Few people know that America's largest insurrection since the Civil War - and the nation's worst armed labor strife was the West Virginia coal mine wars of the early 1900s. From some of the accounts, here's a thumbnail record:
As coal mining blossomed in the late 1800s, thousands of immigrants and blacks poured into Appalachia for dirty, dangerous coal jobs. The diggers mostly lived in company camps, were paid in "scrip" tokens spendable only at company stores, and were exploited somewhat like serfs in bondage. Explosions and cave-ins killed multitudes. In 1907, a mine blast at Monongah, Marion County, took nearly 400 worker lives. One historian said U.S. combat troops in World War I had better survival rates than West Virginia miners.
The new-formed United Mine Workers attempted to unionize the diggers. Mine owners hired armed Baldwin-Felts detectives as union-busting mine guards. Brutality abounded. Union organizers - including tough-talking Mary "Mother" Jones -- were jailed repeatedly.
In 1912, Paint Creek miners in eastern Kanawha County struck. Forced out of their company homes, they lived in tent clusters. To counter armed company guards, the UMW sent in guns and ammunition. Gov. William Glasscock declared martial law. Coal operator Quinn Morton put machine guns on a train, dubbed "the Bull Moose Special," which rolled along Paint Creek in 1913 firing at tents. Only one striker was killed - reportedly because armored slits in the train cars prevented the machine guns from tilting downward toward crouching, hiding targets. In retaliation, armed miners attacked a guard camp at Gallagher in a battle that killed 16.
By 1919, Logan and Mingo counties were a major nonunion zone. Mine owners paid Logan Sheriff Don Chafin - a political dictator who controlled every public job in the county - to hire many "deputies" to beat and expel union agents and miners who attended organizing sessions. Chafin's sheriff salary was $3,500 a year, but a later inquiry learned that mine owners paid him about $33,000 more annually. He grew rich, and brutal. He was shot twice in clashes with miners.
In 1919, armed miners assembled at Marmet to march on Logan. They wore red bandannas and called themselves "rednecks." They made it as far as Danville, Boone County, before turning back.
In 1920, Mingo miners struck. Armed Baldwin-Felts agents evicted them from company houses. Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield backed the strikers. He led a squad of armed miners to face the union-busters at the town's railway platform. The shootout killed seven guards and four townspeople, including Mayor C.C. Testerman. Hatfield soon married Testerman's widow.