120 years ago today...
The Coal Creek War was an armed labor uprising that took place primarily in Anderson County, in the American state of Tennessee, in the early 1890s. The struggle began in 1891 when coal mine owners in the Coal Creek watershed attempted to replace free coal miners with convicts leased out by the state government. Over a period of just over a year, the free miners continuously attacked and burned prison stockades and company buildings, hundreds of convicts were freed, and dozens of miners and militiamen were killed or wounded in small-arms skirmishes. One historian describes the conflict as "one of the most dramatic and significant episodes in all American labor history."
The Coal Creek War was part of a greater struggle across Tennessee against the state's controversial convict-leasing system, which allowed the state to lease its convicts to mining companies to compete with free labor. The outbreak of the conflict touched off a partisan media firestorm between the miners' supporters and detractors, and brought the issue of convict leasing to the public eye. Although the uprising essentially ended with the arrests of hundreds of miners in 1892, the publicity it generated led to the downfall of Governor John P. Buchanan, and forced the state to reconsider the convict-leasing system. In 1896, when its convict-lease contracts expired, Tennessee's state government refused to renew them, making it one of the first Southern states to end the controversial practice.
...On October 28, 1891, the committee representing the Coal Creek miners' interests announced they were resigning, denounced the legislature, and issued a subtle call to arms. Shortly thereafter, on October 31, a group of miners burned the TCMC stockade at Briceville and seized the Knoxville Iron Company stockade at Coal Creek. Several company buildings were destroyed or looted, but the stockade was spared. Over 300 convicts were freed and supplied with fresh food civilian clothes by the insurgents who urged the convicts not to commit any more crimes. On November 2, another group burned the stockade at Oliver Springs, freeing 153 convicts. In response to the outbreak, a second truce was negotiated in which the miners agreed to allow the return of convicts to Coal Creek and Oliver Springs, but not Briceville, TCMC president B.A. Jenkins had grown disgruntled with convict labor. The state dispatched eighty-four militiamen under the command of J. Keller Anderson to guard the convict stockade at Coal Creek and a small force to guard the one at Oliver Springs. Anderson constructed Fort Anderson atop what came to be known as "Militia Hill", overlooking Coal Creek via the Walden Ridge water gap, which was outfitted with a gatling gun, and the convicts returned to the Coal Creek Valley on January 31, 1892.
Relations between the militiamen, most of whom were from Middle or West Tennessee, and the people of Coal Creek soured quickly. Merrell wrote to Governor Buchanan complaining of the troops' behavior, and for several months miners and soldiers indiscriminately shot at one another, with both sides blaming the other for provoking it. In the meantime, Merrell and TCMC president Jenkins had made amends, and the two began promoting a new cooperative style of mining operations favorable to both miners and managers. By Summer 1892, dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including the New York Times, the Alabama Sentinel, and Harper's Weekly, had sent correspondents to the Coal Creek region to cover the conflict. Sentiment was initially pro-miner, although as violent outbreaks continued and militiamen were killed, sentiment began to shift. The Nashville Banner called the miners "thieves, robbers, ruffians, and outlaws," while the Chattanooga Republican accused the state legislature of being "inhuman." The two Knoxville papers, the Journal and the Tribune, initially praised the miners' decisiveness and derided the government's ineffectiveness, but their sentiments shifted after the stockades were burned in October 1891.