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The Battle of Matewan
Updated On: Jul 06, 2010

Miners risk everything to defend their rights

It happened in just minutes – but hundreds of bullets were fired. When it ended, 10 men were lying in the street, dead or dying.
 
The month of May marks the anniversary of one of the most dramatic showdowns in union history – the “Battle of Matewan.”
 
On May 19, 1920, a shoot-out took place in a small town next to the river which divides West Virginia from Kentucky. On that day, gun thugs working for the coal operators were confronted by the town’s pro-union police chief. The confrontation and its aftermath show how much sacrifice it took to win union recognition in this country.
 
The clash which began under the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store in Matewan, West Virginia was the culmination of a crisis which had been brewing for a long time.
 
In the 1870s, millions of acres of land, timber, and mineral rights passed out of the hands of local people in Appalachia and into the control of speculators who in turn sold them to absentee corporations. In 1886, the Norfolk and Western Railroad announced that an east-west line would be built through southern West Virginia. (The small town of Matewan sat on the main line of the Norfolk and Western.)
 
In the years that followed, timber companies stripped the mountainsides bare. The coal companies filled the landscape with gob piles. In 1867, West Virginia produced 489,000 tons of coal. In 1887, the state produced 4,882,000 tons; in 1917, it produced 89,384,000 tons.
 
As mining increasing, immigration into West Virginia soared. Workers from Europe found jobs in the mines. So did many African-American workers. The United Mine Workers Union achieved some success in organizing mineworkers in the northern and western parts of the state. By the end of 1918, the union claimed a membership of 22,000 out of a mine work force of 100,000. This membership included both blacks and whites, and both immigrants and workers born in the United States.
 
One district leader of the UMWA, Fred Mooney, proudly described his organization as being comprised of “men from many countries. Faces from the steppes of Russia, from Romania, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Poland, Armenia and many others were included.” Mooney helped organize a union local in which more than 25 languages were spoken.
 
But even as the UMWA grew in the other parts of the state, the coal fields of southern West Virginia remained unorganized. Whenever mine workers in other parts of the state – or the country – went on strike, the coal operators were able to flood the market with non-union, relatively inexpensive coal from southern West Virginia. By the time World War I ended, organizing the coal fields of the southern part of the state had become a critical necessity for the miners’ union.

Taking on the powerful

Building the union in southern West Virginia meant taking on some of the most powerful capitalists in the United States (and the world). The area’s wealth was controlled by capitalists living in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and London. Over 90 percent of the land in Mingo and Logan Counties was owned by outside interests. The Mellon family owned mines in the area, and the dominant force in the area was the U.S. Steel Corporation. That giant steel corporation owned over 32,000 acres in Mingo and Logan Counties and 50,000 acres in McDowell County.
 
On January 30, 1920, a young John L. Lewis, the new president of the United Mine Workers of America, came to Bluefield, West Virginia to announce that the union would launch a campaign to organize coal miners in southern Appalachia.
 
The news of the organizing drive spread quickly through the hills and hollows of southern West Virginia. By May 15, 1920, some 3,000 miners had signed up to join the UMWA. The town of Matewan, incorporated in 1895, quickly became the unionization effort’s base of operations.
 
The coal operators retaliated swiftly to the unionization efforts. They fired miners who joined the union, and evicted entire families from company housing. Hundreds of families spent a cold mountain spring shivering in tents with mud floors.

Gun thugs come to Matewan

On May 19, 1920, a group of men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived in the Matewan area on the “No. 29” – the morning railroad train. (While claiming to be a legitimate detective agency, the Baldwin-Felts outfit was, in fact, a group of notorious anti-union gun thugs.)
 
The Baldwin-Felts operatives were met at the train station by Matewan’s police chief, Sid Hatfield, and his friend and deputy, Fred Burgraff. Hatfield, 28 years old, was a former miner who had gone out of his way to protect the union organizing drive.
 
When the Baldwin-Felts detectives got off the train, they were carrying “grips” – satchels. Inside were Thompson submachine guns. Hatfield and Burgraff walked over to Albert Felts, the leader of the group, introduced themselves, and asked why the men had come to Matewan. Felts explained that his group was in town to evict people.
 
The detectives evicted six families at gunpoint from the Stone Mountain Coal Camp just outside Matewan and piled their possessions – iron skillets, clothes, and rocking chairs – in a drizzling rain. The detectives then went to eat dinner at the Urias Hotel and later walked to the depot to catch the five o’clock train back to Bluefield. But news of the evictions had spread, and people were angry. Men rushed to town with guns tucked under their jackets. Sensing the danger that was looming, women hurried to get their children off the streets. Townspeople watched intently from windows and doorways along Mate Street.
 
Under the porch of the Chambers Hardware Store, the two sides faced off in the rain. On one side was Sid Hatfield, Fred Burgraff, Cable Testerman -- Matawan’s mayor – and several armed miners. On the other side stood 13 detectives, including Baldwin-Felts president Thomas Felts, and his younger brothers Albert and Lee.
 
Police Chief Hatfield attempted to arrest Albert Felts for conducting the evictions without proper authority from Matewan. Through his raincoat, Albert Fells shot Cable Testerman in the stomach. Then bullets began flying in every direction.
 
The crossfire lasted only a few moments, but hundreds of rounds of ammunition were used. Albert Felts ran into the post office, and then came out firing at Sid Hatfield; Hatfield killed him.
 
When the shooting finally stopped, wary residents of Matawan slowly emerged from whatever they had taken cover behind. Many were in shock. Seven of the Baldwin-Felts operatives had been killed, including two of the Felts brothers, Albert and Lee. Another of their group was wounded. Two miners had been killed: Bob Mullins, who had been fired from his job that very morning for joining the union; and Tot Tinsley, a young unarmed bystander. Mayor Cable Testerman would die the next day. Four other people had been wounded.

An end to fear

News of the confrontation spread like wildfire. West Virginia’s governor ordered the entire state police force to take control of Matewan. Sid Hatfield and his men cooperated and stacked their weapons inside the Chambers Hardware Store.
 
The brave stand against the gun thugs taken by Hatfield and the striking miners ended the climate of fear that had paralyzed too many residents of the coal fields. Hatfield became a hero; thousands of miners rushed to join the union. By the end of June, over 90 percent of the county’s miners were enrolled in 34 locals. The union’s statewide membership had risen to over 50,000.
 
On July 1, the UMWA called its Mingo County members out on strike. By mid-July, almost no coal was being shipped out of the area. Violence swept the coal fields. 
 
In the midst of this turmoil, a grand jury indicted Sid Hatfield and 22 other people for the murder of Albert Felts. The case went to trial in January 1921. Charges were dismissed against some defendants; the rest of the defendants were acquitted.
 
After the battle of Matewan, Thomas Felts, the surviving brother of Lee and Albert Felts who took over the detective agency, had vowed to avenge his brothers’ killings. His pledge of revenge was fulfilled a few months later.
 
On July 28, 1921, Sid Hatfield was arrested because of a false allegation that he had shot up the town of Mohawk more than a year earlier. He was taken to McDowell County, West Virginia, a stronghold of the coal operators. As Hatfield climbed the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse with his deputy Ed Chambers, who had been called as a witness, both men were shot down in front of their wives by C.E. Lively and other Baldwin-Felts gunmen. The two victims were unarmed. None of those responsible for the murders were ever brought to trial.
 
More than 2,000 people took part in the funeral procession for Hatfield and Chambers as it wound its way through Matewan and across the river to the cemetery in Kentucky.
 
The brutal murders of Hatfield and Chambers touched off an armed rebellion by 10,000 miners. That rebellion has gone down in history as “the Battle of Blair Mountain.” It was ultimately crushed by massive state and federal intervention. As a result, after 1921, membership in the miners union plummeted. 
 
It would take more than a decade after the battle of Matewan for the miners of southern West Virginia to win union rights. Those rights would not come until the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The passage of the NLRA showed that by the 1930s, a section of the wealthy in this country had decided to buy labor peace by allowing unions in the most critical industries. That section of the capitalists had its own selfish reasons for doing this. It was preparing for the world war that was coming, and it  calculated that labor peace in the mines and the auto and steel plants would be good for business. This utterly cynical decision on the part of the powerful can never diminish the magnificent courage displayed by all those who stood their ground over the years in many places like Matewan. Without that heroism, legal rights for unions would never have been achieved in this country.
 
Historian David A. Corbin summed up the situation well on May 19, 1992, while commemorating the battle of Matewan:
 
“The time has come to see Matewan in perspective, the way we do Lexington and Gettysburg – not just as an isolated incident of the tragic spilling of blood, but as a symbolic moment in larger, broader and continuing historical struggle – in the words of Mingo County miner J.B. Wiggins, the ‘struggle for freedom and liberty.’ ”
 
In 1987, filmmaker John Sayles made a movie about the battle called “Matewan.” While some of its characters are fictional, the film captures some important truths about that era. “Matewan” shows the terrible conditions faced by the miners and the difficult struggle to unite workers across ethnic lines. Too many people are unaware of how violent the early struggles for union rights were in this country, and simply assume that labor rights were given to us during the New Deal by a good man named Franklin Roosevelt – but that is not how it happened. The social contract that existed at a certain point in the history of this country was won at great cost. This May, take time to watch the film “Matewan” – and to reflect on how much blood was spilled to win the rights that our government is systematically taking away today.
 
To preserve those rights and move forward to an even better tomorrow, we will have to be as determined as those who stood their ground in a small West Virginia town on a rainy evening 87 years ago.


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