The Free State of Winston
By Gary Wright
You cannot embrace what you are not free to reject.
…J. Graham Disque
The recent debut of the movie ‘Free State of Jones’ details the actions of a few Southerners in Jones County, Mississippi who refused to side with the Southerner secessionists and who actively fought on the side of the Union during the American Civil War. That story is certainly one of heroism, passion and loyalty to a cause. It is not, however, the only instance of Southerners who remained loyal to themselves, even when that position aligned them with the Union cause. There are records of pockets of resistance to the secession throughout the South. Because of their resistance, they found themselves occupied, put down and deprived. This story of Winston County is but one more record of loyalty to the Union.
Winston County, Alabama is situated in the northwestern part of the state. Its rolling hills and hardwood forests brings to mind the Ozark Mountains. Its hard-scrapple hills and rocky soil generate admiration for the people who first settled here after the Revolutionary War, for it takes great courage and dedication to eke out a living in such primitive conditions. It was probably these conditions that gave its residents such a strong will and independent spirit. During the American Civil War, the county gained notoriety for its opposition to secession, which was so strong that the county was often referred to as ‘the Republic of Winston’ or ‘the Free State of Winston.’ The county today plays on its reputation as the ‘Republic of Winston’ to attract tourists, and the county’s opposition to the Confederacy is briefly mentioned in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
In 1860 the racial makeup of the county was over 97% White, with less than 1% Black. At the time, Winston had only 14 slave holders, with 122 slaves—less than five percent were slave owners. It appears that neither slave-owning nor even race was an issue; rather a far deeper principal was at stake which caused them to pursue their destiny. That principal was freedom to choose.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected as President of these United States, the South began to secede from the Union. When the election of delegates in Alabama was held for the secession convention, Christopher Sheats was the Jefferson-Jackson Democratic candidate from Winston County, who told the people that if he were elected he would “vote against secession, first, last and all of the time.” He was elected by a large majority and kept faith with his people. Mr. Sheats, with 22 other delegates, refused to sign the secession resolutions. The Looney’s Tavern meeting was held on July 4, 1861, at which more than 2,500 people from Winston County were present.
In an act of sheer genius ‘The Looney Resolution’ declared that, “We agree that no state can legally get out of the union; but if we are mistaken in this, and, if a state can lawfully and legally secede or withdraw, being only a part of the Union, then a county, any county, being a part of the state, by the same process of reasoning, could cease to be a part of the state which does secede.” Further the resolution stated, “We think that our neighbors in the South made a mistake when they attempted to secede and set up a new government. However, we do not desire to see our neighbors in the South mistreated, and, therefore, we are not going to take up arms against them; but on the other hand, we are not going to shoot at the flag of our fathers. Therefore, we ask that the Confederacy on the one hand, and the Union on the other, leave us alone, unmolested, that we may work out our political and financial destiny here in the hills and mountains of northwest Alabama.”
The hill people of northwest Alabama gained a reputation as traitors, and Winston County became a sanctuary for the Southern ‘Yankees’ and Northern sympathizers who wanted only to be left alone. But what they got was four years of misery, raids, murder and condemnation from both the North and the South. The “Free State of Winston” never actually became a sovereign nation and, at war’s end, became a county again in the State of Alabama. However, its citizens still take pride in knowing that they took a strong stand in a time of turmoil and danger.
Today, the citizens of Winston County still work the same hard scrabble land which they inherited from their fathers, along with the grit in their gristle and the steel in their nerves. Pride in their forefathers is still demonstrated in that land which was once nearly, ‘the Free State of Winston.’
Monument in front of the Winston County courthouse in Double Springs called ‘Dual Destiny’. The last paragraph of the plaque reads:
“This Civil War soldier, one-half Union and one-half Confederate, symbolizes the war within a war and honors the Winstonians in both armies. Their shiny new swords in 1861 were by 1865 as broken as the spirits of the men who bore them, and their uniforms of blue and gray, once fresh and clean, were now as worn and patched as the bodies and souls they contained. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, disillusioned by the realities of war, shared dual destinies as pragmatic Americans in a reunited nation.”
Alabama State image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to commons.wikimedia.org
Union and Confederate Flags image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to commons.wikimedia.org
Winston County Courthouse Image is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to www.deepfriedkudzu.com