The people of Winston County, Alabama regretted that a majority of the delegates at the convention in Montgomery before the Civil War passed the resolution of secession, for they believed it meant war, death, and destruction.
They did not believe that it was for the best interests of the Democratic party, or the country as a whole.
Statue in front of Winston County, Courthouse
“Winston County is located in the hilly terrain of North Alabama. Its shallow soil is highly unsuitable for plantation-style agriculture, and thus the county was never home to very many slaves. The 1860 US Census shows there only 3,450 white residents in the underpopulated county, and just 122 slaves. Winston’s residents were mainly poor farmers who viewed the Confederacy with suspicion, fearing it was meant to maintain the political control of the wealthy planter class.”
Winston County’s representative at the January 1861 Alabama Secession Convention was Charles Christopher Sheets, a 21-year-old school teacher. He refused to sign Alabama’s ordinance of secession, even after it had been passed by a vote of 61 to 39. Sheats became so vocal in his opposition that he was finally arrested. On his release, he became a leader of a pro-neutrality group. Later, he would become an open supporter of the Union and spend most of the war in prison.
Charles Christopher Sheets
The Southern Confederacy, November 22, 1862
A Public House Without Sheets–The Alabama House of Representatives yesterday decided by a nearly unanimous vote, that Christopher Columbus Sheets, of Winston County, is no longer worthy to occupy a seat in the Legislature as a representative of any portion of the people of Alabama. The evidences of his complicity with the enemy were complete, and it was therefore due to the dignity of the House that he should be expelled. — Montgomery Advertiser
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.”
Many Winston County residents refused induction into the Confederate Army, and some spoke openly of organizing troops to support the Union. The worried state authorities moved to enforce obedience through conscription and loyalty oaths, which only made matters worse. A meeting was held at Looney’s Tavern, where a series of resolutions were passed. These stated that the people of Winston County had no desire to take part in the war and intended to support neither side. One resolution declared that if a state could secede from the Union, then a county could secede from the state. Richard Payne, a pro-Confederate, laughed with delight. “Winston County secedes!” he shouted. “Hoorah for the Free State of Winston!” From Payne’s remark was born the legend of the “Republic of Winston”
Payne is credited with coining the phrase “the Free State of Winston” during the Civil War.
In April 1862, the Union Army invaded north Alabama. Many of the pro-Union Winstonians enlisted in Union Army’s new 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment. While the Union 1st Alabama Cavalry would play a heroic part in the war, they did so generally outside of Alabama.
From the California Newspaper, The Daily Evening Bulletin, 3/17/1864
Loyal Alabamians — The First Alabama Calvary Regiment.
Correspondence of the N.Y. “Post”
Pulaski, Tenn. Feb. 1, 1864
Submitted by Marie Young
But few persons are aware of the existence of a loyal white regiment of Alabamians; yet it deserves honorable mention in this age of strife, as much for the circumstances under which it was organized, as for the signal service it has since rendered to the Government. This little body of men, around which thousands,many yet to gather, owes its organization chiefly to Col.George E. Spencer, its commander, and Charles B. Cagle of Winston county, Alabama. Uncouth and illiterate as was the latter, he possessed the qualities of bravery, fine feeling and native intelligence, which rendered him superior to his class in every respect. It is said he was never outside of Winston County until the war broke out of the State in the whole course of his life; but even while surrounded by ignorant people and pernicious influences, he was staunch and firm in our cause and never yielded in his determination to maintain it.
What the men of this regiment of Alabama have suffered none but those who have instead of the same bitter cup can conceive. Reared among slave holders, it was no easy matter for them to withdraw from their interests and openly support a cause in every way antagonistic. To avoid being swept away by the furious tide of Secession became an almost (Hercalean ? unreadable) task. Some were conscripted, in spite of every effort to avoid it, and afterwards arrested, coming into the Federal lines at the risk of life -sacrificing home, property, friends, everything in the act. Is it to be wondered at if these men, smarting under the sense of manifold wrongs, have proved themselves mighty in the use of the avenging sword – if their arms are steeled by intenser purposes, their nerves strung to more than ordinary endurance? And not for themselves only does the hot blood boil and surge through their veins. The nuity of the old States has been ruthlessly broken; the old flag which they were taught to love and honor, insulted. Summing up the whole, they have a fearful account to settle with the hot- headed authors of a nation’s distress.
The regiment was raised in Corinth, Miss.; its organization was completed in September last. The first company was raised in January, 1862 by Captain Burdick, and was composed entirely of the refugees then in the Federal lines and around Corinth. Immediately after the completion of the first company a second was started increasing thus until the entire twelve were filled. The regiment now numbers more than 1200 men, having for duty, at present, about 900 out of the 1200.
The (un-readable) recruiting was singular and ventursome. Men, acquainted with the country, were sent from the camps to the Union counties in Alabama, traveling at night and through the woods to avoid observation: in that way penetrating a distance of from 150 to 200 miles. They would then hide themselves in the caves and mountains, and by statagen manage to (un-readable) with the Union men. After having got together 40 or 50 men willing to run the risk of attempting to gain the Federal hues, they would start cautiously, travel by night and through the woods, siremanously avoiding the public roads till out of reach of danger. Under every trial this mode succeeded admirably, Corinth being reached safely in each instance. This was carried on so successfully for some time that Governor Shorter, of Alabama, offered $10,000 reward for the body of any Federal recruiting officer taken in the State. The numerous caves in Winston county, in the vicinity of Charles Cagle’s residence, made his house a favorite rendezvous for our recruiting parties. He received all who came to him cordially, fed and aided them in his power. For two years previous to his murder this poor fellow had been obliged to sleep in some of these caves for safety.
But to continue: as a specimen of the success of recruiting at that time, I will mention one instance worthy of notice. In September, Col Spencer selected Lieut.Wamel as the most suitable person for this purpose, directing him to raise a company in Walker county, Alabama. He traveled with a detail of packed men, a distance of some 200 odd miles. They walked the entire distance, got together 110 men, returning to camp in 15 days from the time of starting, bringing with them 12 prisoners and a valuable rebel mail. The (unreadable) of Wamel’s expedition gave him the caplaincy of the newly recruited company, and his brother officers unite in declaring that a braver or better man in not in the service.
Since the organization of the regiment it has been in constant and active service. It has captured over 900 prisoners. It has lost in one action, killed and wounded upwards of 100 men- 4 non-commissioned officers and 13 men killed, and 39 wounded. Col. Spencer had taken with him in the expedition 10 companies, numbering 520 men. They were attacked by Gen. Ferguson with 5 regiments and 6 pieces of artillery. Ferguson’s force was not less than 2,300 in number. This was the 26th of October. The fight lasted from 2 o’clock, P.M. until 8, when Col. Spencer withdrew his force under cover of night, leaving his surgeon to take care of the wounded. The surgeon reported the loss of the rebels about 150. Doubtless the escape of the regiment was a severe blow to the confederates, with their superior force; they had calculated upon an easy capture, and lost all.
Col. Spencer has been out on expeditions at various times, penetrating as far as Black Warrior, in the heart of the State, burning and destroying leather factories,mills, and tanneries, returning safely to Corinth. The Colonel has asked leave to raise a brigade, believing that he can raise three or four regiments in a short time.
Winston County itself was suffering from its own internal war. Confederate Home Guards in the county were poorly disciplined and often used their uniforms as excuses to settle old grudges. The Union men responded by forming their own irregular bands, and by the end of the war Winston County had been largely devastated by its own people.
After the war, Winston County became a bastion of the Republican Party in Alabama, in sharp contrast to the overwhelming support for the Democrats in the rest of the state. Winston’s unique history has become the basis of a small tourist industry, which included an outdoor drama loosely based on the events. The theatre and surrounding park, which included a smaller theatre, a gift shop and a restaurant, were closed for financial reasons and is no longer open.
A passenger boat named the “Free State Lady” plies the waters of nearby Smith lake. “Dual Destiny”, a memorial statue of a young soldier dressed half as a Union troop and half as Confederate, is frequently photographed.
- A Brief History of Winston County, Alabama By: Judge John Bennett Weaver