“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another...” (from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence)
Secession is an American tradition. Not necessarily a legal tradition in most cases, but it is a tradition in America nonetheless. After all, the United States of America’s “Novus Ordo Seclorum” (“New Order for the Ages”) began with thirteen British colonies seceding from the Kingdom of Great Britain.
Almost everyone is aware that the State of Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, but not as many know that the majority of counties in East Tennessee (plus one in Middle Tennessee) almost seceded from the state that year. Had it happened, that would not have been without precedent in Tennessee’s history, since the state was created by secession, after multiple prior secessions, from the parent state of North Carolina.
In addition to some facts about East Tennessee’s near independence, I’m adding a few facts to put the whole thing into the proper context politically.
Antebellum (pre-Civil War) secession
A large part of the State of Tennessee’s prehistory and history has involved secession. For instance, those who founded the Watauga Association in 1772 were Regulators from North Carolina who had declared themselves independent of the royal governor and corrupt officials, inciting the War of Regulation (1765-1771). After losing that conflict, James Robertson led a couple of dozen westward across the Appalachians, where they established themselves as an independent government.
At the outbreak of the war in 1775, the Watauga Association together with the settlements upon the Nolichucky River organized themselves as the Washington District. The other settlements inside the later Tennessee, Pendelton District (aka North-of-Holston) and Carter’s Valley, were considered part of Washington County, Virginia, and remained outside Washington District.
Westsylvania (roughly the current state of West Virginia plus the southwest corner of Pennsylvania) seceded from the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania in 1776 and petitioned to join the new United States. Their appeal was turned down and what is now West Virginia became the District of West Augusta at the end of 1776. The would-be citizens of Westsylvanian in southwest Pennsylvania continued to seek separation until 1782 when the state legislature made any discussion of the region’s independence treason subject to the death penalty.
Washington District successfully petitioned to become part of North Carolina in 1777 after failing to be accepted by Virginia as part of that state’s Washington County. In North Carolina, it became that state’s Washington County, and included what are now the Allegheny, Ashe, and Watauga Counties in North Carolina.
It was partly in response to the creation of Washington County in support of the Revolution that the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe and his militant followers seceded from the rest of their Nation after the latter made peace that year. They first relocated to what was long known as the Chickamauga country, after Dragging Canoe’s town on South Chickamauga Creek. However, they remained Cherokee rather than becoming a separate tribe as some claim.
Republic of Vermont
That same year, 1777, the Republic of Vermont declared its independence from both New Hampshire and New York, first attempting to Quebec as New Connecticut before organizing the independent republic. This Republic of Vermont was the first government in the New World to outlaw slavery and to allow all adult males to vote.
In July 1779, the British captured part of what is now Maine from the rebellious colony/state of Masschusetts, mostly around Penobscot Bay, and created the colony of New Ireland. Britain returned the area to Massachusetts in the Treaty of Parish in 1783.
In 1780, the Pendelton District and Carter’s Valley were added to North Carolina.
Also in 1780, James Robertson, leader of the pioneers on the Watauga River, joined with others in what is now the Nashville area to establish the Cumberland Compact. The Cumberland District became North Carolina’s Davidson County three years later.
Republic of Franklin
After North Carolina reneged on giving its western territories to the federal government in 1784, the people of those counties, eight in East Tennessee (Sullivan, Spencer, Wayne, Washington, Greene, Caswell, Sevier, and Blount) and three in Middle Tennessee (Davidson, Sumner, and Tennessee) seceded from North Carolina. When the Continental Congress failed to accept them as the 14th State of Frankland, the future Tennesseans became the Free Republic of Franklin.
The independent republic’s territory included the modern East Tennessee counties of Sullivan, Hawkins, Johnson, Carter, Unicoi, Washington, Greene, Cocke, Jefferson, Hamblen, Sevier, and Blount; the modern Middle Tennessee counties of Davidson, Sumner, Montgomery, Robertson, and Humphries; and the western North Carolina counties of Allegheny, Ashe, and Watauga Counties, which were then part of Washington County. Its first capital was Jonesboro, but was later moved to Greeneville.
The Spanish Conspiracy
In 1786, the leaders of the Republic of Franklin, along with the with the governments of the Kentucky District (Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln Counties) of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the newly-appointed Superintendent for Southern Indian Affairs, began scheming with Esteban Rodriguez Miro, governor of Spanish Louisiana, to bring their territories into the Spanish Empire. James Robertson, Daniel Smith, and Anthony Bledsoe from the Cumberland region and Joseph Martin and John Sevier of the eastern counties, along with James Wilkinson, governor of Kentucky, and James White, the Indian superintendent, were the main conspirators.
I should point out that at this time Spain’s province La Florida claimed all the territory to the Ohio River anyway and had for some time. In fact, Spain had established short-lived forts inside what are now North Carolina and Tennessee as early as 1567.
The conspirators’ chief vector of communication with Governor Miro was Don Diego de Gardoqui in New Orleans, capital of Louisiana west of the Mississippi, which had been in Spanish hands since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. The plans of all the parties involved fell apart due to two main factors: first, the dithering of the Spanish government in Madrid, and, second, a letter from Joseph Martin to Governor Miro which made its way into the hands of the Georgia legislature.
In May 1794, the Georgia Revolutionary hero Elijah Clarke and several hundred followers crossed to the west side of the Oconee River, then the boundary between the State of Georgia and, primarily, the Muscogee. Dispersing across a wide area covering four modern counties (Greene, Morgan, Putnam, Baldwin), they established the Trans-Oconee Republic. They built six fortified settlements and blockhouses across the region. Georgia finally intervened, sending in the militia, but the republic’s citizens offered no resistance. The effort ended 28 September.
State of Muskogee
Former Loyalist soldier in the Revolution William Augustus Bowles founded the State of Muskogee within the borders of Spanish East Florida in October 1799, with his capital at Miccousukee. Its population was made up of Seminoles, Black Seminoles, Lower Creeks, pirates, Spanish deserters, and English adventurers. The pirates staffed Muskogee’s three-ship navy. When Bowles lost his British backers, the scheme began to unravel, and with Spain and the U.S.A. both gunning for him, his days of freedom were not long. He was taken prisoner at Tuckabatchee and handed over to the Spanish governor at Pensacola in 1803.
Sabine Free State
The Sabine Free State didn’t have to secede from anyone because it was abandoned by both the United States and the Empire of Spain in 1806 because the two disagreed over the boundary of the Louisiana Territory purchased by the U.S.A. from Napoleonic France in 1803. The disputed territory lay between the Mississippi River in the east and the Sabine River in the west and was populated mostly by a tri-racial ethnic group called the Redbones, similar to Tennessee’s own Melungeons. The dispute was resolved in 1821 in favor of the U.S. claims, and the Sabine is the border between the states of Louisiana and Texas.
Republic of West Florida
The Republic of West Florida seceded from the Empire of Spain in 1810. Spain had acquired its province of West Florida in the treaty which ended the first American war of secession, our Revolution. Great Britain had gained La Florida at the end of the French and Indian War in exchange for abandoning claims to France’s Louisiana west of the Mississippi, which became Spanish Louisiana. The British divided La Florida into East and West, the latter including the southern tips of Alabama and Mississippi and the northern section of the eastern portion of the modern state of Louisiana. The republic’s independence lasted three months until the U.S. arrived and assumed control.
New Ireland (again)
During the War of 1812, a former extinct colony resurrected. As part of its war effort, Britain against seized a good part of what is now Maine from Massachusetts in 1814. This time it lasted just eight months.
State of Maine
The citizens of the northern part of the state of Massachusetts did not like being batted back and forth like a tennis ball. They therefore seceded from Massachusetts and petitioned Congress to become their own state in 1819. The petition was approved by Congress in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise.
Republic of Texas
The Republic of Texas seceded from United Mexican States in 1836 and won its independence the same year with former U.S. Representative for Tennessee, former Tennessee Governor, and adopted son of John Jolly, then Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation West, as its first President.
What is not as well known by much of the American public is that far more of those fighting for independence and supporting it were Spanish-speaking Tejanos rather than English-speaking Texicans from America. Houston had been adopted by Jolly while living at Cayuga on what used to be known as Jolly’s Island—Hiwassee Island.
Republic of California
Another short-lived republic declared its independence from the United Mexican States during the first year of the U.S.-Mexican War which lasted from 1846 to 1848. Like its predecessor, the Republic of California lasted just three months before the army arrived and took over.
The Great Secession(s)
Of course, the biggest and most damaging secession in U.S. history occurred in from late 1860 thru the first half of 1861. Though side issues of high tariffs, usurious loan rates by Northern banks, and growing influence of northern manufacturers often to the detriment of nascent Southern manufacturing, the overwhelmingly dominant issue was slavery and related matters.
Beginning in December 1814, Federalists in New England met in the Hartford Convention to discuss their grievances of the War of 1812, the dominance of the Republicans and the so-called “Virginia dynasty”, the Three-fifths Clause (in which slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for census purposes and therefore representation in Congress), and other issues. The more militant delegates wanted to secede from the Union and join Canada, but those desires never gained much ground. In the end, Andrew Jackson’s spectacular victory in the Battle of New Orleans ended those plans and the outcome of the war greatly discredited the Federalists.
South Carolina secession threats
That troublesome state South Carolina threatened secession in 1828 over tariffs, one of the many issues cited by some states (such as Tennessee) in their articles of secession in 1861.
South Carolina again threatened to secede over the admission of California under the Compromise of 1850 cobbled together by Whig Representative Henry Clay of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois.
In this, they were not alone. The most militant pro-slavery advocates called “Fire-Eaters”, representing nine Southern states, held a convention in Nashville, Tennessee, calling for secession of all slave states and a separate union of their own. The next year legislators in several slave states introduced articles of secession in their assemblies, but Southern Unionists defeated the measures.
The Fire-Eaters came back to the forefront after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in 1854, overturned nearly all provisions of the Compromise of 1850. The violence of “Bleeding Kansas”, as the Kansas-Missouri border war was called and such incidents as the speech of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 strongly attacking slavery. Senator Sumner was one of the very first Senators from the new Republican Party, founded in 1854.
For those who think the recently-departed and lamented-by-none 112th Congress was bitterly divisive, here’s a dose of reality. Two days after Sumner’s speech, in which he had called Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina a “pimp for slavery”, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nephew of Senator Butler, attacked him on the floor of the Senate chamber and beat him nearly to death. It was three years before Sumner was physically rehabilitated enough to return to the Senate.
Secession of the North from the South?
The abolitionists had their own extremists, with William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, calling for the immediate abolition of slavery and ultimately for the free states to separate themselves from the “Slave Power” of the South.
But the most extreme of abolitionists was John Brown of Kansas, one of the leaders of anti-slave forces in that state’s border war with slave state Missouri, who seized the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in an attempt to start a slave rebellion in that state to incite a general slave revolution. Three years of planning and fund-raising preceded the affair.
Presidential election of 1860
On 6 November 1860, former Congressman Abraham Lincoln of the anti-slavery, pro-abolition Republican Party was elected President of the United States, setting in motion the chain of events which led to the Great Secession and the American Civil War/War Between the States/War of the Rebellion/War of the Secession.
Independent State of Dade, the truth
According to a local myth, the Independent State of Dade seceded from Georgia even before the campaign had started, which, believe it or not, did not begin until July of 1860. The newspaper Atlanta Constitution, then pro-segregationist, reported upon Dade County’s reentry to the State and the Union on 4 July 1945 that Dade was extremely pro-slavery that it had seceded from both bodies it was then reentering in May 1860.
In truth, Dade had long been known even before that as the State of Dade because of its isolation, there being no road giving the county access to its state. And while Southern states were already discussing secession after the John Brown affair and the propaganda of the Fire-Eaters, if Dade really seceded at that time, it did so to stay in the Union rather than leave it as much of the state wished. North Georgia, particularly the northwest counties of Dade and Walker, were hotbeds of Unionist sentiment and wartime pro-Union partisan activity.
South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama secede
In reality, the first entity voting to secede from the Union was the State of South Carolina, which to do so on 20 December 1860.
On 9 January 1861, the legislature of the State of Mississippi, which ten years before had voted that states did not have the right of secession from the Union, also voted to secede.
The State of Florida followed on the next day, 10 January 1861.
The day after that, 11 January 1861, the State of Alabama approved secession, and this brought about the first major dissension from this course of action. Unionist sentiment was nearly universal in North Alabama, but it had been outvoted by Lower Alabama (the “other” L.A.), whose delegates got to vote for three-fifths of their slaves to continue to keep them in slavery.
State of Nickajack
Alabama’s secession brought the first serious discussion of secession by a region of a Southern state from that state to preserve a relationship with the Union (barring discovery of evidence of such a motive by the State of Dade). Political leaders in North Alabama held discussion between themselves and counterparts in East Tennessee to establish a neutral State of Nickajack taking in those Unionist regions of their respective states along with the Unionist counties of Dade and Walker in Northwest Georgia.
Speaking of the State of Georgia, it voted to secede on 19 January 1861.
Some three days later, 22 January 1861, Senator Jefferson Davis in his way home to Mississippi stayed at the Crutchfield House in Chattanooga across James Street (MLK Blvd.) from Union Station. He gave a vehemently pro-secession speech in the main dining room of the hotel and was attacked by William Crutchfield, brother of the owner, trying to do to Davis what Preston Brooks did to Charles Sumner. Tom Crutchfield, who was pro-secession, broke up the fight and averted the duel that was supposed that place later.
The State of Louisiana voted to secede from the Union on 26 January 1861.
On 8 February 1861, the six former U.S. states that had seceded from the Union so far—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana—voted to join together as the Confederate States of America.
On 9 February 1861, a vote about whether to call a convention to decide if Tennessee should secede failed 69 thousand to 58 thousand. A clear majority of Tennesseans didn’t want to even discuss leaving the Union. The vote was the most lopsided in East Tennessee, with only two counties, Sullivan and Meigs, having a majority in favor. With Tennessee still securely in the Union at that time, the plans of North Alabama for the joint State of Nickajack collapsed.
The State of Texas voted to secede from the Union to join the new Confederacy on 23 February 1861.
Free State of Franklin
On 24 February 1861, the very secessionist Franklin County (seat Winchester) at the eastern edge of Middle Tennessee voted to secede from the State of Tennessee and become the pro-secessionist Free State of Franklin, sending its request to Nashville the same day.
Free State of Van Zandt
Shortly after receiving word of the Texas secession vote, some 350 citizens of Van Zandt County, Texas, which was virtually free of slaves, held a convention in Canton, the county seat, and declared themselves to have seceded from the State.
Republican from the State of Illinois Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States on 4 March 1861, replacing one of my collateral ancestors, James Buchanan.
War of the Secession begins
War of the Secession begins
Confederate General G.T. Beauregard, a French Creole from Louisiana, initiated the Battle of Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor on 12 April 1861, and accepted the surrender of its garrison under Union Maj. Robert Anderson two days later. The Civil War had begun.
On 6 May 1861, the State of Arkansas voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy.
The Tennessee General Assembly approved articles of secession on 6 May 1861 and sent them down to voters. The legislature and Governor Isham Harris, who was very pro-secession, also voted and approved a military league with the Confederacy.
North Carolina and Virginia secede
The State of North Carolina voted to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy on 20 May 1861.
The Commonwealth of Virginia followed suit on 23 May 1861.
East Tennessee had long been fertile ground for anti-slavery sentiment, with a sizable majority there favoring emancipation (voluntary manumission of slaves by their owners) rather than the more radical abolition of slavery by force of law. However, the region did have a sizable and very influential minority favoring the latter.
On 30 May 1861, twenty-nine counties from East Tennessee (all thirty minus Rhea) plus the Middle Tennessee county of Macon began to hold a convention in Knoxville to discuss counter-measures. Its second and final day featured then Senator and later President Andrew Johnson, with delegates agreeing to meet again.
Tennessee held its referendum on 8 June 1861, with voters reversing themselves to give Gov. Harris and his fellow secessionists a very clear majority. Six counties in East Tennessee (Sullivan, Monroe, Polk, Meigs, Rhea, and Sequatchie) voted in favor. Hamilton County and the county seat of Harrison voted against it, while the small town of Chattanooga, a major railroad center and burgeoning manufacturing municipality, voted affirmative. Franklin County’s appeal to be allowed to secede became a moot point.
Attempted East Tennessee secession
The East Tennessee Convention reconvened on 17 June 1861 at Greeneville, former capital of the 18th century secessionist (from North Carolina) Republic of Franklin. Senator Johnson did not attend due to very credible threats to his life. Instead, the most radical and vociferous delegate at the meeting was Hamilton County’s own William Clift, who proposed the counties in East Tennessee unilaterally secede from the State of Tennessee, form their own state government, and fight the Confederacy.
In the end, the delegates of the East Tennessee Convention voted to separate from Tennessee only with the agreement of the state government and sent the request to Nashville on 20 June 1861. Their request was summarily rebuffed on 29 June.
U.S. State of West Virginia
The would-be state of Westsylvania, minus the portion in southwest Pennsylvania, finally became a reality when the State of West Virginia voted to secede from the Commonwealth of Virginia of the C.S.A and join the Union on 17 June 1861.
Free State of Winston
On 4 July 1861, delegates from the North Alabama counties of Winston, Marion, Franklin, Lawrence, Morgan, Blount, Marshall, Walker, and Fayette met at Looney’s Tavern in Winston County to draw up condemnation of Alabama’s secession from the Union. At the end of this meeting, the delegates from Winston County, who were the heart of the effort, declared the Free State of Winston, independent of Alabama but neutral in the military conflict between the Union and the Confederacy.
Secessionist state of Tennessee stops secession of East Tennessee
Tennessee’s Gov. Harris ordered Brig. Gen. Felix Zollicoffer and his men into East Tennessee to suppress the growing resistance in the region to Tennessee’s secession from the Union on 26 July 1861. His mission was to prevent East Tennessee from seceding from the state.
By then the Provisional Army of Tennessee (which, interestingly, included at least two all Afro-American regiments organized in Memphis) had merged into the Confederate Army (minus the two Afro-American regiments, which were refused). In addition to his field command, Brig. Gen. Zollicoffer was appointed the first commanding officer of the geographical command in East Tennessee.
Meanwhile, William Clift had returned to Hamilton County and as commanding officer of the county’s militia mustered the 7th Tennessee Militia into service at a camp on his large farm in Sale Creek. After nearly three months which involved drilling and training but little else, Col. Clift signed a truce with Col. George Gillespie of the 43rd Tennessee Volunteer Infantry in the Confederate Army on 19 September 1861 at Smith’s Crossroads (now Dayton), Tennessee.
This Crossroads Treaty was basically a pact of non-aggression between two men who knew each other and travelled in the same social circles. Col. Clift owned one of the largest farms in the north of the county while Col. Gillespie owned a large plantation south of the Tennessee River west of Chattanooga Creek. Gillespie’s brother James was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who owned a large farm east of South Chickamauga Creek near Chickamauga Station but few slaves. Clift’s son Moses was a major in Forrest’s Cavalry Corps who arrested his own father carrying dispatches between the Army of the Cumberland in Chattanooga and the Army of the Ohio in Knoxville in late 1863.
On 31 October 1861, a rump legislature (one without a quorum) of the State of Missouri called by the deposed Gov. Jackson passed articles of secession from the Union.
East Tennessee Bridge Burnings
The first action of the war which affected the Chattanooga region occurred on 8 November 1861 when two railroad bridges across the South Chickamauga Creek were burned by Unionist sympathizers.
In late October, Senator Johnson had begged President Lincoln for Union troops to protect the loyal citizens of East Tennessee. Unionists in East Tennessee directed by William Carter of Knoxville were going to destroy nine major railroad bridges in East Tennessee to ease an invasion by troops in the Department of the Cumberland under the command of Brig. Gen. William T. Sherman. Alfred Cate of Bradley County was in charge of the attacks on the bridges over the South Chickamauga and the Hiwassee River.
Unfortunately for the Unionists, Brig. Gen. Sherman got cold feet and called it off 7 November, in spite of his subordinate Brig. Gen. George Thomas throwing a fit demanding the army not renege on its commitment. The bridges assigned to Cate were the only ones destroyed, the other parties being deterred by heavy guard.
The destroyed bridges were soon rebuilt. Brig. Gen. Zollicoffer, commander of the District of East Tennessee, put the region under martial law to counter the threat of saboteurs and to try the bridge-burners by court martial. Five of those involved were hung, around 150 imprisoned in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Those who escaped retribution, including Carter and Cate, fled to Union lines in Kentucky and joined the U.S. Army.
Another local consequence was the disbandment of Col. Clift’s 7th Tennessee Militia on 16 November 1861 in the face of the 6th Alabama Volunteer Infantry, which had been called to end their threat one way or another. Most of those mustered out went to Kentucky to enlist in the Union Army but Clift and others decided to stay behind in the mountains as bushwackers.
Shortly after the bridge-burnings, Sherman had a nervous breakdown which caused him to be removed from command.
On 20 November 1861, a shadow government in the Commonwealth of Kentucky (styling itself the “Convention of the People of Kentucky”) voted to secede from the Union.
Free and Independent State of Scott
In late 1861, the court of Scott County in East Tennessee on the border with the Commonwealth of Kentucky voted to secede from the state as the Free and Independent State of Scott.
By May 1862, Col. Clift had come down from the mountains and begun reorganizing his militia as the 7th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, U.S.A. in Scott, Morgan, and Anderson Counties. The regiment was broken up in early 1863 and Clift was assigned to the staff of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside of the Army of the Ohio. As mentioned above, he was later arrested by his own son, Maj. Moses Clift of Forrest’s Cavalry Corps during the Siege of Chattanooga.
On 8 April 1862, President of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis declared East Tennessee enemy territory and put the region under martial law.
Free State of Jones
The Free State of Jones, formerly Jones County, seceded from the State of Mississippi in February 1864 after the Battle of Meridian (14-20 February), at least according to Maj. Gen. Sherman, who now commanded the Army of the Tennessee.
The secessionist town of Chattanooga became the headquarters for the Department of the Cumberland in September 1863 and remained so until August 1866. Not long after the war ended, the town’s business leaders placed an advertisement in the Chattanooga News asking for carpet-baggers to come join the community. The industrialists who made up much of the staff of the Dept. of the Cumberland’s Quartermaster Corps went on to transform Chattanooga into the “Dynamo of Dixie”.
Readmissions and reentries
The State of Tennessee was readmitted to the Union on 24 July 1866.
The State of Arkansas was readmitted to the Union on 22 June 1868.
The State of Florida was readmitted to the Union on 25 June 1868.
The State of North Carolina was readmitted to the Union on 4 July 1868.
The States of Louisiana and South Carolina were readmitted to the Union on 9 July 1868.
The State of Alabama was readmitted to the Union on 13 July 1868.
The State of Virginia was readmitted to the Union on 26 January 1870.
The State of Mississippi was readmitted to the Union on 23 February 1870.
The State of Texas was readmitted to the Union on 30 March 1870.
The State of Georgia was readmitted to the Union on 15 July 1870.
The Free State of Dade officially reentered the State of Georgia on 4 July 1945.
The Free and Independent State of Scott officially reentered the State of Tennessee in 1986.