Are there any ideals more American than those of freedom and self-governance? They are so sacred that we have fought armed revolutions to uphold them…sometimes against ourselves.
This is the Forgotten History of the Daylong Civil War.
The people of Van Zandt County were horrified. Word had just reached the tiny east Texas community that the state had seceded from the union and was planning to join the Confederacy. Much of Van Zandt—as many as 350 people—met to protest the move and decided that something had to be done to keep the community in the United States.
Van Zandt had no reason to leave. Slavery was so uncommon there that, according to one local legend, a man from out of state came through town looking for place to keep his slaves for a short time. When he was asked later if van Zandt was a good place for it, he replied, “Hell no, I had as soon think of taking them to a free state.”
The county saw this as a badge of honor and began calling itself the “Free State of Van Zandt.” The nickname proved to be appropriate. As the townspeople protested Texas’ secession, they got an idea: If a state could just up and decide to leave America, then a county could certainly up and leave its state.
They decided to secede from Texas. Once they began forming their own government, though, the state caught wind of their plans and threatened them with military intervention if they continued. The Free State of Van Zandt backed down, but its secessionist spirit still burned.
In the summer of 1867—two years after the Civil War ended—Reconstruction was in its rocky early days and Texas fell under the military governorship of General Philip Henry Sheridan. His troops largely ignored tiny Van Zandt County, but its citizens still resented being occupied by Yankee forces.
They again decided to secede, this time from both Texas and the United States. County leaders met in the courthouse in the town of Canton, elected delegates from across the region, and drafted a Declaration of Independence.
“Van Zandt, henceforth, will be a free and independent state and will be known as the Free State of Van Zandt,” the document read.
Unsurprisingly, General Sheridan was not pleased. A battle-hardened commander who had led the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac that pursued Robert E. Lee and ultimately forced his surrender, Sheridan was not a man to be trifled with.
And he was not one to put up with rebellious Texans, once saying of the state, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” He dispatched troops to Van Zandt immediately.
Unlike the county’s last secession, however, the rebels refused to back down. They met in the Canton courthouse again and, perhaps mad with revolutionary fervor, declared war on the United States of America.
Dozens of them ran from the meeting, grabbed shotguns, rifles, pistols, whatever arms they could find, and took up defensive positions at the outskirts of town to wait for Sheridan’s troops to arrive.
When they did, the townspeople shocked them.
Shots rang out and the Union soldiers, completely unprepared for an armed resistance, quickly retreated so that they could regroup and formulate a plan to safely put down the rebellion.
The Van Zandters, meanwhile, were ecstatic. The Yankees were in retreat! They had won! They really would remain a free state.
More than one hundred rebels celebrated at a local tavern all afternoon. They laughed and joked and told stories of their bravery during that morning’s battle.
Afternoon turned to evening and evening turned to night, and the party kept going. But the Van Zandters didn’t count on Sheridan’s troops returning so quickly after their defeat. They used the darkness to sneak back to the outskirts of town and, finding it undefended, rode into the town square.
There were the rebels, half of them passed out and the other half barely sober enough to stand up. The soldiers quickly rounded them up and chained them to one another. The following morning, they made the rebels cut down trees and build a makeshift prison to house them until General Sheridan could decide what to do with them.
One of the rebels, a former Confederate prisoner of war, had hidden a knife in his boot before he went off to fight the previous day, and he knew just what to do with it. For two days, he secretly sawed away at the chain connecting the men’s shackles.
Then a sudden and massive rainstorm gave them the opportunity they needed. The guards rushed inside to get out of the elements, and the rain loosened the wooden bars of their cell just enough for them to fit through. The prisoners made a break for it.
Some fled to Louisiana, others to Arkansas, still others to Oklahoma, but arrest warrants were issued for all. None were ever served, and none of the men ever went to trial as General Sheridan, it seemed, just wanted to put the whole embarrassing mess behind him.
Most of the rebels eventually returned home, and even though their secession failed, their legacy lives on: Their county still calls itself The Free State of Van Zandt.