Of all the Southern states, a strong argument can be made that the natural resources of West Virginia were more ruthlessly exploited in the New South era than any other.
We’ve already seen how the entire state of West Virginia was clear cut by Northern timber corporations and how Northern mining corporations bought up all the coal by tricking the mountaineers and exploited the people there for generations in company towns. Coal money bought U.S. Senate seats in Kentucky and West Virginia for Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson respectively. After the coal industry mechanized following World War II, millions of people in Appalachia were uprooted and took the Hillbilly Highway to the Great Lakes region.
In 1921, one of the largest uprisings in American history since the War Between the States took place at the Battle of Blair Mountain when coal miners trying to unionize rose up against the plutocracy in Logan County in southwestern West Virginia following the death of Sid Hatfield.
“The miners’ route to Mingo required them to pass through Logan County, a coal company stronghold ruled by an anti-union sheriff named Don Chafin. Upon learning of the march, Chafin scraped together a 3,000-strong army of state police, deputies and citizen militiamen and prepared for a fight. “No armed mob will cross the Logan County line,” he proclaimed. Chafin and his supporters had soon constructed a network of machine gun nests and trenches around Blair Mountain, a 2,000-foot peak that stood directly in the miners’ path.
On August 24, the main body of coal miners set out from Marmet and headed south toward Mingo County. Keeney and Mooney made a last-minute attempt to call off the march after meeting with the War Department’s General Harry Bandholtz, who warned that any violence would prove disastrous for the union, but the proposed ceasefire collapsed when two miners died in a skirmish with Chafin’s forces. By August 28, some 10,000 union men had massed near the border of Logan County and begun trading gunfire with company supporters. To distinguish one another in the dense forests, many of the miners tied red handkerchiefs around their necks. They soon became known as the “Red Neck Army.”
The first heavy fighting in the Battle of Blair Mountain began on August 31, when a group of around 75 miners led by Reverend Wilburn stumbled across some of Chafin’s “Logan Defenders” on a wooded ridge. Each side asked the other for a password and received the wrong answer, prompting a shootout that killed three deputies and one miner. That same day, the main army of miners commenced a two-pronged assault on Chafin’s trenches and breastworks. Scores of union men streamed up the mountainside, but despite their superior numbers, they were repeatedly driven back by the defenders, who riddled them with machine gun fire from the high ground.
The miners made more progress when the battle was renewed on September 1. That morning, a detachment of union men assaulted a spot called Craddock Fork with a Gatling gun looted from a coal company store. Logan forces fought back with a machine gun, but after three hours of heavy fire, their weapon jammed. The miners surged forward and briefly broke the defensive line, only to be repulsed by a fusillade of bullets from a second machine gun nest located further up the ridge.
For the rest of the day, the hills and hollows echoed with gunfire as the union men repeatedly attacked the defenders’ lines. “Machine guns cracked up there so you would think the whole place was coming down on you,” miner Ira Wilson later recalled. At one point in the battle, the din also included the sound of falling bombs. Sheriff Chafin had chartered three private biplanes and equipped them with teargas and pipe bombs loaded with nuts and bolts for shrapnel. The planes dropped the homemade explosives over two of the miners’ strongholds, but failed to inflict any casualties.
In the end, the miners’ siege of Blair Mountain was only ended by the arrival of federal troops. A squadron of Army Air Service reconnaissance planes began patrolling the skies on September 1, and by the following day, General Bandholtz had mobilized some 2,100 army troops on the orders of President Warren G. Harding. Scattered fighting continued between the miners and the Logan Defenders until September 4, but most of the men welcomed the government intervention and laid down their weapons. Roughly 1,000 exhausted miners eventually surrendered to the army, while the rest scattered and returned home. It was later estimated that some one million rounds had been fired during the battle. Reports of casualties ranged from as few as 20 killed to as many as 100, but the actual number has never been confirmed.
The Battle of Blair Mountain is now cited as a pivotal chapter in American labor history, but in the short term, it proved to be a crushing defeat for the miners. The state of West Virginia charged Keeney, Mooney and some 20 other union men with treason, and hundreds of others were indicted for murder. Nearly all were later acquitted, but the legal battles emptied the UMWA’s coffers and hindered its organizing efforts. By the end of the decade, only a few hundred miners in West Virginia were still members. The union wouldn’t reclaim the coalfields until the mid-1930s and the Great Depression, when workers’ rights to organize were enshrined in New Deal legislation such as the National Industrial Recovery Act.”
This “Red Neck Army” wore red handkerchiefs around their necks.
As it happens, this custom wasn’t confined to Appalachia. The sharecroppers and tenant farmers who supported James K. Vardaman in Mississippi in the Great Revolt of the Rednecks also wore red handkerchiefs around their necks at his rallies.