BLUEFIELD — President Donald Trump has told the nation’s governors that he will send federal troops if they cannot get violent protests over police brutality under control, but it would not be the first time in American history that troops have been deployed against civilians. One occurred about 100 years ago in West Virginia when conflicts between coal miners calling for unionization and mine companies erupted into armed conflict.

The president made his remarks as American cities were hit with more protests and violence over the death of George Floyd. President Trump called for an end to the protests and said he would used force to achieve this goal. 

“If governors throughout the country do not deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers to ‘dominate the streets,’” President Trump said, adding that the U.S. military would step in to “quickly solve the problem for them.”

It would not be the first time that American troops were sent to restore order and assert federal authority. 

In 1794, an uprising of distillers and farmers in western Pennsylvania protesting a new federal whiskey tax led to what was dubbed The Whiskey Rebellion. After years of conflict with tax collectors, the region saw violence which led to President George Washington sending in troops. Historians consider The Whiskey Rebellion as one of the first tests of the new U.S. government’s authority. 

Eventually federal troops would be sent to other regions in times of trouble, but one in particular played a major role in West Virginia’s history.

A heated labor dispute that simmered for years in southern West Virginia’s coalfields exploded in 1920 when the United Mine Workers started organizing coal miners in Mingo County. Miners laboring for low wages had been working under a company town system which required them and their families to shop at company stores and live in company housing. Coal companies often used private detectives to intimidate strikers and evict them for their company-owned homes.

Tensions escalated on May 19, 1920 when members of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency arrived in Matewan to evict union miners from coal company houses. Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and Sheriff Sid Hatfield, along with several residents, confronted the detectives at the train station. An argument led to a gunfight which left seven Baldwin-Felts agents dead along with Testerman and two miners. Eventually, armed miners and their opponents faced off at Blair Mountain in Logan County.

This conflict escalated and came to be called the Battle of Blair Mountain. The story soon filled the Bluefield Daily Telegraph’s front pages, and the headlines read more like those generated by a war than a labor dispute.

“Guerrilla Warfare Being Waged in Mountains of Mingo,” was the lead headline in the May 13, 1921 edition of the Daily Telegraph. Another headline read “War Department Asked to Send Federal Troops.”

The Sept. 1, 1921 edition of the Daily Telegraph told readers about the continued fighting and the pending declaration of martial law in Fayette, Boone, Logan Counties by President Warren G. Harding. Another headline stated that “Armed Men Continue to Flow into Boone, Despite President Harding’s Warning.”

And the federal troops were sent. The lead headline on Sept. 3, 1921 was “Fighting Continues As Federal Troops Pour Into State.” Another story had the headline “Bluefield Boys In Pitched Battle on Blair Mountain,” telling readers how Bluefield members of the National Guard were faring in the conflict. Other headlines told readers that “Federal Troops In State Ready To Put Down Disorder” and “Fighting on Blair Mountain Severe.”

Even airplanes were used in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Another Sept. 3, 1921 story told readers about bombs being dropped on roads by airplanes. Some reconnaissance aircraft were refueled at an airport near the present-day Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield, according to County Commissioner Bill Archer, who has rewritten several local history books. And the Baldwin-Felts agency had its headquarters in Bluefield.

The miners’ actions at Blair Mountain eventually ended when federal troops arrived that same month. The exact number of casualties was not confirmed.

“I’ve never heard of an actual body count,” Archer said. “No, I’ve never heard of it.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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