Book Review – Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21


untitledReading a recent copy of a NRA Rifleman magazine I came across an intriguing article about a “battle” that was fought in West Virginia between coal miners that were trying to unionize and the coal mine owners / operators, WV State Police, local county police and volunteer civilians.  And what was even more surprising is that by some estimates there were over 13,000 armed men that fought in a pitched battle that lasted several days in 1921 with a million rounds of ammunition fired, the use of automatic weapons on both sides, the commandeering of trains and Model T’s to move the “troops” to the front, and the use of three bi-planes to drop homemade bombs on the ‘Miner Army’.

I set about doing some research and found that there are two books written on the subject and obtained both as used copies through eBay.  This title is written by Lon Savage and was published in 1990 (195 pages) by The University of Pittsburgh Press.


Armed coal miners

The book reinforced my belief that, although most union activity today is politically charged and virtually an organ of the Democratic Party and seems to be more about trying to figure out how not to work employees and how to put companies out of business, unions did serve useful and appropriate purposes at certain periods in our nations history.

Why do unions form?  It is primarily because employers (stockholders, owners and management) do not treat their employees with respect, honesty and appropriateness.  When employers take advantage of their employees, and in some cases like the example of the West Virginian coal miners and treat them worse than animals, unions have formed to provide a voice for the average worker.  In the south where I live, most states have right-to-work laws that for the most part have created a good environment for employers and employees alike – working together to build great products and grow opportunities for employees and local communities.  Look no further than the booming non-unionized BMW manufacturing facility in Spartanburg County and the new Boeing plant in Charleston.


Old miner from the Battle of Blair Mountain – 1921

The forward was written by a John Sayles and I especially liked his statement that “when a colonized people learn they can fight back together, life can never again be so comfortable for their exploiters”.

Without a doubt there were crimes committed on both sides but it seems the ongoing provocations that were heaped in multitudes on the coal miners, especially by the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency that was employed by the mine operators to enforce their own brand of lawlessness, led to a group in society that finally said “enough!”.

The three West Virginian counties that were in open rebellion against the local authorities were finally quelled by the peaceful intervention of federal troops including General Billy Mitchell’s squadron of Martin bombers (used for reconnaissance).  Most accounts indicate the up to several dozen men were killed during the battle with the miner’s bearing the brunt of the deaths.

map blair mountain

Battlefield Site – Blair Mountain, West Virginia

Although hundreds of the miners and their leaders were jailed, very few were convicted and even those had their sentences commuted after only a few years – the local population was understandably heavily sympathetic to their plight.  It would not be until the 1930’s under President Roosevelt when the mines along the Kanawha River in the wilds of southwest West Virginia were finally unionized.


Miners being disarmed by U.S. soldiers

It seems we have a new war on coal taking place – this time waged by the extreme environmentalists, the EPA and our federal government verses corporations, citizens that need employment and states.

The story is interesting as much as it is compelling . . . could this happen again today in these United States?


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