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

Most people are unaware of the largest armed labor uprising in American history. For them, history is buried beneath the earth of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, alongside bullet casings and relics of coal camp life. In the families of miners, the stories lived on, passed down around kitchen tables and on porches. But until the 21st century, there were no monuments, museums or markers of West Virginia’s mine wars, a seminal American history of the birth of the unions.

In late August 1921, some 15,000 miners and allies banded together across racial, sexual, religious, and ethnic lines and marched south from the town of Marmet, W. Va. They were determined to free the imprisoned miners who for decades had tried to unionize the southern West Virginia coalfields. Some of the marchers wore military uniforms – many were World War I veterans – while others wore blue denim 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.

A union miner and his son return 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 August 31, they clashed with coal company deputies, mine guards, and state militia for five and a half days of fighting at Blair Mountain. It was the largest armed uprising since the Civil War – and it only ended when the US military intervened. Although the death toll remains uncertain (estimates range from 16 to more than 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. times, at the Massacre race in Tulsa, Okla.

These five and a half days have been a generation to come. 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 relentless and exploitative. Coal companies often paid miners in “scrip” – a redeemable currency only to the company store – by the tonnage of coal they hand-loaded from the mountains. Underground conditions subjected workers to catastrophic roof falls and gas explosions. For workers and their families, these companies have become owners, bosses and supervisors.

In addition to hiring West Virginians displaced from the 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. Organizing efforts, including those of the Red Neck Army, broke down these barriers partly out of necessity and partly as a source of solidarity. Striking workers moved into desegregated canvas tent settlements after being evicted from their company-owned homes.

The front page of the September 1, 1921 edition of The Washington Times carried the news that a Federal air fleet had been sent to West Virginia to take control of the miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain. The map shows the movement of Federal troops and the locations of union and non-union 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 southern Mountain State counties, such as the areas around Blair Mountain, coal miners and hired mine guards have employed harsh and even deadly counter-tactics – including the killings of the chief. union-supporting police Sid Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers ― preventing miners from unionizing. The Hatfield and Chambers murders in early August sparked pro-union rallies throughout southern West Virginia, which eventually led to the armed march of the Red Neck Army.

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

Blair Mountain has faded from the collective memory of West Virginians and Americans. Politicians strategized to eliminate it from textbooks and public discourse, while miners swore to secrecy for fear of reprisal.

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

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

The steely figures of men and women marching in solidarity towards Blair Mountain were unveiled in Marmet, W. Va., on Labor Day.Stef Bernal Martinez

One of the museum’s main initiatives is to bring visibility to West Virginia’s mine warfare sites. Today, the twin-peaked ridge of Blair Mountain is tall and silent. Despite the mountain’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, you can drive along the route du Miners walking up and over Blair Mountain without realizing you’re there. But that won’t be the case for long.

On the heels of the centennial of the Battle of Blair Mountain and with funding from Philadelphia’s Monument Lab, in 2022 we launched Courage in the Hollers: Mapping the miners’ struggle for a union. We take the museum beyond its four walls and hold community meetings along the 50-mile route of the miners to resurface the stories of mine and worker warfare – past and present.

This Labor Day, the steely figures of 10 men and women, shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, marching towards Blair Mountain, were unveiled in Marmet, where the Army of the Red Neck route began, and in Clothier, 12 miles from where the battle was raging. The silhouettes are not of the original miners, but of local community members, and they honor the history that fuels our common hope for the region and workers across America. As much as the silhouettes pay homage to the past, they are a vision of 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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