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Life, Work, and Rebellion in the Coal Fields

David A. Corbin

October 2015
PB 978-1-940425-79-5
PDF 978-1-940425-80-1



Between 1880 and 1922, the coal fields of southern West Virginia witnessed two bloody and protracted strikes, the formation of two competing unions, and the largest armed conflict in American labor history—a week-long battle between 20,000 coal miners and 5,000 state police, deputy sheriffs, and mine guards. These events resulted in an untold number of deaths, indictments of over 550 coal miners for insurrection and treason, and four declarations of martial law. Corbin argues that these violent events were collective and militant acts of aggression interconnected and conditioned by decades of oppression. His study goes a long way toward breaking down the old stereotypes of Appalachian and coal mining culture. This second edition contains a new preface and afterword by author David A. Corbin.


Coming Soon.


David A. Corbin served as a Senate staffer for twenty-six years—six years on the leadership staff of Senate majority leader Byrd and ten years on the leadership staffs of Senate majority leaders George Mitchell and Tom Daschle. He also served as Senator Byrd’s speechwriter for the last ten years of his career. Corbin is the editor of The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology and the author of The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd’s Encounters with Eleven U.S. Presidents. He received his PhD in history from the University of Maryland and lives in Annapolis.


“Corbin’s study offers detailed insights into the intricacies of life in both the coal camps and among the operators, with deserved attention given to a documentation of operators’ strategies of control through company towns, control of the legislature and influence in the judicial system. As such his study provides a much needed analysis both of a particular region during a crucial stage of its socio-economic transformation, and the growth of unionization as a manifestation of occupational consciousness and the struggle to assert power by a major section of the region’s labor force.”
Ian M. Taplin, Journal of Social History

“David Corbin has provided us with an original and well written history of the southern West Virginia miners, as well as reminded us of the central lessons of labor history.”
Alexander MacKenzie Thompson III, The Journal of Economic History

“This book undoubtedly stands as an important contribution to its field.”
Perry K. Blatz, Industrial and Labor Relations Review

“David Alan Corbin tells this provocative story in great detail largely from the viewpoint of miners who, he says, were ‘probably the most exploited and oppressed coal diggers in the United States.’”
James E. Fell Jr, American Historical Review

“Thus the author rejects “feuding,” “gun-totin,” and “moonshining” as well as Sheldon Hackney’s emphasis on educational deficiencies, rapid industrialization, and urbanization to explain the miners’ proclivity to violence. Instead, he emphasizes the evolution of working-class culture, increased class consciousness, the adoption of a radical ideology, and the development of class solidarity in the period following the signing of the World War I armistice.”
Gary M. Fink, Journal of American History

“Corbin’s account of these epic struggles is more than history. It is a compelling documentation of social, cultural, and religious change in a violent, laissez-faire “republic” where rights were enforced only for the rich.”
Harry M. Caudill, The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Corbin has painted a bold portrait of life, labour, and rebellion in the coalfields, and presented a compelling analysis of indigenous American labour radicalism.”
Allen Seager, Labour / Le Travail

“This is an excellent work that should be in most academic and large public libraries.”
Kevin M. Rosswurm, Library Journal

“This is certainly the stuff of provocative and insightful history. Corbin’s account contributes mightily to the dawning realization that culture and class were far from mutually exclusive in industrial America.”
John Bodnar, Indiana Magazine of History

“Marked by objectivity, clarity, and scholarship, this is unquestionably one of the finest monographs ever written about the American labor movement. With a fine taste for language, an admirable mastery of his materials, and a keen insight, Corbin leads his readers through an especially frightening episode of United States domestic history.”
Andre Kuczewski, Journal of American Culture

“The coal miners of southern West Virginia have found a historian worthy of their militant traditions. David Corbin has looked behind the spectacular strikes of the 1912–22 period and the well-publicized grime of Appalachian industrialization to analyze the development of class consciousness among these coal miners. He has sifted an amazing quantity and variety of sources to recover West Virginia miners’ self-expressed views of their experiences.”
Peter Gottlieb, International Labor and Working-Class History

“This is excellent. Corbin analyzes the coal miners’ culture splendidly, focusing on the sense of regionwide solidarity produced by high levels of geographic mobility, the prominence and self-reliance of black miners, and the generation of miner-preachers as rival to the contemptible ministry of the company-sponsored churches. . . .a fine polished piece of work.”
David Montgomery, author of Beyond Equality