On May 19, 1920, 13 armed men working for the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency came to the town of Matewan with the intention of evicting pro-union miners from coal company owned houses. The Matewan Chief of Police, Sid Hatfield, the Mayor, Cabell Cornell Testerman, and and several other locals gathered at the Matewan train station to arrest the coal company grunts on the grounds that the evictions were unlawful. However, the Baldwin Felts Detectives would not go quietly. A shootout occurred. When the smoke cleared 7 detectives, two miners, and Mayor Testerman had all been fatally wounded. The Matewan Massacre was one of many violent conflicts to take place in southern West Virginia in the early 20th century (known as the Mine Wars) between pro-union and anti-union groups.
The Battle of Matewan, more commonly known as
the Matewan Massacre, was a battle fought between the Baldwin-Felts Detective
Agency and local miners. It took place in Mingo County, West Virginia, and was another
instance in history where a struggle for better working conditions and salaries
was waged. Miners during this time were paid extremely low wages in spite of
working in unsafe conditions. Instead of being paid in cash, the miners were
paid in a wage known as scrip, which could only be used in company stores to
buy company products or directly deducted from their pay as rent expenses. As
such, the company was not losing money because the wages paid to their miners
was being deposited back through their stores.
The success and effectiveness of strikes
across the United States led the local miners of Matewan to sign to the Union.
As a result, the coal company, in the case of the Matewan Massacre it was the
Stone Mountain Coal Company, retaliated in order to control their miners. A group
of Baldwin-Felts detectives was hired to evict the miners and their families
from their homes. This unfair treatment led to a bloody and brutal shootout on
May 19, 1920 that left seven Baldwin-Felts detectives, the Mayor of Matewan and two miners dead. Although
the Massacre was a brief but bloody exchange, “the events that followed in its
wake included a 28-month strike that led to two dozen deaths, West Virginia’s
longest and most controversial murder trail to date, a United States Senate
investigation, the retaliatory assassination of Sid Hatfield, and the largest
armed civilian insurrection since the Civil War” (Bailey, Matewan Before the Massacre, 7). Despite these events, the brave
stand made by the miners, paved the way for fair pay and better working
conditions within southern West Virginia.
The Battle of Matewan was a major factor in
the end of the totalitarian reign of coal company control over the miners of
West Virginia. The battle led to the creation of the Wagner Act, an act responsible
for the creation of minimum wage, better working conditions for miners, and
shortened the amount of days worked. The battle also allowed the miners to take
advantage of becoming part of the Union.
Why visit this national landmark some may ask?
Mingo County is known as “Bloody Mingo” because of its labor strife and corrupt
politics. Visitors to the historic town of Matewan will learn about Mingo
County’s mine wars and the gruesome battle that spurred the way toward
unionization. Mingo County is also in the heart of the coalfields of West
Virginia. Those who visit during the town's Heritage Day, which takes place annually on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of the Matewan Massacre, will be granted the opportunity to watch a reenactment of the battle while also getting a tour of the town. What better way to relive the past than to visit the area where the
miners once lived and worked? The legendary Matewan Massacre is a battle that
helped forever change the lives of all miners across the nation in regards to
fair labor and safe working conditions.