The Battlefields No One Talks About
When I hail the Warrior Dead, I do not hail just the Military Dead. Certainly, there are Military Dead who are part of Them. Certainly, all Military Dead should be honored for Their service. However, there are a lot of Warrior Dead whose stories are glossed over, and lost to time. These, and stories like these, should be well kept so we honor Their memory, and the causes They fought for. I thank Bragi and Ansuz for helping me to write this. Hail to You! I hail the Warrior Dead who came and spoke to me while I was writing this. Hail to You! May the stories of the Warrior Dead never be forgotten. In telling, may we live in Them. In the telling, They live forever.
When anyone asks about what unions did to get the rights all workers possess, tell them about this.
You have come a long way from home to settle in a place in the Blair Mountain Ridge. You went through hell just to get here. This place is 50 miles out from the capital, Charleston, in West Virginia. Trees are everywhere along the route to the mine you’ve come to work at, and what isn’t trees are rocks and boulders, and all of it is on slopes. The mine is dark beyond dark, and the candles are the only source of light. Every second or third miner might have one, if you’re lucky. The hours are long, and you’re a long ways off from any non-company anything. The little scraps you get so you can buy from the company store? You buy your equipment with it. You buy your food with it. Your lodging. What little there is. You work 12 hours at a shot, maybe more. You drop your candle somewhere, it goes out? You pay for it. If you died, you died, and if you were supporting a family, they better figure out quick how to support themselves without you.
What’s more is that even your soul isn’t safe from the company. They have approved preachers and pastors. They give them the messages to give to you and your fellow miners. The very people who should be appealing to God on your behalf, on your family’s behalf, fill your ears with sermons of how good the company is, and how happy you should be to get blisters on your hands and feet, to risk your life each day or eventually get black-lung for a company that gives you scraps of paper to pay for the scraps of food they deign to give you from their heaping plates. Yes, indeed, God bless America, and God bless the company.
You know that if you and your fellow miners, all of whom are in the same straits as you, organize, then the police will come with a signed martial law order in hand, and crack down. Literally. They do it whenever you and your folks get too rowdy, too angry from one more insult, one more death, one more trampling on your dignity. So you strike. The authorities and their posse of private enforcers come for you. You get your skull split, you get arrested? Goodbye, employment. Your rights end where the nightsticks and guns begin. After all, you’re working the specialty ore that nets your boss ungodly profits, and their pull is so thick they may as well have installed themselves as governor in Charleston.
Then, a day comes when you and your fellows won’t take it anymore. It wasn’t enough that martial law was called. Again. It wasn’t enough that they tried to pin murder on Sheriff Hatfield and twenty-two other people. No. Those fuckers just executed one of the few pro-union folks in the neighborhood. They killed Sheriff Sid Hatfield in cold blood. They lured him the courthouse on bullshit perjury charges, and him and Ed Chambers were killed by deputized ‘detectives’ from Baldwin-Felts. They put twelve fucking holes in each of them to make damn good and sure they and their ghosts weren’t coming back.
Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. The same pricks that were hired guards and ‘investigators’ for your boss. The same folks who are more than willing to crack skulls to get their employers’ way. Blood spatters the ground, it pools. You know it’s a matter of time before someone’s finger gets itchy, or someone moves the wrong way. So you march, because it is wrong. You march, because that life, and the life of all of those at risk from that martial law, bearing down like boots on all your necks, are worth it. Solidarity.
You are 10,000 strong. Some of you are armed with guns. Some of you carry whatever seemed handy as a weapon. Some of you have your hands, so that’s enough. You all march. You march, on foot. It is fifty long miles until you hit Logan. And people join you. It doesn’t matter the background, the creed, the color, everyone marches. Miners march with bookkeepers, march with doctors, march with lawyers, march with railroaders, march with ministers and pastors and priests. You march. You might be as many as 15,000 strong, now. Solidarity
Then you all run square into the Logan Defenders in Logan County. These bastards are armed to the teeth, headed by the anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin. There might be anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 men, all from Baldwin-Felts, local cops, deputies, and volunteers. You’re a ragtag bunch; maybe half of you have decent weapons if you’re lucky. They? They have pistols and rifles, Browning .50 machine guns, artillery, and planes. Oh, and those planes? They have chemical and explosive payloads. That’s right. They’ll drop bombs on you full of shrapnel and bleach for the profits your blood and sweat will make them. So you do the only thing you can do. You charge right at them. Solidarity.
It’s bullets and chaos, it’s hands clenched into fists, teeth bared, and dirt kicked up as you and those fuckers who want you down in the dirt come to it. Fists pound flesh, bullets meant for other armies tear into your friends and chew their bodies like some great monster come to feast. Crows and ravens wheel and scream overhead as the days drag on. Guns, smoke, and screams fill the air. You don’t stop fighting. Solidarity.
The reports will say only 20-100 people died in the week that followed. You know better. You helped load your dead friends into boxcars to carry them home. Archaeologists will say over a million rounds were fired. You’ve no idea how many were fired, only what they did to you. What they did to the land around you, pockmarking it. Like the Earth vomited up black bile soaked in blood. You pick up the dead, you say your prayers, and you get back to the fight. Solidarity.
The week ends, and the federal troops arrive. You and your fellows put down your weapons in the woods, hide them, and get the rest of the dead on their journey home. Too many of you are veterans; these were family of another kind. Besides, the Army wasn’t the ones trying to make you bleed just because you and your union folks wanted to be able to organize and bargain together for a decent wage, time off, a pension, or basic human dignity. You and your fellows give up, no one so much as fires a shot. It is over. You make the long journey home. You pray, and you bury your dead. Solidarity.
Nothing much changes. The company still takes advantage, except now it starts blacklisting union members and breaking contracts with the unions. It still makes you pay for your equipment, your food, your lodging. It still works you till you drop of black-lung or exhaustion. It still puts those Baldwin-Felts thugs around the place, still pays those pastors to keep the company prayers and sermons in your ears. It still takes you, body, mind and soul, for everything you’ve got. Those of you who remain do so as your union dies a horrible death, slow, like a twisted knife in the guts. The union won’t recover until 1935, when it comes to life in the New Deal. You and your fellows are there, and you triumph as the bosses finally start to pay up, finally start to bargain in good faith. The unions roar back to life, stronger than ever. You stand on the bones of the dead, and remember: Solidarity.
These are the sources I consulted for this post: