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Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War 1920-21

Lon Savage

Author Lon Savage’s extensive research has given us one of the most complete and compelling histories of the West Virginia mine war of 1920-21. Complete with photographs of such central characters as Sid Hatfield, C. C. Testerman, and Don Chafin, this book tells the story of a clash between workers and industry that continues today.

The West Virginia mine war of 1920-21, a major civil insurrection of unusual brutality on both sides, even by the standards of the coal fields, involved thousands of union and nonunion miners, state and private police, militia, and federal troops. Before it was over, three West Virginia counties were in open rebellion, much of the state was under military rule, and bombers of the U.S. Army Air Corps had been dispatched against striking miners.

The origins of this civil war were in the Draconian rule of the coal companies over the fiercely proud miners of Appalachia. It began in the small railroad town of Matewan when Mayor C. C. Testerman and Police Chief Sid Hatfield sided with striking miners against agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, who attempted to evict the miners from company-owned housing. During a street battle, Mayor Testerman, seven Baldwin-Felts agents, and two miners were shot to death.

Hatfield became a folk hero to Appalachia. But he, like Testerman, was to be a martyr. The next summer, Baldwin-Felts agents assassinated him and his best friend, Ed Chambers, as their wives watched, on the steps of the courthouse in Welch, accelerating the miners’ rebellion into open warfare.

Much neglected in historical accounts, Thunder in the Mountains is the only available book-length account of the crisis in American industrial relations and governance that occurred during the West Virginia mine war of 1920-21.


“The lively narrative, written by a former professional journalist and first published in 1985, is preceded by an explanatory introduction by John Williams.” – International Review of Social History

This is a colorful account of the open warfare in West Virginia’s dark and bloody coal fields in 1920 and 1921, triggered by the killing by company detectives of Matewan town officials friendly to the miners. Ultimately, thousands of strikers faced strike-breakers, private police, and law enforcement officers in pitched battle. It required the declaring of martial law and the calling up of not only the state militia, but also of federal troops, including United States Air Force reconnaissance planes, to restore order. The strike was broken, and the miners were forced back into the pits. Appalachian coal fields remained non-union until the New Deal days of the 1930s. This is a solidly researched account of the story, also the subject of a John Sayles film, but it is flawed by Savage’s sometimes overwrought journalistic style. – Library Journal

Pages: 195