The Free State of Winston, or as it would later be called — The Republic of Winston, represented one of the most fascinating chapters in Alabama history; it’s also a chapter that isn’t as well-known or as well-publicized as the narrative-dominating, historical ignorance surrounding the Lost Cause. It is a complicated story, and one we can barely scratch the surface of, so let’s give this a very glib overview:
TL; DR version: Geography as destiny. Winston County, alongside present-day Blount and Cullman Counties, had practically no slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War — there were barely even black people in the region, it being 97% white. Nestled among the hardscrabble hardwoods, in sandy soil so thin you couldn’t grow a fart, there were just 122 slaves in all of Winston County in 1860 — owned by just over a dozen families. The area has not changed very much either, most of people that lived here in 1860 were much as they still are today: white, poor, and reliant upon subsistence agriculture and forestry.
Accordingly, the area was not dominated by the rich planter class that ruled Alabama politics. When the State’s vested agricultural interests hopped on board that sweet gravy train of sedition to preserve chattel slavery that had made them so wealthy, Winston County decided to test the South’s very argument against itself: Why can’t we secede as well?
Led by Winston County’s delegate to the secession convention, Christopher Columbus Sheets, the people in the region viewed the entire secession movement as a decidedly cotton belt phenomenon; one hell-bent on keeping the entrenched in power and the vast majority of poor, non-slave owning whites as Alabama’s permanent underclass.
His was by no means a lone voice either: the final vote for secession was 61-39, largely along geographic lines: if your area had cotton, and therefore wealthy planters and political sway, your county was for it. If you were poor and rural and did not, your county was against it.
Many people of Winston County, Alabama were against secession and they were not alone in the attitude they took, for on page 524 of Volume 1, of Moore’s History of Alabama, he says: “Many people in North Alabama were not pleased with the work of the convention or with the Southern Confederacy…Secession was distinctly a South Alabama achievement…” Footnote, page 525: “That feeling ran high was evidenced by the fact that Yancey was burned in effigy in Lawrence County.”
Sheets would argue so violently at the convention against leaving the union, that he was eventually kicked out of the assembly and arrested. But, that would not be the end. When he returned to North Alabama, Sheets rallied popular sentiment against Secessionist southern Alabama and towards the county’s own secession movement: first as a pro-neutral region, and later as a pro-Union one. Winston County led the way as the Free State of Winston (which included what is now Cullman and Blount Counties.) The region would also be known as the Free Republic of Winston.
To the shock of no one, and without a trace of irony or self-awareness, the State of Alabama did not recognize the claim of the Republic to secede from the state.
The Republic was not all talk and hollow gestures either. The pro-Union First Regiment Alabama Cavalry would be formed from the region — nearly 2600 men in total. And they served with distinction on the Union side against their fellow southerners, mainly as scouts, sappers, saboteurs, and recon patrols (though they fought no engagements in Alabama.) The State of Alabama would surveil and imprison Sheets off and on throughout the Civil War — again, with no irony — for treason.
William Lowndes Yancey, one of the strongest voices of the pro-secessionist Wiregrass planters, said of Sheets and his compatriots:
The misguided, deluded, wicked men in our midst, if any such there be, who shall oppose it [secession], will be in alignment with the abolition power of the Federal government, and as our safety demands, must be looked upon and dealt with as public enemies.
Eventually and inevitably, the South lost the war and its economic system that had brought so few so much wealth...and also laid waste to entire region for a century. But, Sheets and his Free Republicans were not done yet. There was a nation to patch back together.
Sheets’ strident stance made him as many powerful friends in the Federal government as it did enemies at home, and he became a key figure in Alabama’s readmission to the Union almost as soon as the guns grew cold:
After the war, Sheets promptly became a Republican and was elected to the convention of 1865 to restore Alabama to the Union. He was one of the few men in both conventions. He was a candidate for Congress in 1865 but was defeated. He was on the Grant electoral ticket in 1868 and was rewarded in 1869 by an appointment as counsel to Denmark, where he stayed three years. In 1872, in the dark days, Mr. Sheets was elected to Congress from the state at large and served a term. In 1874 he was again a candidate, but the white people won the election. After that he was “taken care of” in one office or another until Cleveland’s election when he dropped out of public sight very largely, but was made a United States commissioner.
For such a complicated war, with chattel slavery and geography being the linchpins of industry — a pragmatic economic conflict as much as an ideological one — the dynamics were not at all confined to the North vs. the South. Even within seceding states, we saw those same dynamics played out in microcosm: In this case, North versus South...Alabama. And it played out just as viciously and with as much willingness to shed blood.
It is a fascinating bit of history that deserves to be remembered.
95 Days until Football Season.
*Make sure to check out the linked sources above. The Unionist Southerner site is especially well-sourced and meticulous.