‘Free State of Winston’ was unique in AlabamaPublished 5:53pm Tuesday, April 22, 2014
A good many of you found last week’s historical column interesting. You seemed fascinated about the vast diversity regarding the folks who settled in South Alabama versus those who homesteaded north Alabama at the state’s origination.
However, the most enthralling passage was my brief mention of Winston County and its legendary stand to secede from Alabama when Alabama seceded from the Union. This bold anomaly really piqued your interest. Therefore, this week I will expound on the in-depth details of the story of the “Free State of Winston.”
Winston County is a quiet rural county of about 24,000 people. It is about 75 miles northwest of Birmingham. Its closest neighboring cities of any size are Jasper and Florence. It is nestled into the heart of northwest Alabama. In fact, the county newspaper in Haleyville is named The Northwest Alabamian.
Like many rural counties in our state, there are a lot more trees than people. The William Bankhead National Forest encompasses most of Winston County. The county was named for Alabama’s Gov. John Winston. He served two terms as governor from 1853 to 1857.
Winston was not from that neck of the woods. He was a slave-owner from Sumter County but a staunch Jacksonian Democrat who stood up to the railroad interests. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as president, the inevitable secessionist movement began. Lincoln’s platform as the newly minted Republican Party candidate was to abolish slavery.
South Carolina was the first state to secede. They were soon followed by Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Texas. Later Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas left the Union. These southern states became the Confederate States of America.
Many reasons were given for seceding. However, the primary reason was that Lincoln planned to abolish slavery. The men who controlled these states’ political machinations did not want to give up their slaves.
On April 12, 1861, shots were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. These shots were the beginning of the Civil War. Once the shots were fired, the last four states to join the Confederacy quickly seceded as well.
When Virginia seceded, their western mountainous counties had no intention of leaving the Union so they formed their own state of West Virginia and stayed with the Union. A similar occurrence was festering in Alabama. The folks of north Alabama were similar to the mountain people of West Virginia. They did not have plantation style farming. They were small yeoman farmers who cultivated their own 40 acres with one mule. In short, they did not own nor did they need slaves. They felt like they didn’t have a dog in the fight.
These north Alabama counties did not care much about the slave issue nor secession. These folks in north Alabama had more in common with their neighbors and cousins to the north in Tennessee, which was the last state to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. These north Alabama hill farmers were very religious and extremely independent.
Winston County epitomized this independent virtue. The hill people of Winston County owned no slaves, worked their own fields, went to church and did not want to be bothered. When Alabama held its secession convention in 1861, Winston County voted overwhelmingly for a 22-year-old schoolteacher named Christopher Sheats to be their delegate. Sheats and Winston County refused to sign the secession document. The residents of Winston County were proud of Sheats. They were in approval. The independent people of Winston County were not going to be pushed around. They saw Alabama’s secession from the Union as their rationale to secede from Alabama.
The rest of Alabama and the Confederacy resented Winston County’s insubordination. However, the people of the Free State of Winston stood their ground. In July 1961, a meeting took place in Winston County at a place called Looney’s Tavern. They officially seceded from Alabama. However, the resolution was more of an act of neutrality. Winston County wanted more than anything to just be left alone. It was a call for neutrality where an estimated 3,000 people — almost the entire population of Winston County — attended the meeting.
Today, if you travel through Winston County and drive by the courthouse in the town of Double Springs, you will see a statue of a Civil War soldier, half Union and half Confederate, commemorating the county’s divided loyalties during the war. The legacy of the Free State of Winston lives on.