Matewan, West Virginia


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The Battle of Matewan

by Lon Savage

Railroad Alley - 1920A young John L. Lewis had just taken office as President of the United Mine Workers of America when, in January of 1920, he announced the campaign in Bluefield, West Virginia: The UMWA would organize coal miners in the southern Appalachians. Lewis knew coal operators would resist to the bitter end, but that didn't matter. The miners wanted to organize; the UMWA had to have their memberships; even coal operators from the midwest favored the drive which might reduce the competitive edge the Southern Appalachian coal mines enjoyed with non-union mines.

Miners along the Tug Fork were ready; many had long wanted to join the miners union. Miners at Burnwell, three miles from Matewan, sent a delegation to the UMWA offices in Charleston, and they returned with a charter of a union local. The drive had begun. It quickly grew.

The coal operators resisted as strongly as expected; when a miner joined the union, he was immediately fired from his job. If he lived in a company-owned home -- as most did -- he was told to move out. If he didn't move out, gun-bearing Baldwin-Felts "detectives" evicted him and his family, setting his furniture out on the road. Despite that kind of opposition, miners by the hundreds along the Tug Fork joined the union. By May 15, 1920, three thousand Tug Fork miners had joined.

Smilin'Nowhere was union activity greater that spring than in Matewan. There, the police chief, Sid Hatfield, a former miner, and Mayor C. Testerman openly cooperated with the drive and protected the miners as they held organizing meetings in the town.

Despite efforts by Hatfield to keep the Baldwin-Felts detectives away from Matewan, they came anyway. On May 19, 1920, thirteen detectives, including Baldwin-Felts president Thomas Felts, younger brothers Albert and Lee, arrived in Matewan to evict miners and their families from their homes in the Stone Mountain Mine camp.

Lick Creek CampNothing angered miners more than "thugs" forcing women and little children from their homes at gunpoint. Word of the evictions spread like wildfire. Angry miners from Matewan and the surrounding area grabbed guns and rushed to the town as the detectives evicted six more families in dismal rainy weather. Hatfield led a group of miners to the Stone Mountain camp and tried to stop the evictions, but the Felts brothers refused his plea. When the detectives returned to Matewan that afternoon, having finished their jobs, Hatfield, surrounded by armed miners, tried to arrest Al Felts for conducting the evictions without proper Matewan authority. As he and Mayor Testerman glared at Al Felts and the other detectives outside the railroad depot, someone fired a shot, and the battle was on.

It lasted about a minute, but hundreds of shots were fired. Al Felts and Testerman fell in the first volley. When it was over, seven detectives, including both Al and Lee Felts, Mayor Testerman, and two miners were dead or dying.Sid's Funeral at Buskirk, KY

The battle made Sid Hatfield a folk hero for miners throughout the nation. Fifteen months later, the Baldwin-Felts detectives retaliated by killing Hatfield on the McDowell County courthouse steps at Welch, in a murder so brutal that it touched off an armed rebellion of 10,000 West Virginia coal miners in the largest insurrection this country has had since the Civil War.


Lon Savage is an administrator at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia and author of Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-1921. 
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