The Battle of Matewan

by Lon Savage
A 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.

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.

Nothing 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.

On May 19, 1920 ten people were killed at Matewan in the deadliest gunfight in American history.  The battle of Matewan, popularly dubbed the “Matewan massacre,” was an integral part of the fight for industrial democracy and workers’ rights that was sweeping the country.

The united mine workers’ of America had just elected the legendary John L. Lewis as their president….and the union was on a roll. A few months before the battle of Matewan, union miners in other parts of the country staged a two month long strike and won an unprecedented 27% pay increase.  The contracts they negotiated with coal producers in the so called central field required the union to organize miners in southern west Virginia and eastern Kentucky in order to level the playing field for the price of coal.

In the hills and hollows along the Tug Fork there was no union and the miners and their families lived in an almost feudal society.  The coal companies dominated their employees lives.  The companies owned the miners homes and required them to buy at the company store. The companies also welded significant clout with politicians, newspapers and the school system.

In those days, Matewan was still a hard days journey from the state capitol at Charleston.  But the town sat on the mainline of the Norfolk western railroad.  The train linked Matewan to the outside world and every day it brought in goods and news from around the country.  What kept conversation buzzing here outside the post office and down the street in front of Chambers Hardware Store was that 27% pay raise.  The area was ripe for change.
John L. Lewis knew this and was determined to organize the coal fields of southern Appalachia.  The union sent in its top organizers, including the infamous mother Jones, and before the spring redbud covered the hills, the miners were working by day and talking union under the cover of night.

Roughly three thousand men signed the union’s roster in the spring of 1920.  The Matewan community church, a block south of the battle site near the river, was the place where the miners signed their union cards.  They knew it would cost them their jobs and in many cases their homes.  The coal operators retaliated with massive firings, harassment, and evictions.

Matewan, incorporated in 1895, was an independent town with it’s own elected officials.  It’s mayor, Cabel Testerman, and it’s police chief, Sid Hatfield, refused to go along with the companies retaliation against the miners.  So the companies hired their own enforcers, the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency. The “Baldwin thugs,” as the miners called them, had earned a reputation for brutality in other strikes.  This time the coal operators had hired them to evict the newly unionized miners and their wives and children from the company owned houses.  As a result, hundreds of families spent that chilly mountain spring in thin canvass tents with mud floors.

The miners had been pushed to their limit, and tension hung heavy in the air like the thick mist that rose from the river on a warm spring night.

On May 19th, the day the battle of Matewan took place, a contingent of Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived on the no. 29, the morning train, to evict families living at stone mountain coal camp just outside of Matewan.  Sheriff Sid Hatfield and his friend and deputy, Fred Burgraff, smelled trouble and they met the Baldwin-Felts men at the train station.  Burgraff’s son Hawthorne, now eighty-three years old picks up the story…….
 Hawthorne BurgraffWhat I’m gonna’ tell you is exactly what my father told me.  When they arrived in Matewan and got off the train, they had their satchels with ’em.  We called ’em grips back then, they call ’em satchels, suitcases or whatever.  But, they had in those suitcases submachine guns.  They called ’em Thompson submachine gun.  Of course they wore their pistols on their side, because they were officers of the law.  But, when they got off of the train in Matewan, Sid and my father walked over to Albert Felts, he was the leader of the Baldwin-Felts detective, and introduced themselves and asked him what he was doing down there.  And, Albert said “we’ve come down here on a job.  The coal company has asked us to put those people out of the houses and that is what our intentions are. We’re strictly goin’ to do that”.  It was Sid who said, “well, you know that’s goin’ to lead to trouble.”  And, Albert felts said, “well, we’re prepared to take care of any trouble that might come our way, we’re trained men. And, my advice to you is not to interfere with the Baldwin-Felts detectives.”  Well, my father and Sid left and went back over the tracks into Matewan and the detective force went over to the camps and started their job of putting people out of the house.  My daddy’s brother Albert lived in one of the houses.  So, they moved out one family after another, maybe one or two, to set an example of what was going to happen.

And set an example they did, evicting six families and piling their belongings – iron skillets, clothes, and rocking chairs – in a drizzling rain.  By the time the Baldwin-Felts men got back to Matewan, news of the evictions had spread and people were angry.  Sid Hatfield had let it be known he planned to arrest the detectives….and townspeople were preparing for a confrontation.  Men hurried into town with guns tucked under their jackets and women frantically tried to get their children off the streets.

Dixie Accord was a young girl at the time.  She remembers standing with her grandmother and watching as Hatfield, Fred Burgraff, and Mayor Cable Testerman, and the Baldwin-Felts detectives faced off under the porch of the chambers hardware store………

So my grandmother turned to me and she said, “you go home.”  And I went; I knew to mind.   And I started walking home.

People in Matewan still argue about who fired the first shot.
Bill HallNobody knowed who shot who that day, because they was shootin’ at everybody that moved.

Fed Burgraff

Fred Burgraff told his son that Albert Felts, who was leading the detectives that day, fired first and dropped the mayor….
Hawthorne BurgraffAlbert felts had on a raincoat because it was raining.  Through the raincoat, he shot Cable Testerman in the stomach.
Sid Hatfield claimed that he then shot Felts but didn’t kill him.  Others claim it was really Hatfield who shot mayor Testerman because he was in love with Testerman’s wife.  But no matter who fired first, the fight was on and bullets were flying in every direction.
 Dixie AccordAnd, I walked as fast as I could for an 8 year old girl and when I set my foot upon our front porch there was a thousand shots fired in ten minutes.

Detective Felts and mayor Testerman fell to the ground wounded and Sid Hatfield kept firing.  Felts eventually got to his feet and ran…
 Hawthorne BurgraffAlbert Felts ran down to the post office and found shelter there.  But, Sid went after him, because he knew that he needed to get rid of that fellow.  So, as he approached the post office, he hollered in and told Albert, said “come out and shoot it out like a man”, and my father said Albert said, “If you want me, come and get me”.  Well, they started pouring their bullets into the post office and Albert came out shooting and Sid killed him.

 Dixie AccordAnd we ran to the back facing Tug River cause we lived between the N & W Railroad and Tug River and that was Kentucky over there.  And I saw at least twenty people come out of Matewan and swim Tug River and get into Kentucky.

Bill HallAnd, one boy killed one with a jug of chloroform.  He run in the doctor’s office to hide, and one of the felts men come backin’ in there on him with a gun in his hand a shootin’. And the boy got scared and hit him in the back of the head with a jug of chloroform.

When the shooting finally stopped bewildered townspeople crawled from safety behind sheds and out of ditches.  They were dazed and some were wounded, and bleeding, and in shock.  The streets were littered with bodies from both sides of the battle.  Seven Baldwin-Felts detectives including two Felts brothers, Albert and Lee, were dead another detective was wounded.  Two miners had been killed; one was Bob Mullins, who had just that morning been fired for joining the union, the other, Tot Tinsley, was a young unarmed bystander.  Matewan’s mayor, Cabel Testerman, was dying.  Four other people had been wounded.
 Dixie AccordNow, that all happened in a matter of minutes there.  And it was, back then, that was horrible. To me, I will never forget it for as long as I live…all those shots being fired. I never, well it just…it just seemed like the end of the world to me.

News of the battle spread quickly.  Governor Cornwell ordered the entire state police force…..fifty men….to take control of Matewan.  Sid Hatfield and his men cooperated and stacked their arms inside the Chambers Hardware store.  Hatfield became an instant hero and the miners, heady with the success of running the coal companies’ hired guns out of Matewan, stepped up their efforts to organize.

The first of July the miners union called a strike.  By the middle of the month there was almost no coal coming out of the area. Violence erupted in fits and starts from every hill.  The Tug Valley was armed to the teeth.  Railroad cars were blown to bits, strikers were beaten and left to die by the side of the road. National guard and state police rushed from one incident to the next.

Tom Felts, the surviving brother of Lee and Albert Felts who now headed the detective agency, vowed to avenge his brothers’ killings. He sent undercover operatives to spy and collect evidence to convict the participants.

In the middle of the daily violence raging in the coalfields, a grand jury indicted Sid Hatfield and twenty-two other people for the murder of Albert Felts.

The case went to trial in January of 1921 at the Williamson courthouse.  Charges were dismissed against some of the twenty-three defendants; the rest of the defendants were acquitted.

A few months later, on august 1st, Tom Felts finally got revenge.  On that day, Baldwin-Felts detectives assassinated Sid Hatfield, and his deputy, Ed Chambers, on the steps of the McDowell County courthouse in the town of Welch.  The two men were unarmed.

More than 2,000 people walked in Hatfield and Chambers funeral procession as it that paraded through Matewan across the Tug Fork River to the cemetery in Kentucky.  During the rain soaked graveside ceremony, union attorney Samuel Montgomery eulogized the two martyrs.  In Montgomery’s words, “even the heavens weep with the grief stricken relatives and bereaved friends of these two boys.”

Less than a month later, with the assassinations fresh in their minds, miners from across the state gathered at the capitol in Charleston.  They were determined to organize the southern coal-fields and began the famous march to Logan county.  Thousands of miners joined them along the way in what became the largest armed insurrection in the united states since the civil war.  It culminated in the battle of Blair Mountain.

As historian David A. Corbin said may 19th, 1992 while commemorating the battle of Matewan….

“The time has come to see Matewan in perspective, the way we do Lexington and Gettysburg—not just as an isolated incident of the tragic spilling of blood, but as a symbolic moment in a larger, broader and continuing historical struggle—in the words of Mingo county miner J.B. Wiggins, the “struggle for freedom and liberty.”

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