‘The Wars of West Virginia’ by Robert Minor from The Liberator. Vol. 3 No. 8. August, 1920.
As the train from Charlottesville ran through the Blue Ridge Mountains, a Negro looked out of the window, arose and walked from the stuffy compartment “for colored people” into a more comfortable car marked “for whites.” From that I knew the train had passed into West Virginia. The Negro sat down facing a weatherbeaten man with a white mustache and a broad-brimmed hat. The white man’s face did not change expression at the Negro’s entrance, and from that I knew that the white man was a mountaineer of the West and not an inhabitant of Old Virginia.
From Chesapeake Bay, across the Blue Ridge Mountains and away up around the southwest corner o£ Pennsylvania, used to extend the domain of Old Virginia. But the rich planters of the eastern valleys went to war against the Union, and the “po’ white” men hoeing their corn alone on the mountains and not owning any n——, refused to follow. The new State of West Virginia was made of these soft green mountains and lonely cabins and corn patches.
For another generation the people of the mountains hoed their corn. Then somebody discovered that the green-covered mountains were made of coal. The railroads began to scratch their way through the green, and to nose out the great black insides that were worth more than the cabins and corn patches. Men from Northern cities took part in West Virginia affairs and soon could prove with legal papers that they owned the black contents of the mountains and the green surface, too.
Many mountain families quit hoeing corn. They settled near the coal pits where regular wages and store clothes seemed to offer more of a living. The population passed from the outside of the mountains to the inside of them, and the grip of the men with the title deeds dosed down hard upon all.
As my train ran down the valley, the mountains on either side showed me the black scars of the title deeds. All is owned by the coal companies; nothing in sight is free but the wild water of New River churning through the boulders, and the n—– in the white men’s compartment of the train. Folks work in company, mines, live in company shacks, learn in company schools and company churches, from company teachers and company preachers, and the wages that brought them there they pay to company stores for company food and clothes. Coal company Governors rule the mountaineers, coal company courts judge them, and coal company sheriffs-in most places-drive them back into the coal pits when they rebel.
Coal company detectives board the trains that enter the more southern counties to look over the passengers. Labor organizers are taken out and blackjacked and left to die in the woods. The counties are divided like Balkan States, each county line a frontier where coal company “passports” may be demanded. For eighteen years, wars have raged through these mountains, and men have died in scores and hundreds. For eighteen years-since 1902, when the mountaineers first found that they had been trapped in the black holes.
The coal companies had a hard time holding down the mountaineers in the first great strike, in 1902, when the mountaineers left off the feudal way of thinking that goes with hoeing corn alone, and began to think as masses of coal miners.
Then came “Old Man Baldwin” with a system. As head of the “Baldwin-Felts Detectives, Inc.,” he took a contract to break the strike for a sum which some think was $200,000. His system was to import mine-guards of the convict-detective kind from the cities, and to organize the strike-breaking business into a large semi-military campaign. He criss-crossed the country in dead-lines against labor organizers and garrisoned coal camps under the nozzles of machine-guns. The men of the mountains had always been armed. Under Baldwin all that could be caught or whose weapons could be found were disarmed. When disarmed they were driven by club and gun into the coal pits or out of the country.
Here my train turns down the Kanawha Valley into “Union territory,” won back from the blackjack men by the mountaineer coal diggers in wars of rifle and pistol and gatling gun between the years of 1902 and 1913. The whole valley was won by the miners, in the strike of 1902, and the upper part of it was lost again in 1904, after which it lived for several years under the terrorism of Baldwin and of Charley Cabell, leader of the mine owners of Cabin Creek.
The third big strike broke out at Paint Creek in 1912, when the Baldwin-Felts gang slaughtered men so frankly that the authorities felt obliged to indict eight of them for murder (and released them under light bond). And there was a grand “rabbit drive” of men, women and children down Paint Creek. The fugitives waded down stream to avoid trespass on company property and settled in tents at Holley Grove. Old Man Baldwin’s army opened rifle fire on the tents, and the miners fought them off in a two-day battle.
Then the Old Woman came to fight the Old Man: She walked alone up to the fortifications at Cabin Creek, just a bit down-river from the Paint Creek mines, and was halted by the Baldwin-Felts guards. The old woman jumped into the stream up to her arm-pits and waded past the barricades, saying, “I guess you can’t stop me wading in the crick.” In the town the coal diggers recognized her as Mother Jones, and quicker than she could be stopped, she had the miners out in mass meeting. The Union was revived and Cabin Creek joined the strike.
News of the killings of miners at Paint and Cabin creeks caused coal diggers everywhere to get out whatever guns they had left. I hear many stories in Charleston and further south, of battles and isolated duels in the mountains, in the Winter of 1912. The tales are short and simple, such as this: “Eighty thugs was killed that day; the coal diggers’ losses was one wounded.”
A boyish-faced, panther-bodied mountaineer said to me, “One evening we seen a thug looking down on the town from the mountainside and pulling his gun; and a fellow fired at him with a high-power, and the bullet catched him through both legs, and he come rolling down the mountain with them legs going ’round like a ‘lectric fan.”
On a February night in 1913, Baldwin-Felts men with the coal operators and a sheriff in an armored train opened fatal machine-gun fire on the tents at Holly Grove, and fighting raged for several days. Mountaineers with Mother Jones took a gatling gun from the detectives, but the colony was captured by militiamen, upon whom the coal diggers would not fire. Then came the mass imprisonment in the famous “bull pen,” and the courts-martial with death sentences later reduced to penitentiary terms.
Mass movement began.
Five thousand miners marched on the State Capitol at Charleston and were held back by entanglements of barbed wire and of promises. To an “investigation” they listened quietly for several months. Mother Jones and others were released from the courts-martial sentences, and the trouble smouldered in West Virginia while the machine-guns and Baldwin-Felts men went to Colorado to perform the Ludlow murders.
When the United States entered the World War and the getting-out of coal became important, the United Mine Workers of District 17, comprising the southern half of West Virginia, grew in membership from five thousand to forty-two thousand. Young and energetic leaders developed out of the coal pits, advances were made in pay, and the workday was reduced from nine to eight hours.
In 1919, Unionism knocked hard on Old Man Baldwin’s door, and even slipped her foot over his sill. Unionism entered Logan County. Logan County is the “fortified town” of Don Chafin. Old Man Baldwin ruled Mercer, McDowell, Wyoming and Mingo Counties from his headquarters at Bluefield, but the County of Logan is held by his ally, Don Chafin, officially known as County Clerk.
And Don Chafin’s fame is wide.
“Ol’ Don Chafin,” say the mountaineers, “he’s a member of the Hatfield family, and all the Hatfields is quick on the draw. One time Don Chafin thinks a salesman that come into Logan is some kind of Union fellow, and Don goes up to the fellow and says, ‘Get out of this town on the next train or I’ll blow your head off.’ And the fellow had business in Logan, so he goes to the Mayor and says how a man named Chafin had threatened him to blow his head off; and the Mayor says, ‘If Don Chafin said he was going to blow your head off I would take his word for it,’ and the salesman he left town.”
“Ol’ Don is only about thirty-five years old and he’s got twelve notches on his gun. He never got charged with murder, only once when he killed a seventeen year old boy, and he got freed from that. Don wasn’t shooting at the boy. He proved there was witnesses heard him say on a train that he was going to kill Bob Slater, the U. S. Marshal, and afterwards he was shooting at Bob Slater and didn’t mean to kill the boy. So it was proven an accident and he was turned free.
“But the time when the fifty-one organizers come into Logan, it was not Don Chafin, it was Con Chafin-that’s the brother of Don-that got the three hundred men under arms to hold up the train. Don that time was in a hospital with a bullet in him that a Union man had put in.”
When Unionism crept into Logan County, Don Chafin acted.
Stories of beatings, evictions and shootings of miners found their way north to the strongly unionized county of Kanawha.
Thousands of miners spontaneously arose with rifles and started on the great “Armed March” to release Logan County from tyranny. “To establish the Constitution,” was their slogan. For three days the thousands marched over the mountains through Kanawha and Boone Counties, welcomed and fed by the mountaineers on the route. They marched over the border of Logan and then were intercepted by President C. F. Keeney of the Union and by the Governor, who promised an investigation. They were persuaded to turn back.
That was last September. Late in October, when Bill Thompson, a coal digger, escaped from Logan County afoot over the mountains and told another story of terror, and seven Kanawha County miners with rifles made a raid into Logan and brought Thompson’s wife and children back, the Union officials barely prevented another general march of thousands.
Investigation reports lie inches deep on everybody’s desk, and the Governor campaigns in other States against Bolshevism-West Virginia having never heard of the subject-and the killing of men proceeds.
In Old Man Baldwin’s counties, every coal digger is forced to sign the “Yaller Dog.” The “Yaller Dog” is a document by which the coal digger agrees that the Union is a wicked thing, “that he will not while in the employ of the company, belong to, affiliate in any way with, and agrees to sever any connection he may have heretofore held with any such union or organization and will not knowingly work in or about any mine were a member of such organization is employed, and if the employee at any time declines to work under this contract”…”he will not then or thereafter, in any manner molest, annoy or interfere with, the business, customers or employees of this company.”
So that the company agents can capture any organizers that may be sheltered in a miner’s house, or eject the miner’s family if he joins a Union, the coal digger must also sign the company “House Contract,” which document provides:
“The said Lessee shall not permit any improper or suspicious persons to come upon the said premises, and the said Lessor shall at all times have the right to enter upon the said premises for the purpose of ejecting all such persons.”…That the company agents shall “without resort to legal proceedings of any kind whatsoever, enter upon said premises and into said house and take possession,” and “MAY USE SUCH FORCE as may be necessary to evict said party of the second part….”
Now, you city people, I’ll tell you something you’ll find hard to believe, about West Virginia mountaineers. Except for a taste in modern models of fire-arms, their philosophy contains nothing of later date than the Constitution of the United States. But in the living reality of that Constitution they I have a faith better suited to the days of Jefferson. You’d be paralyzed with surprise to hear the mountaineers speak of “upholding the Constitution” with rifle and life. They simply don’t know any better. If they are one hundred per cent. American, they are also forty-five calibre to back it up.
In the mountain towns you find men of a type that is rare: the old-time Jefferson Democrat, or the Lincoln Republican-what’s the difference?-and sometimes such men become public officials through the votes of mountain coal diggers. This occurred in Mingo County, in the election of Sheriff Blankenship and the Mayor of Williamson, the County seat, and the Mayor and Chief of Police of the town of Matewan.
Mayor Testaman of Matewan was a banker, yet he took part for the rights of men-even coal-digging men. “I don’t know how come it,” a coal miner told me, “but there he lays dead for the coal diggers’ rights.”
Such public officials are not partisans of Labor. They are simply impartial. When I walked into the City Hall of Williamson and saw on the door next to the mayor’s office a huge sign reading, “Headquarters of the United Mine Workers,” I discerned that the Mayor does not see Class divisions in Society. His City Hall space is loaned to the emergency-help of evicted miners in just the spirit in which a “Belgian Relief Committee,” might be permitted to hang its sign there, and you know that you would not be surprised to see a Belgian Relief Committee sheltered in a city hall.
And I found a circular that advertised that Mother Jones would speak in the Court House on the next Sunday afternoon to the mine workers of Tug River.
These officials in Mingo County so far have insisted that all men shall have the right of peaceful public meeting; and that no landlord, be it coal company or not, shall evict a tenant from his home without a process of law; and that even private detectives shall be restrained by the laws against murder.
Such, for the time, was all that the coal miners needed. Mingo County was opened to civilization. Nearly all the coal diggers joined the Union, and a few weeks ago they sent Preacher Coombs and Ezra Fry to Charleston to get organizers. Organizing began in open meetings at Matewan, where Testaman was Mayor, and Sid Hatfield is Chief of Police.
As fast as the diggers joined the Union, Baldwin-Felts men came with rifles to eject them from their homes under authority of the “Yaller Dog” documents and “House Contracts which assume to take the place of law. Mayor Testaman and Chief Hatfield took the part of the law, and therefrom resulted the battle of Matewan on the 19th of May, which C. H. Workman of the Miners’ Union wishes to state was not a fight between miners and mine-guards, but between the mine-guards on the one hand and the officials and citizens of the town on the other.
From the five o’clock morning train I alighted at the little. double row of stores and houses that are called Matewan, and before the town was astir I took a walk to the middle of the bridge over Tug River. There boy asked me, “Is it true they got two more thugs up the road last night?” I turned back to talk with the boy, and then I saw a man on a bench before a building on which was scrawled in red letters, “U. M. W. of A.” This man’s face limbered up when I told him I was a friend of Fred Mooney, Secretary of the Mine Workers at Charleston, and he said, “I sized you up as a friend of the Union and I’m glad you didn’t go further across the bridge, because you might have got shot. That is Pike County, over there.”
Toward nine o’clock I saw, standing near the railroad track, a middle-sized man of age about twenty-two. Although this man was alone, he was continually smiling. When he moved, his vest was displaced and exposed two Smith & Wesson revolvers, one stuck into each side of his trousers; A coal digger introduced him as Chief of Police Sid Hatfield.
Hatfield took me over the ground where the battle had occurred, showing me where Mayor Testaman was killed, where this man fell and that one, and where the detective was killed by a blow on the head with a bottle, explaining it all without losing his smile. We entered a little concrete box of a house that was labelled in the masonry, “Town Lockup,” in which he showed me the two live Baldwin-Felts men he had captured that morning and the weapons he had taken from them-two revolvers and two blackjacks made of iron nuts screwed onto hammer handles.
The story of the battle of Matewan. I got from half a dozen other eye-witnesses as well, and I can best remember it for telling in the words in which it was told me, those words being the language that I knew best in my youth:
Albert and Lee Felts came to the Stone Mountain mine on the morning of May 19th with “Yaller Dog” papers and a right smart number of thugs. They begun throwing coal diggers that had joined the Union out of their houses. They throwed out a couple of families and then they come to some more folks that they had “Yaller Dog” papers for, but them families was McCoys and had guts and says they wasn’t going to get out. Albert seen they was McCoys and left them be and went after others. When the thugs had throwed out five families, somebody run up Tug River to the town and told Chief Hatfield.
Chief Sid Hatfield came down and seen Albert putting some people out. Sid says, “Albert, if what you are doing is according to law you can do it and I won’t interfere, but if what you are doing is not the law you’ve got to stop putting people out of their houses.”
Albert stalled around and says he had the right to throw them out any time the company said, and he didn’t have to go to law to get them out. The two of them argued and then went to the telephone and called up lawyers. Some of the lawyers said Albert did have the right and some of them said no he didn’t. Finally Albert calls his men and they drove away in their automobiles, about noontime.
Everybody reckoned them fellows would come back.
It seemed like the Mayor knew for sure that Albert Felts wasn’t laying down that easy without he had some scheme on.
The Mayor calls Preacher Coombs and told him to go out and find twelve men with high-powered rifles, for him to deputize to defend the town, and Chief Hatfield got out a warrant for the arrest of Albert Felts.
Mayor Testaman seen a miner standing in the street, and he went up and says, “Are you armed?” The miner says, “No, I ain’t.” And the Mayor says, “Well, get armed quick!” and the miner says, “Yes, I am,” and the Mayor deputizes him. Preacher Coombs come back and couldn’t find but six men and only two of them had high-power guns. The Mayor had just deputized the six and sent Coombs out to look for more.
About half past five in the afternoon, Chief Hatfield was standing around when a boy runs in, saying, “The thugs is come to town!”
Sid Hatfield walked out quick to the back street and there was Albert and Lee Felts and C. B. Cunningham, the gunman that was known for being quick on the draw. And standing back of them was ten Baldwin-Felts men. Then there was a dummy that had been hanging around town all day without any gun and not letting on he was a Baldwin-Felts man.
Sid walked up to Albert Felts and says, “I’ve got a warrant for you.”
Albert sort of grinned and says, “I’ll return the compliment; I’ve got a warrant for you.” All of the thugs kind of shuffled around on one foot and then the other, and pretty soon Sid was surrounded. Sid looked around and seen there was no friends near, only Isaac Brewer, the town policeman, was standing quiet.
Albert Felts says to Sid, “We’ll take you up to Bluefield on the train that’s due in seven minutes.” Sid says nothing and just smiles. And Albert says, “We’ll ride on the Pullman, Sid,” and walks Sid over to near the place where the end of the train will stop, and says, “Is this where the Pullman stops?” and Sid said “Yes.”
Sid knew it wasn’t no Pullman ride they planned for him, but that they wanted to be near the end of the train to jump on when they got through with him. The train only stops a minute.
They stood around waiting, and Sid kind of edged back towards the town-side of the street, near the back door of Chambers’ hardware store. Albert Felts and Cunningham the gunman kept close to, Sid, while Lee Felts and the ten other gunmen was standing back a little piece, nearer the railroad track. Albert says again that the train will be in in seven minutes and they would take the Pullman.
Sid said “Yes,” and kept on smiling, and pretty soon he was standing in the doorway of the hardware store, leaning against the door-facing and looking out toward the railroad track. Albert puts one foot in the door and one foot was out on the sidewalk. Isaac Brewer come up inside the store and stood behind Sid, nobody noticing him. Nobody else around, only a few coal diggers that was fired for joining the Union was standing near the track waiting for the train, due in seven minutes.
Mayor Testaman came running down the street and come up to Albert and says, “I understand you are arresting my Chief of Police. I need him for his duties here to protect the town, and I’ll give bond for him. I’ll give any amount of bond you name; I’ll give the whole bank as security.”
Albert Felts says “No; I’m going to take him to Bluefield.”
“To Bluefield!” says the Mayor, “Why don’t you take him to Williamson, that is the County Seat of this county?”
“No,” says Albert, “I’m going to ‘take him to Bluefield.”
Then the Mayor says, “Let me see your warrant.”
Albert puts his hand slow into his pocket and takes out a paper and hands it to the Mayor. The Mayor opens up the folded paper. While he is reading it, Albert turns his head toward where Lee and the ten detectives was standing. Albert raised himself right slow on his toes and lets himself down again. He, does this three times, taking a deep breath each time, and then he kind of slides back a little behind the brick door-facing.
Lee’s face changes kind of queer, like he was expected to do something but ain’t got the guts. And nothing happens. The Mayor finishes reading the paper and looks up and says, “This is a bogus warrant.”
Then Albert draws his gun and shoots from the hip into the Mayor’s stomach and then wheels quick and fires at Sid. The bullet misses Sid and goes through Isaac Brewer’s right lung, paralyzing his gun hand, and him being a man that can’t shoot with his left.
Sid drawed two guns, one in each hand. He put a bullet right away through Albert Felts’ forehead that came out the back of his neck, and then one through Cunningham’s head, shooting for the head because of us being under the impression them fellows always wears a coat of nails.
The ten detectives and Lee opened up heavy on Sid with Colt’s 45 automatics in each hand, but the close-range shooting had made a smoke-cloud around Sid so they couldn’t aim on him good. One of their bullets knocked Sid’s Smith & Wesson 38 out of his hand, but he walked towards them, using his 44.
By now all the guns was in action, the prettiest lot of artillery you ever seen. Lee Felts he stood emptying a Colt’s automatic 45 at Sid, except one shot he turns and kills Tot Tinsley, which was a boy of eighteen that ran past him into the vacant lot. Then Lee put the empty gun back in the holster and drawed another, which he aims steady with both hands at Sid. Somebody seen Lee and pulled down with a highpower. The bullet goes through the heart of Lee and it seemed like he jumped ten feet up, and he fell back on his back with his mouth open and his arms spread out, and his Colt’s 45 still in his hand. A coal digger seen it and jumped over Lee and kicked the gun out of his hand and caught it up and put it into action. None of the guns was idle.
With Albert and Lee Felts and Cunningham dead, the detectives broke and run around the Post Office corner. One of them got into the little lemonade stand that was standing on the sidewalk, him thinking kind of funny, that the thin boards would stop the bullets. And one tall, skinny detective run for Doctor Smith’s office in the one-story brick building back of the Post Office, aiming to fight from in there. But a young coal digger had run in before, him being unarmed, and when he seen the detective at the door with a gun in each hand he thought the guy was coming for him and he picked up a gallon bottle of medicine and busted the detective plumb on the head, with it. The guy fell back with his eyes popping out and somebody put two or three bullets in to make sure, while he was falling.
When Sid got plumb around the corner, there was a Baldwin-Felts man across the side street, and he fired at Sid, but Sid got him. Another detective run around the bank corner and run plumb into Bob Mullins, and he shot Bob dead, and then he turned and made a stand. He was shooting from behind the back corner, and he was hard to get because of Sid’s bullets clipping the corner bricks, but soon he was got through the shoulder and he turned and run.
There was a red-mustached fellow laying on the sidewalk with his legs broke by bullets, and he kept shooting at Sid and Sid got him. Sid quit smiling and told me, “That one with the red mustache-I disremember his name-he sure had guts.”
The rest of them ran past Chambers’ hog lot toward the river.
One detective that had got shot through bad, he went to the river to wade across, but he seen he couldn’t make it, and he come back up to where a widow lady lives. He come in the door, and he says, “Lady, I am shot through. Lady, let me come in; if you will shelter me I will give you two thousand dollars.” But the lady said, “Oh, God, you can’t come in here; if you come in I’ll have to go out,” And the fellow went on down the road and somebody fired a shotgun and he fell dead.
Everybody left off shooting and came back up, and there was seven dead detectives laying in the street, and four coal diggers wounded and the Mayor the same as dead, and Bob Mullins dead and Tot Tinsley, in the vacant lot.
And the train for Bluefield hadn’t come in yet.
Somebody told me something that they said was very important, about an investigation, but I disremember what it was.
When the gun-play begins again on battle-scale in Mingo and Logan, I hope you will understand how came it. And when Sid Hatfield is tried for the killing of Albert Felts, I hope a plenty of people will back him up for his defense, for I think he’s the kind of man the world needs more of.
The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1920/08/v3n08-w29-aug-1920-liberator-hr.pdf