A fictionalized look at the Battle of Blair Mountain

By By Paul Nyden
For the Charleston Gazette-Mail

“Carla Rising,” by Topper Sherwood

Martinsburg, W.Va.: Appalachian Editions, 2015

312 pages. Paperback, $16.99.

 

 

“Carla Rising” is an engaging novel about labor unrest that sparked the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the most famous confrontations in American labor history.

The battle was waged in company towns and across mountainsides in Logan and Boone counties. Many striking coal miners, evicted from their homes by company guards, created tent colonies and marched toward Logan, headed toward a confrontation with thousands of county sheriffs, private mine guards and strikebreakers backed by coal operators.

Topper Sherwood's novel is filled with fascinating stories about the personal debates which undoubtedly took place. “Carla Rising” — focused on a female character of that name — delves into the intense internal conflicts on both sides of the long, often violent union-company conflict.

Between Aug. 25 and Sept. 2, 1921, more than 10,000 union coal miners battled local law enforcement officers and coal company guards along Blair Mountain Ridge. It was the largest armed conflict in American labor history.

Coal miners first gathered in the town of Marmet near the Kanawha River to start their long march to help unionize mines in Logan and Mingo counties. More than a million rounds were fired during the historic battle, which ended only after 2,500 federal troops and a squadron of bomber planes were ordered in by President Warren Harding.

(NOTE: Listen to a "Mountain State of Mind" podcast interview with the author by clicking on the Soundcloud player below.)

Several fascinating historical studies offer accounts about the Battle of Blair Mountain and that period in United Mine Workers history, including Fred A. Barkey, “Working Class Radicals: The Socialist Party in West Virginia, 1898-1930”; James Green, “The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia's Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom”; David A. Corbin, “Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1922”; Ronald L. Lewis, “Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation and Social Change 1880-1920”; Lon Savage, “Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1930-1921”; and John Alexander Williams, “West Virginia: A History.”

Then there is Denise Giardina's award-winning 1987 novel, “Storming Heaven,” whose final chapters dramatize part of the battle and its aftermath.

Sherwood's new fictional account adds some fascinating insights.

By writing a novel focused on events leading up the battle and the battle itself, Sherwood is at liberty to create details of private discussions and debates among people on both sides of the battle — discussions and debates never reported publicly.

When Sovereign Coal — his fictional stand-in for the coal operators of the time — brings coal mining operations to Logan County in 1913, company owners transformed existing towns to increase their control.

For example, Holland Mercantile, a beautiful structure built by Italian stone masons, is shut down and boarded up.

“A man named Holland built it,” said Mary, Carla's mother. “He sold things you just couldn't get anywhere else — steel axes and fishing reels, steel ploughs and licorice candy. That was on the right side. On the left, he had the saloon.”

But such changes helped coal companies assert their power. “The heart and soul of Blair had died with the closure of the mercantile. It stood, nailed shut, while other businesses limped along.”

Sherwood writes about daily lives in the major tent colony, created on Blair Mountain after the strike began, that grew from 1,000 miners and their families to more than 3,000 miners and their families during the course of the strike.

Carla, the main character, whose name reflects her own increasing role throughout the labor struggle, becomes a major local leader fighting against Sovereign Coal.

Logan County Sheriff Riley Gore (modeled after the real-life Logan County sheriff of the time, Don Chafin), previously a manager at Sovereign Coal, leads the efforts to evict striking miners and their families from their homes.

“Bring these workers back to proper values,” Gore says. “Any man who bites the hand that feeds him disrupts productivity. They're destroying the very spirit of their company and the community in which they live. Just as bad as destroying property. Or theft.”

Seeking a more peaceful solution, West Virginia Gov. Ephraim Morgan meets with Tom Kenner, leader of the American Miners Union. Morgan was against the mine guards (who were just like the Baldwin-Felts guards in real life). But Morgan says he can't do anything to stop the local guards who were so politically dominant in Logan and five neighboring counties.

The Baldwin Detective Agency guards and coal miners on the march were more eager to openly battle each other than those who wanted to negotiate a solution. The guards and many miners simply wanted to fight out their differences on the mountain battlefields.

Carla is loved by two men who are rival leaders in the workers' rebellion against the brutal regime of the company, mine guards and the Logan County sheriff.

Sid Mandt, a local union president at a Sovereign mine, is Carla's first husband. But just a year later, Sid is shot and killed during the labor conflict.

Carla then becomes close friends with brothers Gibbs Bryant and Todd Bryant. Todd backs the strike, but opposes the march on Logan. Gibbs helps to organize the march. Carla and Todd argue about the proper strategies union miners should use.

“We had to go up that mountain,” Carla tells Todd. “If we don't fight them, they'll just hand our houses over to yet another bunch, like those poor men we found up there the other day. And when that blows up, there'll be another group after that. To the company, we're nothing but a bunch of gypsies — all of us men, women and kids.”

Gibbs is actively engaged in the march. Kenner wants to know whether Carla had goaded Gibbs into his actions on the mountain, bringing him into conflict with the local union leaders.

Chief Deputy Sheriff Pearl Gaujot fights against them all. He beats Todd and slashes Gibbs' hand with a knife. At one point, Gaujot grabs Carla by the hair, punches her and let his hand slip, also stabbing her with his knife.

Gaujot had worked for the Baldwin Detective Agency for five years before becoming a Logan County deputy, beginning his career in the coalfields of Wyoming and Colorado. As chief deputy in Logan County, Gaujot commands the private Baldwin guards in local mining camps and receives paychecks from both the county and Baldwin.

“He was 220 pounds of raw anger, a man whose artistry was measured in pure, unbridled rage,” Sherwood writes.

Gaujot's overly aggressive demeanor alienated others in the law enforcement community, especially state officials and federal troops.

The struggles facing union workers intensify, both personally and politically, throughout “Carla Rising.”

The Battle of Blair Mountain ended only after federal troops and airplanes arrived.

“No one could be sure, from here, what shape the union might take, or whether it would come at all,” Sherwood writes. “No one could be sure if all the work and sacrifice would be worth it.”

After all they had done together, Carla is determined to stay with Gibbs and see what would happen in the future, wherever they end up.

Gibbs tells Lowcoal, his friend, that Carla and he would “like to keep fighting. But we'll never be able to go back to Sovereign. A man's gotta look out for hisself.”

Carla and Gibbs leave the battlefield along with other “anonymous veterans of the brief, aborted workers' war.”

The final pages of “Carla Rising” point out that Franklin D. Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act granted U.S. workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively across the country. The act was signed in 1933, more than a decade after the Battle of Blair Mountain.

Like so many other labor struggles, the Battle of Blair Mountain faltered and collapsed. But years later, miners and union workers throughout the country won a major victory as part of an historical legacy from major struggles like those on Blair Mountain.

In a press release, Sherwood said he tried to make his book “entertaining, as a drama, while also giving readers a sense of the actual events that culminated in the battle.

“I look at it from different points of view — workers and union leaders, as well as the governor, the sheriff, and two Army officers commanding the 2,500 US troops who marched into that part of Southern West Virginia and occupied it.”

Perhaps the most unique and engaging aspect of Sherwood's novel is that it sparks a reader's imagination more dramatically than traditional historical works might, even as the many fine historical writings about Blair Mountain are essential to understanding one of the most important events in West Virginia history and American labor history.

But “Carla Rising” will lure many readers into imagining what it would have been like to have been part of the struggles personally to bring changes to the repressive system of coal company towns throughout Appalachia. It might also spark readers to imagine what it might have been like to have served on the other side — as a Logan County Sheriff or a Baldwin-Felts mine guard — during those intense months.

“Carla Rising” is likely to engage both your thoughts about history and your emotions about this intense conflict.

Sherwood, who grew up in Charleston, worked for West Virginia Public Radio, the Charleston Gazette and Daily Mail and The Associated Press between 1983 and 1987. After that, he wrote stories for a variety of publications, including Time, Business Week, Boston Globe, the Pittsburgh Press and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Today, he lives with his wife and two sons in Berlin, where he works for a German-English monthly food industry magazine.

“Carla Rising” is available at Taylor Books in Charleston and from the West Virginia Book Company at www.wvbookco.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=carla

Paul Nyden is a retired Charleston Gazette-Mail staff writer.

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