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The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America's Largest Labor Uprisingby Robert Shogan
Synopses & Reviews
On a dreary morning in May of 1920 seven men carrying winchesters and pistols boarded the Norfolk and Western's No. 29 at Bluefield, West Virginia, bound for the little mining town of Matewan on the Kentucky border. All were hirelings of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency, personally selected by their boss, Tom Felts. Nearly all "have been tried and can be relied on," Tom Felts had written to his brother, Albert, who was already posted in Matewan. Coal was big business, but now it was in big trouble. It was this crisis that called the Baldwin-Felts agents to Matewan. Baldwin-Felts prospered by doing the bidding of the coal companies of West Virginia, serving more or less as their private police force. Tom Felts was sending these men to Matewan, in Mingo County, because there, as in the rest of southern West Virginia, the coal companies, whose output fueled the national economy, and the United Mine Workers of America, the nation's most powerful labor union, were at each other's throats.
"In this concise, dramatic and authoritative account of the bloody 1921 encounter between the mine workers and mine owners of the West Virginia coalfields — the most tumultuous labor battle in American history — Shogan gives us a strikingly vivid post-WWI America both utterly foreign and oddly familiar. A former political reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times, Shogan is as much good feature writer as historian. Out of a confusing and often still-disputed series of events, he sets scenes and fills in necessary background with an unfussy narrative drive. Such well-known figures as the mercurial Mother Jones and the stalwart Samuel Gompers have their roles, as do a pair of presidents (Wilson and Harding), whose dithering made a difficult situation worse. Less familiar figures such as the organizer Sid Hatfield and the detective C.E. Lively are drawn with lifelike strokes. Police raids and deportations, bombs sent through the mail and a general air of panic and 'red' hysteria build as miners and owners move inexorably toward their ultimate confrontation. The tragic outcome of the battle between a group of mountain people and the full power of the emerging superstate — with WWI hero (and later state senator) Billy Mitchell's biplanes ready, 15 years before Guernica, to bomb civilians — is inevitable, but it is Shogan's triumph here to make the reader feel it anew. A minor quibble is the otherwise fine bibliography's failure to mention John Sayles's Matewan, surely an important (and reasonably accurate) version of the events in question. 10 b&w photos. Agent, Carl Brandt. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A stunning re-creation of the great West Virginia uprising of 1921....A mesmerizing, rarely mentioned piece of labor history, crackingly told." Kirkus Reviews
"This book is a riveting refutation of the comforting conventional wisdom that there has never been class struggle in America." David Kusnet, chief speechwriter for former president Bill Clinton (1992-1994), and author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties
"Infused with the humane intelligence of one of our most distinguished political correspondents, this haunting tale restores a shocking chapter of American history to its rightful place in this nation's unfolding saga of democratic aspirations and shattered dreams. It is a rare gem of a book." Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University, author of Labor's Great War
"A stirring history of one of the signal struggles in American unionism. The Blair Mountain uprising illuminates a dark chapter in America's quest for worker equality — and reminds us that only organized labor can ameliorate a class conflict that has always wracked American society." Stephen C. Schlesinger, author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations
Book News Annotation:
Veteran journalist Shogan (government, Johns Hopkins U.) tells how 10,000 coal miners in West Virginia took up arms in 1921 against the brutal mine owners, and stood off the company goons and local government forces protecting the bosses for ten days until the US government sent troops to suppress the uprising.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Depicts the relatively unrecognized but highly dramatic confrontation culminating at Blair Mountain in West Virginia, between unionized mineworkers, mine owners, and the federal government in the largest armed uprising since the Civil War
The Battle of Blair Mountain covers a profoundly significant but long-neglected slice of American history - the largest armed uprising on American soil since the Civil War. In 1921, some 10,000 West Virginia coal miners, outraged over years of brutality and lawless exploitation, picked up their Winchesters and marched against their tormentors, the powerful mine owners who ruled their corrupt state. For ten days the miners fought a pitched battle against an opposing legion of deputies, state police, and makeshift militia. Only the intervention of a federal expeditionary force, spearheaded by a bomber squadron commanded by General Billy Mitchell, ended this undeclared civil war and forced the miners to throw down their arms. The significance of this episode reaches beyond the annals of labor history. Indeed, it is a saga of the conflicting political, economic and cultural forces that shaped the power structure of 20th century America.
About the Author
For more than thirty years and over the course of seven presidencies, Robert Shogan covered the political scene from Washington as national political correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Government at the Center for Study of American Government of Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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