A good bit of the action in Carla Rising really happened in the United States, in the 1920s. Some of the resource material came from The West Virginia Mine Wars: An Anthology, by David Corbin. I helped David get Mine Wars into print in 1991.
Here are some things I learned about the Battle of Blair Mountain since the 1990s:
- Private company policemen with rifles were reportedly placed in windows all around the courthouse square that day, in August 1921, to make sure the real ‘Sid’ (whose name was Sid Hatfield) didn’t get away.
- The real ‘Sid’ was called to the courthouse to answer charges that he had participated in an armed raid on a mine that destroyed a tipple, similar to the raid on Sovereign I describe at the end of Act II (Chapter 19).
- The New York Times ran a piece in its opinion pages that said Sid got what he deserved — that he had drawn his gun first.
- The US Army Air Corps, under Gen. Billy Mitchell, tested a phosphorus bomb the same month as the battle. (I believe they were also testing a Norden bomb sight at the time.)
- It is part of the historical record that a private pilot worked for the sheriff and dropped bombs on the miners during the battle. I heard a rumor in DC, however, about a memo buried in some military archive, ordering Gen. Mitchell to “drop no more bombs” in West Virginia. (Mitchell resigned from the Army a couple of years later, after being accused of insubordination.)
- Two heroes of the battle — Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney — actually tried to get their men to put down their guns and turn back. Like Todd and Kenner in Carla Rising, Keeney and Mooney were arrested by state authorities and charged with participating in the battle — although they were the ones who had tried to turn the militants around.
- The real-life Keeney and Mooney were so afraid of being assassinated by the company police that they spent part of the march hiding out in Cincinnati, as Carla Rising’s Kenner is tempted to do in Chapter 14. The memos from frightened organizers in the field — referring to “every policeman is a paid assassin” — were real.
- Working on magazine articles over the years, I talked with family members of men who had killed other men during the bitterest union conflicts of the 1920s. They told me about the remorse their fathers — on both sides — had expressed at the end of their lives, sometimes begging for forgiveness for the lives they’d taken, as Carla tells Tildy in Chapter 21.
- In granting them the right to organize, the Roosevelt administration insisted that American unions purge themselves of their most extreme “radicals,” including members of the Communist Party. During the 1930s, many of the leaders of the Blair Mountain march were fighting their own union leaders, including John L. Lewis, who tolerated no challenge to his leadership.
- As a militant, Carla is partly modeled after women who fought fascism in the Balkans during WWII. But there were also examples of women fighters in West Virginia. The vicious attack in Chapter 13 prompts one woman character to pick up a gun and “let loose” on the company’s mercenary police force. This actually happened in 1913, during a similar attack on a miners’ tent colony, like the one at Blair.