As America celebrates its independence this week, thousands of Scott Countians will gather in downtown Huntsville to mark the occasion at the Firemen’s Fourth Festival. And it was here, in this same location, that Scott County defiantly marked its own independence 157 years ago.
The story of the Free and Independent State of Scott is well-known to lifelong Scott Countians, perhaps not so much so to those who are just visiting or who have recently made their home here. But in 1861, so disillusioned with Tennessee’s decision to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America, Scott Countians overwhelmingly took a stand in a show of loyalty to the United States as civil war loomed.
It’s unlikely that Scott Countians were making a noble stand in defiance of the institution of slavery. Rather, it’s more likely that the hard-working people in what was at that time a very remote corner of the world simply wanted to be left alone — and wanted the Union to remain intact.
There weren’t many slaves in Scott County, after all. There were a few — 61, to be exact — but Scott County was one of just two counties in the entire state with fewer than 100 slaves. By contrast, there were twice as many slaves in Morgan County and three times as many in Fentress County when the war began.
Secession was an unpopular idea across all of East Tennessee in 1861. And, like Scott County, there were few slaves in the eastern third of the state. Agriculture just wasn’t as important here — not in East Tennessee as a whole and especially not in Scott County — as it was further west. The people here were largely a people of subsistence, using their family farms to put food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs. Slaves couldn’t have been afforded by most Scott Countians even if they had been deemed a necessity.
To understand that Scott County wasn’t taking a stand in opposition to slavery, it is perhaps important to understand that Scott County’s voters didn’t support Abraham Lincoln for president. Lincoln, the Republican nominee who was seen as the potential death knell to the institution of slavery. Instead, Scott Countians voted with the rest of the state in support of Constitutional Party nominee John Bell, who narrowly defeated Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge to earn Tennessee’s 12 electoral votes.
In truth, Lincoln didn’t campaign on a platform of ending slavery. He pledged that he would not interfere with slavery in the South, but proposed to abolish slavery in the U.S. territories.
While Breckinridge was a proponent of slavery and proposed strict state sovereignty, through which each state and territory could decide for itself what to do with slavery, Bell — a former state senator from Middle Tennessee — remained neutral on the issue of slavery.
And that essentially summed up Scott County’s thoughts on the divisive issue: neutrality.
By the time Lincoln won the presidential election by carrying 18 states and capturing 39 percent of the popular vote, secession had become inevitable across much of the South, and was gaining momentum in Tennessee. It was after Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress rebellion in South Carolina that Tennesseans began to strongly consider seceding from the Union, at the behest of Governor Isham Harris.
In February 1861, Tennesseans balked at Harris’s proposal and sided with Washington, rejecting a call for secession by a tally of 68,282-59,449. Scott Countians were decisive in their vote: 93 percent were opposed to leaving the Union, and the final tally in Huntsville was 385-29.
Harris, who hailed from pro-slavery West Tennessee, was undeterred by the failed vote. After all, Harris had campaigned in opposition to the anti-slavery proposals of the Whig Party as early as the 1840s and had been urging secession before Lincoln had even been elected. As he endorsed Breckinridge in the 1860 election, Harris warned that the “reckless fanatics of the north” would require Tennessee to consider secession if Lincoln were elected.
Lincoln hadn’t even been sworn in as president before Harris convened the first special session of the state legislature in January 1861. And even as the next month’s vote for secession failed, a war was heating up within the state. Many of the state’s newspapers railed against Harris; a newspaper in Knoxville accused him of being an autocrat and a newspaper in Huntingdon even called for him to be hanged.
Ultimately, though, the war would be won by Harris.
Defying the president
Following the Battle of Fort Sumter in April 1861, the first shots of the Civil War, President Lincoln ordered Harris to furnish 50,000 soldiers from Tennessee for the suppression of the growing rebellion. Harris refused, appearing before a crowd of supporters in the state capitol to proclaim that “Not a single man would be furnished from Tennessee.” He again appeared before a special session of the state legislature, and again obtained a ballot initiative to secede.
This time, the vote wasn’t even close. Middle Tennessee broke in favor of West Tennessee, and the final vote tally was 104,913-47,238 in favor of secession. Tennessee was officially a part of the Confederacy.
In Scott County, though, even fewer people opposed secession the second time around. Local residents were not caught up in the politics of the matter; rather, they simply wanted to be left alone. In fact, Scott Countians were largely unaware of the politics that were playing out in Nashville and Washington. Newspapers were not printed here in those days — it would be 20 more years before the Scott County Call in Helenwood began publication — and news from the outside was slow to arrive. When Rev. Herman Bokum of the Knoxville Bible Society traveled to Scott County several months after South Carolina’s vote to secede, he was surprised to learn that the citizens here had no idea of what had happened.
Defying the governor
Scott Countians may have been out of the loop as secession and civil war loomed, but they were nonetheless defiant about remaining with the Union. On June 4, 1861, future U.S. President Andrew Johnson visited Huntsville as part of a whirlwind tour of northern Cumberland Plateau villages that was designed to drum up anti-secession support.
When Johnson spoke on the front steps of the old Scott County Courthouse, people listened. Four days later, Scott County voted against secession by the widest margin of any county in the state — 521-19. Only 3.6 percent of the voters here wanted to leave the Union. The vote was 630-50 in Morgan County, and 651-128 in Fentress County.
It has been written that only three families in Scott County favored secession in 1861. Legend has it that a man from one of those families proclaimed his loyalty to the South by leaping into the air and yelling, “If I lived in Hell I’d fight for the devil!”
A failed attempt to leave
East Tennesseans were furious over the state’s vote to secede. Political leaders from the region first claimed that the election was fraudulent, then gathered in Greeneville for a convention, at which they petitioned Governor Harris to allow the eastern portion of the state to secede and form a state of its own.
Harris refused, and in response sent troops into East Tennessee, under the command of Felix K. Zollicoffer, to suppress any attempts of rebellion that might arise. Interestingly, Zollicoffer — a newspaper editor turned politician — had been a Whig, opposed Tennessee’s secession from the Union, and had served on a peace convention in Washington in a failed attempt to stave off the looming war. Yet, as Governor Harris ordered later in 1861 that any pro-Union leader in East Tennessee be arrested, it was Zollicoffer — who would be killed in combat a few months later after leading his troops in an invasion of eastern Kentucky — who was at the helm.
Perhaps Scott Countians weren’t aware of Governor Harris’s show of force. Perhaps they just didn’t care. But when news reached home that the state had seceded from the Union, Scott Countians were angry. And just days after the Greeneville convention’s bid to leave the state failed, Scott County Court met in a special session in Huntsville and passed a proclamation declaring itself a free and independent state.
The charge to secede
In his books, “Veterans of Scott County,” former Scott County Commissioner David Jeffers writes that Scott Countians were angered when news of Tennessee’s secession reached back home. Using Esther Sharp Sanderson’s “Scott County and Its Mountain Folk” as his source material, Jeffers tells the story of an old farmer who stood up at that special court meeting and said, “If the g*dd**n State of Tennessee can secede from the Union, then Scott County can secede from the State of Tennessee.”
And so it did.
County leaders admitted that they did not have legal standing to secede from Tennessee, but they claimed that Tennessee did not have legal standing to secede from the United States. So the old farmer’s proclamation became motto.
It has been written that Nashville never formally recognized Scott County’s decision to remove itself from Tennessee and form the Free and Independent State of Scott. That may be true, strictly from an official point-of-view, but Scott County’s act of defiance certainly got the attention of the governor.
In response to the county court’s vote, Governor Harris sent a contingent of 1,700 soldiers to Scott County to arrest and hang all members of the county court. However, as Jeffers tells it in his book, the Confederate soldiers retreated after encountering resistance in the Brimstone area.
None of the members of Scott County Court were ever captured. Some may have come close, however. Historical accounts indicate that after the Battle of Huntsville on Aug. 13, 1862, in which Confederate soldiers forced Union forces to retreat, the Confederates spent two hours looting Huntsville and searching for the members of county court who had led the effort to secede.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Scott County formally voted to rejoin the Volunteer State. That summer, as part of Tennessee’s Homecoming celebration, Scott County Commission adopted a resolution that read, “After 125 years of independence, in this the year of Tennessee homecoming, the Scott Commissioners and people of Scott have declared the Free and Independent State of Scott to be dissolved.” Governor Lamar Alexander signed the resolution, officially readmitting Scott County to Tennessee. The happening caught the attention of the New York Times.
Today, a plaque near the entrance to the Huntsville Mall reads, “United States Senator Andrew Johnson delivered a speech at the Courthouse at Huntsville on June 4, 1861, against separation. At the election four days later Scott County voted against separation by the largest percentage margin of any county in Tennessee. Later that year in defiance of the state’s action of secession, the county court by resolution seceded from the state and formed the Free and Independent State of Scott.”