The sun rose on August 24 with about 5000 miners crossing Lens Creek Mountain. Wearing red bandanas as their “uniform”, the miners had no way of knowing that these would give rise to the nickname “rednecks”. They also didn’t know that in Logan County, Don Chafin had mobilized an army consisting of deputies, mine guards, store clerks and state police.
While the marchers were preparing to set out, Governor Morgan put in a call for help in the form of federal troops. In response, President Harding sent a World War I hero, Henry Bandholtz, to Charleston to assess and report on the rising tensions.
August 26 broke in a cool morning in the mountains as Bandholtz met with the governor along with Keeney and Mooney. He explained that if the march continued, the miners and UMWA leaders would be charged with treason, news that Keeney told to a majority of the miners at a ball field in Madison.
The threat of treason caused some of the miners to end their march and head home. Two factors though kept many on the road. First, Keeney promised special trains to transport the miners back to Marmet in Kanawha County. These trains were late in arriving in Madison. Second, the state police raided a group of miners at Sharples, killing two. Miners began marching toward Sharples just across the Logan County Line.
Logan, itself, was protected by the natural barrier of Blair Mountain. Colonel William Eubank of the National Guard took command of Chafin’s army and placed them in positions on the crest of Blair Mountain as the miners gathered in the town of Blair at the base of the mountain. On August 28th, the marchers took their first prisoners, four Logan County deputies and the son of another one.
Two days later, on the 30th, Reverend James E. Wilburn put together a small army to support the miners. The next day, Wilburn’s men shot and killed three Chafin deputies. During the following skirmish, a deputy killed one of Wilburn’s followers and this ignited intense fighting as Eubank’s troops brought in planes to drop bombs on the insurrectionists.
With war hero Billy Mitchell leading a squadron from Langley Field, the air corps set up headquarters in a vacant field close to Charleston. Several of the planes didn’t make it. Crashing into areas removed from the site of the battle such as Nicholas County, Raleigh County and southwestern Virginia, air power failed to play an important part in the battle.
When federal troops arrived in Jeffrey, Sharples, Blair and Logan, the possibility of fighting against US troops upset the miners and most surrendered. Many though continued the fight until September 4th when the rest surrendered or went home. Twelve miners and four men from Chafin’s army lay dead.
With those men who were seen to be leaders being held accountable for the actions of all the miners, men who surrendered were placed on trains and sent home. Special grand juries
Those who surrendered were placed on trains and sent home. However, those perceived as leaders were to be held accountable for the actions of all the miners. Special grand juries handed over 1200 indictments for murder and treason. The only conviction for treason was against Walter Allen. However, Allen skipped bail, escaped and was never captured.
The most prominent trial was that of Bill Blizzard. The authorities considered Blizzard to be the general of the miner’s army. After several changes of venue – including the Courthouse in Charles Town where John Brown was tried – Blizzard saw all of the charges against him dropped. Acquitted also of murder charges were Keeney and Mooney. Wilburn and his son were convicted of murdering the Logan County deputies and saw their sentences commuted by Governor Howard Gore after serving only three years of their eleven year sentences.
Keeney and Mooney were forced out o the union while Blizzard remained a strong force in District 17 until he too was ousted in the fifties.
Blair Mountain stands today as a power symbol for workers rights. The story though has been slow to come out of these hills and “hollers”. The miners who participated vowed never to discuss the details of the march to protect themselves from the authorities. For many years, the story of the march was told around campfires and on the front porches of cabins high up in the hills. The mountain stands today as a vivid reminder of the violence which is ingrained in the national psyche of labor-management disputes.
Death and destruction continue in southern West Virginia.
Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and OpEdNews as well as a weekly guest on national radio. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Logan County West Virginia, site of The March on Blair Mountain.
Nelson’s book, OccupyDC: As I See It has been called, “The most thorough photographic documentation of the Occupy Movement in Washington DC”.
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