As I was driving through Double Springs, Alabama I saw in front of the courthouse what looked like the ubiquitous small-town war memorial which I have found pretty much everywhere I’ve visited on this journey in both the North and the South. But this one was different because unfurled behind it were both Union and Confederate flags, so I hit the brakes and went in for a closer look. What I discovered was a Civil War memorial to The Free State of Winston. The plaque on the memorial read as follows:
The Civil War was not fought between the North and South but rather between the Union and Confederate armies. Perhaps as many as 300,000 Southerners served in the Union Army. The majority of the Appalachian South, from West Virginia to Winston County, was pro-Union. Winston provided 239 Union and 112 Confederate soldiers, 21 of whom shared last names.
This Civil War soldier, one half Union and one half Confederate symbolizes the war within a war and honors the Winstonians in both armies. Their shiny new swords of 1861 were, by 1865, as broken as the spirits of the men who bore them, and their uniforms of blue and gray, once fresh and clean, were now as worn and patched as the bodies and souls they contained. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, disillusioned by the realities of war, shared dual destinies as pragmatic Americans in a reunited nation.
I thought this was really interesting and I wanted to learn more about the so-called “Free State of Winston”. It turned out that like many of the mountainous regions of the South, where plantations were impractical and few people owned slaves, people in the area remained fiercely pro-Union at the outbreak of the war. The county sent 22 year-old schoolteacher Christopher Sheats to the secession convention, where he refused to sign the secession ordinance and was jailed for treason. The county wanted to secede from Alabama on the same grounds that Alabama saw it fit to secede from the Union. In the end they tried to remain neutral, an impossibility in the Civil War which would rage around and through Winston County. Local men and boys chose sides and fought for their chosen army, although a majority of Winstonians fought for the Union. I had heard this same story in North Georgia where many of their men fought in the Union Army, often unbeknownst to their decedents who claim Confederate heritage where none actually exists. When I was in Baton Rouge, one of my friends, Tommy Hailey, sang a song about one of his Louisiana relatives who had fought in Union blue. And, of course, the entire state of West Virginia came into existence during the war itself, as before the war it was just the mountainous region of Virginia. The geography of West Virginia made it easier to align with the Union than would that of Winston County, Alabama though.
The war years were particularly difficult in places like Winston, where neighbors fought neighbors and brothers fought brothers. It is important to remember this side of history though because the monument states a very basic and often overlooked truth: the Civil War was not fought between the North and South, but rather between the Union and Confederate armies.