The Matewan Massacre, or Battle of Matewan, was the biggest shoot-out in U.S. history, bigger than the gunfight at the OK Corral. The events and underlying forces that led to it were more important then those at the OK Corrall. It doesn’t get as much attention, maybe because it was a more serious matter. In Matewan, men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency were slaughtered by miners and union sympathizers.
They came from outside the area during a union membership drive. The union’s demands: the right to shop in non-company stores and an end to armed mine guard watching everything they did. On May 20, 1920, thirteen Baldwin-Felts men put families whose men were suspected of union sympathies out on the street, or, since the streets weren’t paved, out in the mud. On their way back to the train station to get out of town, they had a confrontation with Matewan Police Chief and union sympathizer Sid Hatfield. Who fired first isn’t clear, but when the shooting ended most of the Baldwin-Felts men were killed and the rest ran for their lives. A few innocent citizens were caught in the middle and killed.
Some see the shoot-out as a moment of glorious resistance to the evil forces of capitalism. In the John Sayles movie Matewan the scene comes off as the town fighting off the overwhelming forces of evil. But read some oral histories or trial testimony of the bodies being robbed and surviving Baldwin-Felts men shot to death as they begged for mercy, and you can see why the Matewan shoot-out is less popularized than other famous gunfights.
For those three days gunfire poured down on the Tug River Valley and the Big Sandy from Huntington to Matewan, with pro-union men on the West Virginia side and anti-union men on the other, and towns, coal camps and hamlets caught in the middle, their citizens hiding under their beds afraid to go out to get food. No one knows exactly who was shooting, it is not the sort of activity anyone admits to, but there were hundreds of shooters and at least twenty people killed. The West Virginia government asked for federal troops, but the shooting ended and the shooters melted away. According to testimony before a Senate investigating committee, it took eight days to bring the bodies out of the woods. Around Matewan, three people were killed, a man who went out to find food for his family, an anti-union Prohibition officer, and a sixteen year old boy who lay wounded on a railroad bridge with no one able to reach him for two days before he died.
The Three Day Battle is a sad episode in American history, and as much anti-immigrant slaughter as pro-labor fight. Maybe it’s a chapter we would rather forget, more like a chapter from the recent Bosnian civil war than from our own glorious history. But would it be a good idea for Bosnian history books to recite only the glorious episodes of their history, and to forget their civil war ever occurred? It’s nothing to celebrate, and union struggles, like the Bosnian civil war, still get people all riled up, but they should not be forgotten completely.