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The Red Neck Army and the bloodiest labor battle in American history

A century ago, thousands of West Virginia coal miners, armed to the teeth, began a long, arduous fight to unionize. This is their story.

After the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, union miners surrendered to federal troops and handed over their weapons.Kinograms/Wikimedia Commons

Most people don’t know about the largest armed labor uprising in American history. For them, the story is buried beneath the dirt of West Virginia’s Blair Mountain, alongside bullet casings and relics of coal camp life. In miners’ families, the stories stayed alive, passed down around kitchen tables and on front porches. But until the 21st century, there were no monuments, museums, or markers of the West Virginia mine wars, a seminal American story of how labor unions came to be.

In late August 1921, some 15,000 mineworkers and allies banded together across racial, gender, religious, and ethnic lines and marched south from the town of Marmet, W. Va. They were determined to free jailed miners who, for decades, had been trying to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields. Some of the marchers dressed in military uniforms — many were World War I veterans — while others wore blue-jean overalls. All tied red bandanas around their necks to distinguish friend from foe. Known as the Red Neck Army, they were highly organized and armed to the teeth.

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A union miner and his son surrender ammunition after their defeat at Blair Mountain.Kinograms/Wikimedia Commons

The miners never reached their intended destination: Williamson, W. Va., in Mingo County. Instead, beginning on Aug. 31, they clashed with coal company deputies, mine guards, and the state militia over five and half days of combat at Blair Mountain. It was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War — and it ended only when the US Army intervened. While the number of fatalities remains unclear (estimates range from 16 to over 100), we do know that this was the second time in American history that the government planned to bomb its own citizens — only three months after the first time, at the race massacre in Tulsa, Okla.

Those five and a half days were a generation in coming. The majority of West Virginians had gone from living and working on their own land to being totally dependent on out-of-state coal mining companies, which controlled and owned entire towns. The work was unrelenting and exploitative. Coal companies often paid miners in “scrip” — a currency redeemable only at the company store — by the tonnage of coal they hand-loaded from the mountains. The conditions underground subjected workers to catastrophic roof falls and gas explosions. For workers and their families, these companies became landlords, employers, and overseers.

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In addition to hiring West Virginians displaced from farms, the coal companies recruited immigrants from Europe and African Americans from the South. Companies housed them in tight but segregated communities, aiming to use prejudice and racial barriers to prevent unionization. But their strategies backfired. Unionization efforts, including those by the Red Neck Army, broke those barriers, partly out of necessity and partly as a source of solidarity. Striking workers moved into desegregated canvas tent colonies after being evicted from their company-owned homes.

The front page of Sept. 1, 1921, edition of The Washington Times heralded the news that a federal air fleet had been sent into West Virginia to seize control from miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain. The map shows the movement of federal troops and the locations of union and nonunion fighters. The Washington Times/Wikimedia Commons

By 1921, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), founded in 1890, had organized much of the coalfields in West Virginia and elsewhere with the promise of better working conditions and a better life. However, in the southern counties of the Mountain State, such as the areas around Blair Mountain, the coal operators and hired mine guards employed harsh and even deadly countertactics — including the murders of union-supporting police chief Sid Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers ― to keep the miners from unionizing. Hatfield’s and Chambers’s murders in early August sparked pro-union rallies throughout southern West Virginia, which ultimately led to the Red Neck Army’s armed march.

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After the physical battle ended, a legal battle began that put over 500 miners on trial for a variety of charges, including murder and treason, and crippled the UMWA. Mineworkers in southern West Virginia would have to wait to join until the right to organize was written into federal law as part of the New Deal, in the mid-1930s. Finally they gained the better wages, safer working conditions, and other benefits and protections they had spent decades fighting for.

Blair Mountain faded in West Virginians’ and Americans’ collective memory. Politicians strategized to stamp it out of textbooks and public discourse, while miners swore one another to secrecy for fear of retribution.

In 2013, a diverse group of Appalachians — mineworkers, educators, townspeople, activists, and descendants of Red Neck Army members — came together and shared a table at the UMWA Local 1440 hall in Matewan, W. Va., 47 miles from Blair Mountain. The folks who gathered were determined to ensure that this history would be celebrated, remembered, and shared for generations to come.

This was the first board meeting of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which opened two years later in downtown Matewan. I started work at the Mine Wars Museum as its first part-time executive director in 2018. As the daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of union mineworkers, I consider it an honor to preserve and share the legacy of my ancestors and those who stood with them for labor justice.

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The steel silhouettes of men and women marching in solidarity toward Blair Mountain were unveiled in Marmet, W. Va., on Labor Day.Stef Bernal-Martinez

One of the museum’s key initiatives is to bring visibility to the sites of the West Virginia Mine Wars. Today, Blair Mountain’s twin-peaked ridge stands tall and quiet. Despite the mountain’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, you can drive along the route of the miners’ march and over Blair Mountain without realizing you’re there. But that won’t be the case for much longer.

On the heels of the Battle of Blair Mountain Centennial and with funding from Philadelphia’s Monument Lab, in 2022 we launched Courage in the Hollers: Mapping the Miners’ Struggle for a Union. We’re taking the museum beyond its four walls and holding community meetings along the miners’ 50-mile route to resurface the stories of the Mine Wars and working people — past and present.

This Labor Day, steel silhouettes of 10 men and women, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, marching toward Blair Mountain, were unveiled in Marmet, where the Red Neck Army’s route began, and in Clothier, 12 miles from where the battle raged. The silhouettes are not of the original miners but of local community members, and they honor the history that fuels our shared hope for the region and working people across America. As much as the silhouettes pay homage to the past, they are also a vision for the future.

Kenzie New Walker is the executive director of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. A version of this essay was originally published by Zócalo Public Square.

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