At age 16, Bill Blizzard was a mining veteran, having been underground with his father since age 10. By 19 he would be a UMWA local leader.
Maybe it’s no wonder that Bill Blizzard led the largest insurrection on American soil since the Civil War, and the largest labor uprising ever (and for his efforts in West Virginia’s epic Battle of Blair Mountain he was tried for treason against the state).
After all, his mother was a legend among coal miners and likened to the legendary labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. In 1913, outside West Virginia’s capital of Charleston, when train-riding, machine-gunning lawmen shot into tent colonies where evicted mining families had taken shelter, Sarah Blizzard, by one account, dragged a rocking chair to the tracks and sat in it to block the train’s return. And by another account, led other women in taking crowbars and prying up the rails.
Even before that, Bill Blizzard’s family had been through a lot. When he was 10, loyalty to the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) caused eviction from their home – “biscuits and ‘taters’ thrown out and coal shoveled out of the stove,” his sister Lana recalled. He was soon a union miner-in-the-making, going underground at 10 alongside his father. It was an era when miners were little better than serfs and had only their new union for protection.
In 1912, when Blizzard was 18 or 19, a coal strike began in Cabin Creek and spread to Paint Creek outside Charleston. The UMWA rushed to help, while coal operators brought in hundreds of mine guards to defeat the strike and throw the union out. “What developed on Cabin Creek…” says historian Douglas Estepp, was “an industrial police state where all roads, train depots, and towns were patrolled by armed guards…To defy the guards or to even hint at union sympathy was to invite a beating, exile, or even death.”
This was the infamous “mine guard” or “Baldwin Felts” system, which long held most of southern West Virginia in its grip. Its aim: keeping the union at bay. Most feared and hated of all was Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, who persecuted miners with his force of more than 300 deputies paid for by coal operators.
On Paint and Cabin creeks mine guards evicted thousands of striking miners and families and began a campaign of intimidation and terrorism. They mounted machine guns overlooking the towns and murdered people outright. The miners fought back savagely. The following decade came to be known as the West Virginia Mine War.
The local (district 17) UMWA leadership had grown so corrupt it failed to aid the strikers. A miner named Frank Keeney stepped in and seized the reins of the strike. Eventually, the UMWA dismissed District 17’s leaders and a group of rank and file miners, including Keeney, Bill Mooney, and young Blizzard, won elections and took control.
Governor Henry Hatfield declared martial law and sent in the state militia, which set up military tribunals in violation of the U.S. constitution, and court-martialed more than 100 miners. Many were sent to prison. Hatfield forced a settlement of the strike in the companies’ favor, but the miners, angry that it enshrined the status quo, defied him and prepared to renew the strike. In the end, the companies backed down and the miners won all their original demands and forced recognition of the UMWA.
The next confrontation came in 1920, when Baldwin Felts agents came by train to the town of Matewan in Mingo County. When they evicted the families of striking miners, Police Chief Sid Hatfield tried to arrest the Baldwin Felts agents. A gunfight broke out with miners fighting on Hatfield’s side. Seven Baldwin-Felts men, two miners, and Matewan’s mayor were killed. The following year, Hatfield was assassinated by Baldwin Felts men in retaliation for the Matewan Massacre.
Already a hero to the miners, Hatfield in death became a martyr. For them, this was the last straw. A large crowd gathered at the state capital to protest the killing. District 17 leaders Keeney and Blizzard urged them to fight – literally – for their rights. On August 20, 1921, miners, carrying weapons, began assembling south of Charleston. They aimed to end martial law in Mingo, abolish the mine guard system and unionize their mining brothers. This was open rebellion.
Roughly 10,000 men started south through the mountains, using every form of transport available, even commandeering trains, on what miners called the Armed March. Their uniform was blue bib overalls and a red bandana to distinguish friend from foe. They were dubbed “rednecks,” except by coal operators, who called them “Reds.” In their ranks were many other working people who supported their cause, and others contributed provisions and guns.
Blizzard was on the ground with the marchers, where Keeney and Mooney wanted him, because, as a UMWA organizer, the miners knew him. Blizzard reportedly delivered weapons to miners camped in a schoolhouse overnight.
Blizzard, who in 1912 had married Rae Cruikshanks, a miner’s daughter, was a short, brawny man, and no ideologue. Friendly, down-to-earth and polite, he feared no one, according to his late son William, and “would fight at the drop of a hat – and sometimes you didn’t need to drop the hat.” He once paused while making a speech to deck a heckler.
“You either loved or hated Bill Blizzard,” says historian Wes Harris. Miners loved this fearless, good-natured man who despite his position was still one of them.
After several days, the miners reached Blair Mountain, where they found a smaller but determined enemy force occupying the ridgeline. The state had more than 2,000 men, largely drawn from Sheriff Chafin’s force of mine guards plus police, militia and volunteers. In fortified trenches, they held the high ground with machine gun emplacements for more than 10 miles. But the miners resembled a real army, carrying a variety of weapons, putting out patrols, and having nurses and supply depots. Some 2,000 were World War I veterans.
The shooting went on for close to a week. President Harding eventually put all of West Virginia under martial law and on September 1, 1921, he ordered 2,500 Army troops to the area. He also sent 14 Army Air Force bombers but, contrary to common belief, they dropped no bombs, flying only reconnaissance missions. A National Guard biplane did drop a few homemade bombs on the miners.
The miners bore no ill will toward the U.S. troops and refused to fight them. They put down their arms and started home. The official casualties were 16 killed, but the actual number may have been far higher. No one knows. Both sides kept their casualties secret.
Much remains unknown about the Battle of Blair Mountain – reporters having been largely barred from the battlefield; and afterwards, the miners observed a permanent code of silence to protect their leaders from prosecution.
They never revealed who their commander was, but the press and the authorities suspected Blizzard, and today it seems clear that he was their general. It was Blizzard who negotiated with federal troops and got the miners to leave the battlefield. Historians traditionally have credited Keeney and Mooney with calling the shots, but Keeney’s great-grandson, historian C. Belmont Keeney, notes that halfway through the battle, the two learned they had been indicted for murder and fled to Ohio. Blizzard was on his own.
When federal troops met Blizzard, he was wearing a black felt hat and a suit, one “that appeared to have been slept in for a week,” wrote Lon Savage in the book “Thunder in the Mountains.”
Asked if he led the miners’ army, Blizzard smiled and said, “What army? I guess the boys’ll listen to me all right.” He would make good on his claim. After all, the miners knew him and wasn’t he Ma Blizzard’s son?
Wes Harris, who published a history of the Mine War called “When Miners March” by Blizzard’s son, says what clinches the case for Blizzard’s leadership is the gold watch that members of the “redneck army” presented him later in the 1920s, a time of depression in the coalfields.
“That’s how much they loved this guy,” Harris says. “They gave him a 14-carat gold watch when they were hungry and starving and unemployed and blacklisted.”
The fighting was at a stalemate when federal troops intervened, and the miners achieved none of their aims. Blair Mountain is seen as an epic attempt to right wrongs that ended in a tragic defeat. In addition, the coal industry tried to capitalize on the insurrection. They sought to break the union by putting all its leaders on trial for treason against the state of West Virginia, among other offenses. Grand juries indicted more than 500 miners for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder and treason. Hundreds were jailed. Blizzard and other District 17 leaders wound up in the Logan County jail for 109 days. In the jail, rats ran along their bunks, the sewage pipes backed up, and they witnessed the torture of other prisoners. Fortunately, the union got the trials moved to less prejudicial surroundings in far-distant Jefferson County.
Still, says Harris, “The intent was to hang the whole leadership.” Indeed, it was coal company attorneys who prosecuted the miners. The state paid the legal fees but just watched.
Blizzard was tried first, for state treason, becoming the symbol of the Armed March. The trial, held in Charles Town in Jefferson County – 300 miles from Charleston – was a national sensation, and special telegraph lines were installed to handle press coverage.
The UMWA waged a brilliant campaign designed to convince the townspeople – and thus the jury – that the defendants were good, God-fearing folks, not wild-eyed “reds.” The defendants formed their own baseball team and played the home-town team, careful not to win too often. Their wives sang gospel songs in front of the courthouse and defendants and supporters packed three churches each Sunday and filled the collection plates. The UMWA sent 30 men door-to-door posing as Bible salesmen and telling horror stories about Sheriff Chafin and Logan County.
It worked. Blizzard was acquitted of treason (we now know he was in charge of combat operations and even went on patrols, according to what his son told Harris). He was carried through the streets of Charles Town by joyous miners and local citizens.
He would face more trials, but after a hung jury for him and Keeney’s acquittal on murder charges, the coal companies apparently realized no jury in West Virginia would convict any union leader and dropped all charges. Three of the ordinary marchers were convicted, one of treason, and two of murder. No other defendants were ever tried.
But hard times in the coalfields plus the trial’s legal bills crippled the UMWA during the rest of the 1920s. Paid membership collapsed during the decade from 42,000 to 512. UMWA chief John L. Lewis, who had opposed the march, ousted Blizzard, Mooney and Keeney. Blizzard and his family survived hand-to-mouth, running a restaurant and doing odd jobs. He also worked as an unpaid UMWA lobbyist at the statehouse.
The Battle of Blair Mountain proved only a temporary victory for coal interests. New Deal legislation in 1933 gave miners the right to join a union without fear of reprisals from mine operators, and unionization raced across the southern West Virginia coalfields. The leader of that campaign was Bill Blizzard, whom Lewis had brought back.
The miners rushed to sign up, says Harris, “largely because of the trials, Blair Mountain, and the years of struggle before 1921.” They had wanted the union – and been denied it – for years. Blizzard, who with his mother loomed so large in earlier events and had earned the respect and trust of mining families, in the early 1930s stood almost alone as the union presence in West Virginia. No one else, says Harris, could have done the organizing.
But the UMWA did not give Blizzard the credit for the union’s spread. That went to his superior, Van Bittner, a Lewis favorite. Harris believes Lewis was jealous of Blizzard, the symbol of the Armed March, and historian Michael E. Workman agrees that Lewis probably wanted to downplay Blizzard’s organizing role. Always loyal to Lewis, who had financed his courtroom defense, Blizzard did not protest.
The rejuvenated UMWA would go on to help organize steelworkers and autoworkers into their own unions and precipitate the general organization of blue-collar America, utterly changing “the world of working people,” according to historian Barbara Rasmussen.
Bill Blizzard’s fight on Blair Mountain had hardly been in vain.