Tennessee’s Deadly Coal Creek War

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Convicts and soldiers placed on a railroad train by striking miners and taken out of the Coal Creek Valley during the Coal Creek War in Anderson County, Tennessee, United States. The convicts had been brought into the valley by the mine owners to break a strike by free miners.
Convicts and soldiers placed on a railroad train by striking miners and taken out of the Coal Creek Valley during the Coal Creek War in Anderson County, Tennessee, United States. The convicts had been brought into the valley by the mine owners to break a strike by free miners.

The State of West Virginia has a very well documented history of mine workers vs. company owners, however, many may be surprised to learn that the Volunteer State also has a history of coal miner uprisings, with the most notable occurring some thirty years before the Battle of Matewan.

Tennessee’s “Coal Creek War” takes place just north of Knoxville off the banks of Anderson County’s Coal Creek.

The labor conflict began in 1891 when coal mine owners in the region began firing company employees and replacing them with convict laborers leased out by the Tennessee state prison system.

The practice of the state leasing out prisoners to private companies for labor dated to the days following the American Civil War: Tennessee, like other Southern states, struggled to find sources of revenue. Post-war railroad construction, meanwhile, had opened up the state’s coalfields to major mining operations, creating a large demand for cheap labor. In 1866, the state began leasing its convicts to companies willing to pay for the inmates’ housing in exchange for their labor, and in 1871 leased convicts to the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railway Company (TCI), which owned a large coal and coke operation in the Cumberland Plateau area west of Chattanooga. TCI in turn subleased most of the convicts to smaller mining companies. While there was some resistance among free miners to the use of convict laborers in the 1870s, the abundance of jobs and companies’ preference for the higher-quality production of free labor eased the miners’ concerns.

However, in 1890, the election of several members of the labor-friendly Tennessee Farmers’ Alliance— among them Governor John P. Buchanan— to the state government emboldened miners in the Coal Creek Valley to make several demands. One of the key demands was payment in cash rather than company scrip, which could either be used only at company-owned stores with marked up prices or redeemed for cash at a percentage of its value. Miners also demanded they be allowed to use their own checkweighmen— the specialists who weighed the coal and determined how much a particular miner had earned— instead of checkweighmen hired by the company. Since state laws already barred scrip payment and company-hired checkweighmen, most mine owners accepted the demands, though they were in the midst of an economic downturn. However, the Tennessee Coal Mining Company (TCMC), which operated a mine near Briceville, rejected the demands, and on April 1, 1891, shut down operations. Two months later, the company demanded its miners sign an iron-clad contract before returning to work. The miners refused.

On July 5, TCMC reopened the Briceville mine using convicts it had leased from TCI. With tensions already high, the company tore down miners’ houses in Briceville to build a stockade for its convict laborers. Miners and local merchants met on July 14 to determine a course of action. It was rumored a larger group of convicts would arrive the next day. That night about 300 armed miners— probably led by Knights of Labor organizers Eugene Merrell, George Irish, and Marcena Ingraham— surrounded the Briceville stockade. The stockade’s guards surrendered without a fight, and the convicts were marched to Coal Creek, where they were loaded onto a train and sent to Knoxville.

After seizing the Briceville stockade, the Coal Creek miners sent a telegram to Governor Buchanan, stating their actions were taken to defend their property and wages, and asked for his intervention.

Unfortunately for the miners, Buchanan refused to offer any assistance to the miners, stating that although he was a champion of labor, as governor he was obligated to enforce the laws, and pleaded for calm and patience.

On July 16, Buchanan, escorted by three Tennessee state militia companies, two from Chattanooga and one from Knoxville, led the convicts back to Briceville.

After the governor’s speech, Merrell refuted him, claiming the governor had not bothered to enforce laws regarding scrip or checkweighmen, and called the state government a “disgrace to a civilized country.” Later that night, shots were fired at the stockade, startling the governor, who had remained in the area until the following day. The governor left 107 militiamen under Colonel Granville Sevier, a great-grandson of John Sevier, to guard the stockade.

On the morning of July 20, an estimated 2,000 miners armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols again surrounded the Briceville stockade. The miners’ ranks had been bolstered by an influx of miners from the border town of Jellico and several hundred miners from Kentucky, some of whom had successfully removed convicts from two Kentucky mines five years earlier. After gaining an assurance that no company property would be damaged, Sevier, seeing the futility of resisting such a large force, surrendered. The miners again marched the convicts to Coal Creek, and put them on a train back to Knoxville. Later that day, the miners marched on the Knoxville Iron Company mine near Coal Creek, which also used convict labor, forced the guards at its stockade to surrender, and likewise sent its convicts to Knoxville.

On July 21, 1891, Governor Buchanan traveled to Knoxville, where he again summoned the militia. Over a four-day period, the governor met with a committee of local figures friendly to the miners’ interests, namely attorney J.C.J. Williams, Knoxville Journal editor William Rule, and United Mine Workers organizer William Webb. On July 23, Williams and Webb went to Coal Creek to address the miners, echoing the governor’s plea for patience. Williams assured the miners that the governor supported an end to convict-leasing, but said it would take time to change the law. The miners thus agreed to a 60-day truce after the governor assured them he would call a special session of the Tennessee state legislature and recommend the lease law be repealed. The convict laborers returned on July 25. During the truce, Merrell and Irish traveled around the state, giving speeches to rally support for the miners’ cause.

On August 31, Buchanan called a special session of the state legislature to consider the convict lease issue. One question before the legislature was whether or not the state could terminate the leasing contract it had signed, which didn’t expire until December 31, 1895. Another issue was what to do with convicts should the convict-leasing system be terminated. After three weeks of debate, the legislature adjourned on September 21, taking little action other than making it a felony to interfere with the leasing system and authorizing the governor to take any necessary action to protect the system. After this setback, the miners held out hope with the state’s court system, which considered a case brought by the Tennessee Commissioner of Labor, George Ford, who claimed the poor conditions in which the inmates worked and lived violated state law. The case moved quickly through the courts, reaching the Tennessee State Supreme Court in October 1891. Chief Justice Peter Turney, however, ruled against the miners, essentially citing the sanctity of contracts.

On October 28, 1891, the committee representing the Coal Creek miners’ interests announced they were resigning, denounced the legislature, and issued a subtle call to arms. Shortly thereafter, on October 31, a group of miners burned the TCMC stockade at Briceville and seized the Knoxville Iron Company stockade at Coal Creek. Several company buildings were destroyed or looted, but the stockade was spared. Over 300 convicts were freed and supplied with fresh food and civilian clothes by the insurgents, who urged them not to commit any more crimes.

On November 2, another band burned the stockade at Oliver Springs, freeing 153 convicts. In response to the outbreak, a second truce was negotiated in which the miners agreed to allow the return of convicts to Coal Creek and Oliver Springs, but not Briceville, TCMC president B.A. Jenkins had grown disgruntled with convict labor. The state dispatched eighty-four militiamen under the command of J. Keller Anderson to guard the convict stockade at Coal Creek and a small force to guard the one at Oliver Springs. Anderson built Fort Anderson on what came to be known as “Militia Hill”, overlooking Coal Creek via the Walden Ridge water gap, which was outfitted with a Gatling gun, and the convicts returned to the Coal Creek Valley on January 31, 1892.

Relations between the militiamen, most of whom were from Middle or West Tennessee, and the people of Coal Creek soured quickly. Merrell wrote to Governor Buchanan complaining of the troops’ behavior, and for several months miners and soldiers indiscriminately shot at one another, with both sides blaming the other for provoking it.

In the meantime, Merrell and TCMC president Jenkins had made amends, and the two began promoting a new cooperative style of mining operations favorable to both miners and managers. By Summer 1892, dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including the New York Times, the Alabama Sentinel, and Harper’s Weekly, had sent correspondents to the Coal Creek region to cover the conflict. Sentiment was initially pro-miner, although as violent outbreaks continued and militiamen were killed, sentiment began to shift.

The Nashville Banner called the miners “thieves, robbers, ruffians, and outlaws,” while the Chattanooga Republican accused the state legislature of being “inhuman.” The two Knoxville papers, the Journal and the Tribune, initially praised the miners’ decisiveness and derided the government’s ineffectiveness, but their sentiments shifted after the stockades were burned in October 1891.

By August of the following year, a group of miners led by John Hatmaker attacked the TCI stockade at Oliver Springs, but were beaten back by the guards. Shortly afterward, a larger group of miners reconvened at the stockade, and its guards finally surrendered. The stockade was burned, and the convicts were put on a train and sent to Nashville. The following day, militia commander Keller Anderson was captured at Coal Creek, and the miners ordered Fort Anderson’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Perry Fyffe, to surrender. After Fyffe refused, the miners charged the fort, killing two militiamen, but failing to capture the position.

In response to this latest uprising, Governor Buchanan dispatched 583 militiamen under the command of General Samuel T. Carnes to East Tennessee. He also ordered sheriffs of affected counties to form posses. Most county sheriffs— including the Anderson and Morgan sheriffs— ignored this order or made lackluster attempts to execute it, although several dozen volunteers were amassed in the Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville areas. A group of Knoxville volunteers marched to relieve the besieged Fort Anderson, but as they descended Walden Ridge, they were ambushed by a group of miners, killing two of the volunteers and sending the rest fleeing back toward Clinton. Carnes arrived on August 19, and quickly restored order and obtained Anderson’s release. He then initiated a sweep of the region from Coal Creek to Jellico, arresting hundreds of miners deemed assisting in the insurrection. The militia used the Briceville Community Church as a temporary jail for those it arrested.

Carnes’ sweep of the Coal Creek Valley largely ended the Coal Creek War, although a failed attack on the TCI stockade at Tracy City in April 1893 and the militia’s hanging of miner Richard Drummond, who had killed a soldier in a brawl, from a railroad bridge near Briceville in August 1893 threatened to reignite the violence.

Governor Buchanan, attacked by both miners and mine owners alike for his indecisiveness, failed to win his party’s nomination for governor in 1892, the state’s Democrats choosing Chief Justice Peter Turney instead. Buchanan still ran as a third party candidate, but Turney won the election easily, ending Buchanan’s political career. Seeing that the state’s financial gains from convict-leasing had been erased by having to keep the militia in the field, Turney and the legislature decided to let the TCI contract expire, and enacted legislation to build Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and purchase land in Morgan County where convicts would mine coal directly for the state, rather than competing with free labor.

Anderson County judge W.R. Hicks oversaw the indictments of nearly 300 miners and other individuals associated with the Coal Creek uprisings. Many, including Eugene Merrell, fled the state before they could be charged or brought to trial. Nearly all who showed up in court were either acquitted or found guilty and fined. Only one trial ended with serious jail time— D.B. Monroe, sentenced to seven years after being vilified in the media as an “outsider” from Chattanooga who had come to Anderson County to spread his “anarchist” philosophy. Monroe was released after serving only two years.

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