The Free & Independent State of Scott
When the American Civil War began in 1861, Tennessee became the 11th and final state to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. It did so despite the objections of residents in the eastern division of the state, who first voted against secession and then sent representatives to a convention in Greeneville where a resolution was adopted that formally sought permission to leave Tennessee and form a separate state.
When that resolution failed, one county on the northern Cumberland Plateau — Scott County — was unwilling to take no for an answer. This is a story of remarkable independence — the story of the Free & Independent State of Scott.
When Abraham Lincoln — nominee of the brand-new, anti-slavery Republican Party — was elected President of the United States in 1860, the writing was on the wall. War was inevitable. By late December, South Carolina had seceded from the Union. Three weeks later, Mississippi followed suit, and then Florida one day later. The dominoes began to quickly fall after that.
Tennessee was reluctant to join the Confederacy, despite the lobbying of its governor, Isham Harris. Harris urged secession even before Lincoln was elected, warning that the “reckless fanatics of the north” would require Tennessee to consider leaving the Union if Lincoln were elected.
Harris called a referendum vote in February 1861. Residents in the eastern part of Tennessee were strongly opposed to secession. Residents in the western part of the state were strongly in favor of it. Middle Tennessee residents were largely indifferent. The vote failed by a count of 69,452 to 57,745. In Scott County, 93% of voters cast their ballots against secession: 385-29.
It wasn’t that Scott County was Lincoln country; only a single voter here — a man named Shadrack “Shade” Lewallen — wrote in the Republican candidate (who was not on the ballot). Instead, Scott County had voted with the rest of the state in favor of Constitution Party candidate John Bell, who narrowly defeated Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge to earn Tennessee’s 12 electoral votes.
But there were few slaves owned in Scott County. In fact, the 1860 slave census shows that there were only 61 slaves owned here — the fewest of any county in the state. Scott County was one of just two counties with fewer than 100 slaves. By contrast, there were twice as many slaves owned in bordering Morgan County to the south, and three times as many in bordering Fentress County to the west. It’s safe to say that slavery was not an important issue to Scott Countians, who preferred the Union to remain intact.
Gov. Harris, meanwhile, was undeterred by the failed secession vote. He rallied another referendum in June 1861. By that time, the Battle at Fort Sumter had marked the start of war. President Lincoln had called for volunteers to squash the rebellion, and sentiment in Tennessee was shifting.
When the second referendum was tallied on June 8, 1861, East Tennessee remained strongly opposed to secession and West Tennessee strongly in favor of it, but Middle Tennessee shifted to the “for” category, and the vote passed: 108,274 to 47,247.
This time, 97% of Scott Countians voted against secession. The tally was 521 to 19. It was the largest margin of any county in Tennessee. Several days prior to the vote, U.S. Sen. Andrew Johnson stumped against secession, delivering a fiery speech on the steps of the Scott County Courthouse in Huntsville.
If Tennessee can secede, so can Scott County
East Tennesseans were furious over the state’s vote to secede. Political leaders from the region first claimed that the vote was fraudulent, then gathered in Greeneville for a convention. There, they petitioned Gov. Harris to allow the eastern portion of the state to secede and form a state of its own.
Harris refused, and in response sent troops into East Tennessee — under the command of Felix K. Zollicoffer — to suppress any attempts of rebellion.
Perhaps Scott Countians weren’t aware of Gov. Harris’s show of force. Perhaps they just didn’t care. But when news reached home that the state had seceded from the Union, Scott Countians were angry. Just days after the Greeneville convention ended, Scott Court Court met in a special session in Huntsville, passing a proclamation declaring its independence from Tennessee.
Historian Esther Sharp Sanderson told of an old farmer who stood up at that court meeting and shouted, “If the (expletive) State of Tennessee can secede from the Union, then Scott County can secede from the State of Tennessee.”
And so it did.
County leaders admitted that they did not have legal standing to secede from Tennessee, but they also claimed that Tennessee did not have legal standing to secede from the United States. Turnabout was fair play, they decided. And so they declared themselves the Free & Independent State of Scott.
Nashville never formally recognized Scott County’s decision to remove itself from Tennessee, but the act of defiance certainly got the attention of the governor. In response to the county court’s vote, Gov. Harris sent a contingent of 1,700 soldiers to Scott County to arrest and hang all members of the county court. They retreated, however, after meeting resistance in the Brimstone area, and none of the members of the court were ever captured.
Scott County paid a price for its independence. It remained a sort of “no man’s land” throughout the war, subject to guerrilla warfare and lawlessness. Farms were raided by Confederate forces and Union forces alike. There were no major battles fought here, but there were several minor skirmishes. One of them was the Battle of Huntsville, on Aug. 13, 1862. Confederate soldiers seized control of the county seat, forcing Union forces to retreat, and spent two hours looting the town and searching for the members of county court who had led the efforts to secede.
Back to Tennessee
It wasn’t until 1986 that Scott County formally voted to rejoin the Volunteer State. That summer, as part of Tennessee’s Homecoming celebration, Scott County Commission adopted a resolution that read, “After 125 years of independence, in this the year of Tennessee homecoming, the Scott Commissioners and people of Scott County have declared the Free and Independent State of Scott to be dissolved.” Gov. Lamar Alexander signed the resolution, officially readmitting Scott County to Tennessee. The happening caught the attention of the New York Times.
Today, a plaque near the entrance to the Huntsville Mall reads, “United States Senator Andrew Johnson delivered a speech at the Courthouse at Huntsville on June 4, 1861, against separation. At the election four days later Scott County voted against separation by the largest percentage margin of any county in Tennessee. Later that year in defiance of the state’s act of secession, the county court by resolution seceded from the state and formed the Free and Independent State of Scott.”