurred in the Mingo community of Vulcan: With a rundown bridge which served as the only access to their secluded community nearly collapsed, the citizens of the town petitioned the US and West Virginia departments of transportation for repairs to be made – unfortunately, their requests fell upon deaf ears.

With the Cold War at its chilliest point, the people of this Mingo County community made an unprecedented move by writing to the Soviet Embassy in Washington, detailing their plight and requesting foreign aid from the communist super power.

Sensing an opportunity to shame the American government, the Kremlin immediately dispatched journalists to the United States and began showing signs that they would in deed help the forgotten West Virginia community.

Embarrassed by the attention their lack of assistance was receiving, state officials wasted no time in committing $1.3 million and began construction upon a new bridge for the tiny Mingo County community.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Great article on the miners march and the Vulcan bridge.
    John Robinette was the man who wrote the Russian government. That is what my mother, Delores (Maynard) Baisden, told us when the bridge was built. She grew up with John in Chapman Fork, Ky.

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