The West Virginia Mine Wars began in 1912 when unionized coal miners went on strike along Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in Kanawha County. Organized by the United Mine Workers of America, one of the largest workers' rights organization in the country which at that time was only twenty-two years old, the strike was intended to win higher compensation for the miners' dangerous work. Coal companies cried foul and brought in strikebreakers and deputized private detectives armed with machine guns to quash the dissidents. The miners responded by arming themselves and fighting back, and though martial law was declared in the district several times, by the time the strike ended the following year, it was well known around the nation as one of the bloodiest labor conflicts in American history. The UMWA’s most famous organizer, Mary “Mother” Jones, was among the leaders of the strike and witnessed the violence. Speaking around the country, she would recall snow stained with blood and miners’ families shivering in tent colonies through the winter. She told audiences, “When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!”2
But these union victories in West Virginia during the 1910s led the coal operators to fight back. By the 1920s, coal fields in Mingo and Logan counties had unionized--so coal operators in Mingo county hired the Baldwin-Felts agency to evict union coal miners and their families from their camps. Since miners were paid in company scrip which had no value outside their own coal camps, this would have rendered the affected families penniless and homeless.
The evictions climaxed in a shootout between Mingo County Sheriff Sid Hatfield and his deputies--backed by miners--and the evicting Baldwin-Felts detective agents on the railroad tracks in Mingo county on May 19, 1920. Though murder charges against Sheriff Hatfield were dismissed,he was later killed by Baldwin-Felts agents as he climbed the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse. Galvanized by this injustice, miners gathered to fight back.
It was a literal war that was being fought and many of the miners stuck to a code of silence about their goings on, about the specifics of what happened, largely because they could have all been prosecuted for various crimes, everything from insurrection to murder to treason. There’s not as an extensive written record of the events that you might have, say, for the Battle of Gettysburg, where one can look at letters, diaries and official communications back and forth.”1