Stopping the miners

This article is about a man in Chafin’s army. It explains why some 3000 men fought and volunteered to defend Logan.

By Tim Thornton: http://www.roanoke.com/news/nrv/mountaintop/wb/80666

It was dark and cold when they climbed the mountain, following a well-worn path nearly to its crest. Scrambling the last few feet through meager underbrush, the men settled in to wait for the first hints of daylight.

Tony Gaujot met them on the mountaintop.

Gaujot, a 43-year-old veteran of wars in the Philippines and Europe and previous battles in West Virginia’s coalfields, had been twice charged with murder and once awarded the Medal of Honor. Less than 5 feet, 6 inches tall, he was gaunt. A scar ran across the pale skin of his forehead and nose.

He told the new arrivals to make themselves comfortable. Use the ridge as a shield until the sun rose high enough to light the way to the front line, he said. Get some sleep, he advised. No one did.

When brightening skies silhouetted trees and outlined Spruce Fork Ridge, the volunteers rose and followed the ridge above Crooked Creek Gap northwest away from the oak that hid Gaujot and his machine gun.

Marching in the line of 30 armed men, Joe Savage — his friends called him Buck — watched songbirds flit through the sparse underbrush. He listened to crows cawing and heard, way off the to west, a cow mooing.

It didn’t seem much like a battlefield. Then Savage heard another sound — the pop and echo of rifle fire.

Savage felt relief. His long trip — the train ride, the commandeered taxi, the march up the mountain — it wasn’t pointless after all. There was action in these West Virginia woods, he thought, even if he wasn’t in the middle of it.

Then the air was filled with an odd whining, like the sound of angry bees. Tufts of dirt began to hop into air. Twigs tumbled to the ground. The man in front of Savage staggered and fell.

Gaujot’s machine gun sprang to life, raking the woods below.

And only then, after the old V.P.I. cadet had begun shooting back, did Savage and his companions realize they’d come under attack.

They broke and fled down the mountain to safety.

The man who fell in front of Savage crawled away, then lay face down in the dirt, shot in the buttocks. He would survive, leaving the mountain with his belly draped over a mule’s back before the sun had completely risen.

Volunteers

Buck Savage, a 23-year-old veteran of World War I, had willingly placed himself at the high tide mark of West Virginia’s mine wars.

Savage had lied about his age so he could become a military pilot. His baby face and jug ears made him look even younger than he was. He spent about a year in France, teaching French pilots to fly Spads, according to his son, John.

“He never had to do battle, at least not that I know of,” John Savage said. “He brought back a lot of pictures and none of them are of people killing or anything like that. A lot of them are of beautiful young French girls.”

So maybe Buck Savage hadn’t gotten his fill of military action when he came home to Charleston. In the summer of 1921, Savage was between semesters at West Virginia University and working as a bill collector for his father’s lumber mill. He stopped by a pool hall where he first heard that thousands of miners were assembling in Marmet, a dozen miles outside the state capital.

Like many people, Savage was convinced the miners were going to move on the capital. But he soon learned their real objective was to march through anti-union Logan and Mingo counties, and organize the mines there. Gov. Ephraim Morgan sent state troopers to Logan and called for volunteers to aid the defenders. From all over West Virginia, veterans groups and sheriffs with hastily deputized volunteers headed to Logan.

Days passed before Savage slipped away from work to the pool hall, and then to a rally led by Gov. Morgan himself. Inspired to defend the rule of law and order, Savage shook the governor’s hand and signed on. He went home, changed into hunting clothes, borrowed a .38 revolver, then boarded a special train for the coalfields. About 30 recruits rode in those three coaches, including Savage, his friend Grant Hall, and a high school ROTC unit.

The lights of the train were turned off as they passed through areas they feared could harbor pro-union snipers. Deputies met the Charleston volunteers when they rolled to the downtown depot after midnight.

Savage and his comrades were herded to a lodge hall where they got very little sleep. They were roused at 2 a.m. and marched to the courthouse, which had become the Logan defenders’ arsenal. The hallways were lined with stacks of Enfield rifles and boxes of ammunition. Each recruit was issued a weapon, ammunition, and a cartridge belt, then marched out to a line of taxis and Model T’s that would take them to the foot of the mountain, where they would begin the long, dark walk to the top.

The day before Savage arrived, miners had charged along that ridge. A defenders’ machine gun jammed and the miners briefly pushed the line back half a mile.

The Logan defenders sent biplanes over the miners to drop elaborate pipe bombs filled with black powder and nuts and bolts. The bombs caused craters, but no injuries.

On the front line

When the shooting stopped and the line of new recruits resumed their march along the ridge, Savage was assigned to a crevice that held about a dozen veterans of the battle. They’d been there 24 hours already. The natural redoubt ranged from 4 to 6 feet deep; from 6 to 8 feet across.

Savage looked into the valley the invaders would come from. He saw a farmhouse in a small clearing. One casualty of the fighting — a cow — lay across the path from the house to the well. The pole beans and corn growing nearby seemed unharmed.

Machine guns occasionally fired, probably more to relieve itching trigger fingers than because there were actual targets, Savage judged.

Savage quickly fell into the defenders’ routine. They lounged. They talked. They responded to the intermittent fire from the other side of the valley.

If things got too quiet, someone on the Logan side of the mountain would fire a couple of rounds and set off another din of firing.

The men in the trench were comforted by the rattle of Gaujot’s machine gun far down the ridge line.

It was nearly noon and Savage was firing into the trees. Jerry Sizemore, one of the veterans, grabbed his arm and told him to stop. Sizemore pointed down the mountain behind them.

Two men were urging a pack mule up the ridge. Firing died away along the line. When the men and mule got to within 15 or 20 feet of the ridge line, they stopped. The smaller of the two men pulled a large bag and about a dozen bottles from the mule’s pack, then dropped to the ground and slithered toward Savage.

It was time for lunch. The mule and its handlers had brought bottles of pop and sandwiches made with thick slabs of bologna.

Savage was lucky. Down the ridge, the volunteers went hungry — boxes marked “bread” came filled with chewing tobacco.

Firing resumed after lunch, but with less intensity. Sizemore told Savage it had been like that the day before, too: “Things slacked off after we ate.”

The battle picked up again a few hours later. About 4 p.m., firing started coming up from the valley. The defenders fired back. Men along the line called out. They saw miners in the underbrush. For two hours, the shooting was intense. Savage and the others in the crevice braced for a frontal assault, but this was a feint. The miners’ real attack spread out on both flanks of the line.

Gradually, the firing died away in Savage’s sector, though he continued to hear shots all along the ridge until night fell.

Morning brought more bottles of pop, more bologna sandwiches and more reinforcements. They were tossing bottles down the line when one went over the side. One of the latest arrivals climbed after it. Bullets began flying up the mountain. The newcomer fell.

Sizemore ran out and dragged the man back, as bullets whizzed all around.

The color had drained from the rescued man’s face by the time he was back among his comrades, but both he and Sizemore were unharmed.

But the shooting wasn’t over.

Just like the morning before, a machine gun opened up from across the valley. Gaujot responded, and Savage and the others in the rock-guarded rifle pit took turns joining in. Just like the morning before, the firing continued for more than two hours.

“Bullets spattered all around us,” Savage reported. “But we were fairly safe in our natural redoubt.”

The end

Not much news came with the bologna sandwiches, so Savage and his comrades didn’t know much about what was going on over the rest of the mountain. So they were surprised — and elated — when the afternoon brought troops of the U.S. Army’s 14th Infantry Regiment marching in behind them.

Cheers rang across the mountain.

As the Army moved in, the volunteers moved out, and Logan teemed with men fresh from the mountain battle lines and soldiers who had come to end the battle.

The Aracoma Hotel, which had been the defenders’ headquarters, was now Army headquarters. Savage got coffee and sandwiches from the Red Cross in the hotel lobby before boarding one of the special trains that were hauling volunteers back home.

The rhythm of the train car’s swaying rocked him into a dream.

Savage was back on the mountain. A wave of miners rushed up the slope and into the sheltered crevice. Fighting degenerated into hand-to-hand grappling. He grabbed a miner’s throat. The miner yelled and fought back. He began calling Savage’s name.

Savage awoke to find his old friend Grant Hall shaking him.

“We’re home,” Hall said.

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Published in: on August 15, 2011 at 10:11 pm  Comments Off on Stopping the miners  
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