Growing up in New York, I was taught to demonize the South and its role in the Civil War. They were the side of slavery, after all, and my demonizing only exacerbated after I attended Emory University in Atlanta and had many friends who had teachers and textbooks call it the “War of Northern Aggression.” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen the history of the North’s racism as not the same, but as pernicious as that of the South. My students have learned about how institutional policies like redlining and school segregation hurt Black people in the North after the Great Migration.
What I never realized, until reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the second time as a teacher, is that some parts of the South were strong Unionist strongholds. According to Evan Andrews at History, Scott County, Tennesee, was one notable stronghold. Tennesee was the last state to vote in favor of the succession, but East Tennessee was much more resistant to secession than West Tennessee. Andrews notes that East Tennessee was full of small farmers and mountain people who saw the people of West Tennessee as slave-owning, rich, and elitist.
The most fervent pro-Union stronghold was Scott County, which had 95% of its citizens vote against secession — the most of any county in Tennessee. According to the Independent Herald, Scott County was very disillusioned with Tennessee’s decisions, but the decision wasn’t about slavery. The Independent Herald describes the citizens of Scott County as “hard-working people” in a “very remote corner of the world.” They wanted the Union to be intact.
To be clear, Scott County had 61 slaves, but it was one of the only two counties in Tennessee with less than 100 slaves. Scott County, however, was not alone, since secession in East Tennesee was very unpopular. Across the whole eastern part of the state, agriculture wasn’t a big part of the economy. Most people in East Tennessee couldn’t even afford slaves. Most families also engaged in subsistence farming, which is a form of farming that doesn’t produce surpluses, and only provides the goods for the family, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
Again, Scott County wasn’t very noble when it came to slavery. The voters of the state did not support Abraham Lincoln, and it voted for the nominee for the Constitutional Party, John Bell, who won all of Tennessee’s votes by a slim margin. Bell was very moderate on the issue of slavery, in contrast to Lincoln, who wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery in new U.S. territories in light of the violence in Kansas between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. Scott County was similar to Bell — neutral to the issue, in the words of the Independent Herald.
In an initial secession vote in February 1861, Tennessee voted against secession. Public opinion, however, was siding with the Confederacy in Tennessee. Governor Isham Harris was pushing secession from the Union after the Union quashed the Fort Sumter Rebellion in South Carolina. Scott County was especially opposed, but Harris did not stop pushing for succession, which was his lifelong political dream.
When Lincoln ordered 50,000 troops from Tennessee to be supplied to suppress the Fort Sumter rebellion, Harris refused to send in troops. In June, the state finally seceded, but Scott County did not stand with the rest of the state. In fact, it strengthened in its opposition.
It was not an act of resistance against slavery, nor was it a symbol of loyalty to the Union. Scott County just wanted to be left alone in the discussion of secession. It wanted its own independence and felt like Nashville was imposing its politics on the county. Scott County didn’t even have a newspaper, and news from outside the county was very slow to arrive. One pastor from Knoxville who rode through the county felt like the county was an island, since the townspeople had no idea what happened in Fort Sumter.
Andrew Johnson’s visit
On June 4, 1861, future President Andrew Johnson visited Huntsville to campaign against secession. He spoke on the courthouse of Scott County, helping win support for the cause, and in Scott County as well as surrounding East Tennessee counties, Morgan County and Fentress County, Johnson was successful. Then, a couple of days later, Scott County voted 541–19 against secession. In Johnson’s words:
“It is not the free men of the north that [secessionists] are fearing most but the free men South.”
Scott County, as well as much of East Tennessee, would go as far as to petition Governor Harris about allowing East Tennessee to secede and form its own state. However, Harris was furious and sent soldiers into East Tennessee to quell a possible uprising.
Like most news, the news Tennessee had seceded from the Union was slow to get to Scott County. Soon, Scott County declared itself a free and independent state from the state of Tennessee. One farmer said:
“If the goddamn State of Tennessee can secede from the Union, then Scott COunty can secede from the State of Tennessee.”
Harris sent 1,700 soldiers to the county to fight against its secession from the state, ordered to hang and arrest every member of the county court. But the resistance was so fierce the Tennessee soldiers didn’t capture a single person. The soldiers soon retreated, and during the Civil War, many men in the county fought as volunteers in the 7th Tennessee Infantry Regiment. In the Battle of Huntsville, Confederate soldiers spent an entire two hours looting Huntsville and looking for members of the court.
Scott County didn’t formally vote to rejoin Tennessee until 1986. Governor Lamar Alexander said that it was Scott County’s “Tennessee Homecoming” after 125 years of independence.
While Scott County didn’t necessarily fight any political causes of America in its time, nor was it particularly vocal on the issue of slavery, the county’s fight for its independence presents an unusual case. Scott County will always be remembered as the Tennessee County that seceded from the Confederacy.
Photo from David Benbennick on Public Domain