The Curious History of the “Free and Independent State of Scott”
by Blake Fontenay
January 17, 2017
"I’m afraid we’re losing history and any time we can look back at what brought us to where we are, I think events (like Homecoming ’86) need to happen."
Former Scott County Executive Dwight Murphy
The Curious History of the “Free and Independent State of Scott”
The Firemen’s Fourth Festival is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – events held in Scott County each year. Residents of the lightly-populated county atop the Cumberland Plateau gather annually in the county seat of Huntsville on the Fourth of July to enjoy music, games, rides and fireworks.
In 1986, however, the celebration included an unusual sideshow: On a raised platform amid all of the festivities, the Scott County Board of Commissioners was conducting an official meeting.
There was only one order of business on the agenda, Resolution # 16, which recommended “that ‘the Free and Independent State of Scott’ be dissolved and that petition be made to the governor and legislature of Tennessee for readmission into the state of Tennessee as Scott County, Tennessee.”
A motion to approve the resolution was made and properly seconded and the measure passed by an 11-2 vote. Thirty years later, Dwight Murphy, the Scott County executive who presided over that meeting, would describe it as the vote “to come back in as the 95th county in the state of Tennessee.”
Which may have been puzzling to many outsiders who thought Scott County already was part of Tennessee. Or to those who might have wondered why the county commissioners felt it necessary to dissolve “the Free and Independent State of Scott” – an entity for which no historical records could be found.
The events which triggered that 1986 Scott County commission meeting date back to the start of the Civil War, when the East Tennessee community decided to, in the words of some historians, “rebel against the rebellion.”
‘Make It Yourself or Do Without It’
When the first white settlers began arriving in the area, Scott County was a remote and rugged place to live. The area’s mountainous terrain made it difficult to reach and its soil was only suitable for small subsistence farms, not the sprawling plantations that proliferated across other parts of the South.
“Scott County was not prime real estate,” said Jordan Hughett, student curator at the Museum of Scott County. “Scott County was made up of leftover land from Fentress and Morgan and Campbell counties in 1849.”
Hughett said Scott County was formed, at least in part, because it was easier for residents living in the remote parts Fentress, Morgan and Campbell counties to reach Huntsville when they needed to conduct business with county government.
In her 1958 book, “County Scott and Its Mountain Folk,” Esther Sharp Sanderson wrote that when the first court hearings were held in Huntsville in 1850, it was a period of adjustment for the newly-minted Scott Countians.
“The early settlers had lived under self-government so long that they had an inborn feeling of independence and self-reliance which made conformity to the law difficult at first,” Sanderson wrote.
Independence and self-reliance were, however, traits the settlers needed to survive in their harsh living conditions, which didn’t improve much during the county’s first decade of existence.
“In the mountains of Scott County, frontier conditions lingered,” Sanderson wrote. “The frontiersmen had become accustomed to the philosophy of, ‘Make it yourself or do without it.’”
A Nation Divided, A State Divided
Following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, the United States hovered on the brink of the Civil War. Scott County remained much the same as it had since the county’s formation 11 years earlier. Census records indicated slightly more than 3,500 people lived there – and they were still, to a great extent, cut off from the outside world.
The book, “The Loyal Mountaineers of Tennessee,” written by Thomas Humes and published in 1880, made a humorous reference to the community’s isolation before the start of the war by referencing a ‘Mr. C.’ who vowed to move from Knoxville to Scott County “for if the Union should be dissolved, he will never hear of it over there.”
However, Scott Countians, along with other Tennesseans, couldn’t avoid being drawn into the debate about whether to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. There were strong feelings on both sides of that debate within the state.
In February 1861, Tennesseans voted against holding a convention to discuss the possibility of secession. That didn’t sit well with residents of Franklin County, located along Tennessee’s southern border, which wanted to secede from Tennessee and join Alabama, which had already voted to join the Confederacy.
In East Tennessee, by contrast, pro-Union sentiment was running strong for a variety of reasons. Aaron Astor, an assistant professor of history at Maryville College, said in a recent interview that East Tennessee wasn’t home to as many large plantations and therefore relied less on slaves to supply manual labor. As a result, Astor said, Lincoln didn’t represent the existential threat to East Tennesseans’ way of life the way he did to people living in other parts of the state. Astor said East Tennesseans were wary of the “cotton oligarchs” who were gaining in influence throughout the rest of the state.
“They (East Tennesseans) kind of resented the growing economic and political power of West and Middle Tennessee,” Astor said. “They distrusted a lot of the state leadership for trying to pull them out of the Union. They distrusted the planter class.”
In addition to their differences with slaveholders, East Tennesseans had a strong loyalty to the Union dating back to the time when many of their ancestors fought with the so-called “Overmountain Men” against the British in the Revolutionary War, according to Esther Sharp Sanderson’s book.
“Another important factor was that in escaping the tyrannical practices of some of the Colonial Governors, the over mountain men had turned their backs on the reigning monarchs of England and had built up a strong nationalistic sentiment,” Sanderson wrote. “East Tennesseans played important roles in helping make the United States; they were not going to be a party to its destruction – no never!”
People living in what would eventually become East Tennessee also showed their independence a few years after the Revolutionary War, when they made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to separate from North Carolina and form the State of Franklin in 1784.
So the region’s streak of challenging the political norms was established decades before the debate about joining the Confederacy occurred.
A Family That Sticks Together
Despite the pro-Union sentiments held by many of its citizens, Tennesseans decided to hold another referendum on secession after Confederate batteries in Charleston, South Carolina, fired on Fort Sumter in the spring of 1861. Andrew Johnson, then a United States senator, made a series of speeches urging Tennesseans to remain with the Union.
One of those speeches was made on the steps of the Scott County Courthouse in Huntsville just days before the state’s vote on secession in June 1861. Johnson, who back in the 1840s had advocated that East Tennessee split and form an independent state, on that occasion made a fiery and impassioned call against secession.
Stephen West, president of the Scott County Historical Society, contends that Johnson’s speech may have been the final bit of incentive local residents needed to vote in favor of remaining in the Union.
“Now the way Scott Countians feel, we’re all family,” West said. “We can argue amongst each other. We can talk about each other, but you can’t. You’re an outsider. You can’t talk about us. Now I think when he (Johnson) came here, I think this was one of the biggest reasons why we seceded. He came in and got us fired up and said these outsiders, him being a Tennessean, these outsiders are trying to tell us what to do. And, in my opinion, they said: ‘They ain’t telling me what to do.’”
(The Scott County Historical Society maintains the Scott County Archives, an institution that is also supported by the Tennessee State Library and Archives.)
When Tennesseans finally cast their ballots, the pro-Confederate side carried the state. However, many East Tennessee counties were on the losing end of the vote. In Scott County, more than 95 percent of the people who cast ballots were in favor of staying with the Union.
East Tennessee petitioned Tennessee Gov. Isham G. Harris to remain outside the Confederacy, but that request was denied. Scott Countians, however, weren’t willing to take ‘no’ for an answer.
‘A Rebellion Within a Rebellion’
In June 1861, the same month Tennessee had voted to join the Confederacy, the Scott County Court – the predecessors to the modern-day board of commissioners – voted to secede from Tennessee and form the “Free and Independent State of Scott.” Jordan Hughett, curator of the Museum of Scott County, said it was an attempt to follow through on what East Tennessee had petitioned Gov. Harris to do.
“East Tennessee almost seceded during the Civil War, just like West Virginia did,” Hughett said. “East Tennessee almost became its own state. Scott County just pulled itself up by its bootstraps and did what they said they were going to do.”
Tennessee state officials apparently told Scott County it had no right to break away and form its own state. Hughlett said Scott County officials at the time acknowledged that point, but countered that Tennessee had no more right to break away from the United States.
Although Scott County sent a letter formally announcing its secession plans to Nashville, that letter hasn’t been found. Stephen West, president of the Scott County Historical Society, has visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives in search of the document, without success.
“I think Nashville looked at us as a joke, didn’t take us at our word, threw it (the letter) away,” West said. “We’re just a bunch of poor mountain hillbillies, if you will. They just laughed us off.”
Aaron Astor, the Maryville College history professor, said even though Scott County’s secession vote wasn’t recognized as legal, it still carried powerful symbolism.
“It was a rebellion within a rebellion,” Astor said. The Free and Independent State of Scott “wasn’t a legal entity, but it was still a powerful political statement. There was a lot of violence against the county following that.”
In his 2001 book, “Scott County in the Civil War,” Paul Roy describes how Scott County became a sort of “no man’s land” populated by both Union and Confederate supporters, as well as bandits who harbored no real political affiliations.
“Partly because of our county’s isolation from the two warring factions, as well as the overwhelming sympathies of its people, this region almost from the onset of the war became a hotbed of guerilla warfare, vigilante raids and revenge-motivated atrocities which continued throughout the course of the war and on into the reconstruction period which followed,” Roy wrote.
Because Scott County borders Kentucky, many travelers passed through there on the way to or from the Union-held territory in the north. Roy wrote that Scott County men sometimes served as “pilots” - or scouts - leading Union troops through the treacherous mountain terrain.
In December 1861, the Scott County Home Guard was formed – a militia that fought against Confederate forces in various small skirmishes around the county.
In addition to casualties from the war, Roy wrote that the influx of people traveling through the isolated area brought diseases like smallpox, measles and pneumonia to Scott County for the first time.
The early months of the Civil War may have been bad, but they were only beginning. A little over a year after Scott County had declared its independence from the Confederacy, a day of reckoning came.
The Battle of Huntsville
“When the Confederate government learned that Scott County had pulled out of the state, they were very furious,” said Hughett, the Museum of Scott County curator. “And so they sent a detachment of troops to Scott County to put down the rebellion within the rebellion.”
On Aug. 13, 1862, troops from the Union army and the Scott County Home Guard took up fortified positions along Breast Works Hill outside of Huntsville. About 600 to 1,000 Confederate troops advanced on their position and began firing.
Hughett said many of the Union troops had never been in battle before and fled immediately. A small group of 20 to 25 continued to fight the advancing Confederates for about an hour and a half. Eventually, the Confederates scaled a higher hill near Breast Works Hill and began firing down at the Union and home guard positions. At that point, Hughett said the remaining Union and home guard forces fled.
“The Confederate forces came into Huntsville and were looking to hang the county court, the ones who had made the rules to secede from the state,” Hughett said. But the county court members had apparently gone into hiding and the Confederate troops were unable to find them. After an hour or so, the troops left the courthouse taking with them records that were known as “Books A and C.” These books are believed to have contained the records dealing with Scott County’s secession vote.
Historians believe the Confederate troops destroyed the books, leaving no written record of Scott County’s secession vote. The story about Scott County’s secession has been passed down by word-of-mouth for years, but there was no documentation to support it.
Yet the fact that the Confederates bothered to attack Huntsville, then so quickly withdrew, suggests that they were looking for something. West, the historical society president, theorized that while Huntsville itself had little strategic importance, the Confederacy wanted to destroy any traces of Scott County’s insurgency.
‘Glory Be to God, the Yankees Have Come!”
Yet despite the rout at the Battle of Huntsville, Scott Countians continued to fight skirmishes against the Confederate forces. Most were quickly forgotten, but a few produced more enduring legacies. One such case was Julia Marcum, who became a local legend by standing up to a Confederate soldier as a teenager.
In an affidavit Marcum provided in 1926, she told of how a group of Confederate troops came to her house one night during the war years in search of her father, Hiram Marcum, who was an officer in the home guard. Hiram Marcum had gone into hiding outside the home, so most of the soldiers eventually left.
One soldier remained behind, however, threatening Julia Marcum, her sisters and her mother. A fight broke out in which Julia Marcum attacked the soldier with an ax.
“He struck at me with the bayonet on his gun, I ran under the gun and chopped him in the face and breast with the ax, cut him to the hollow and split his chin open with the ax, getting the best of him,” Julia Marcum said in the affidavit. “I knocked the gun from his hands. He staggered around and said ‘don’t chop me any more.’ But I did not stop. He got hold of the gun and stuck the bayonet in my forehead, burst my skull, knocked my brains out, put out my left eye and shot my third finger off my right hand.”
At that point, Hiram Marcum, hearing the screams from his family members, returned from his hiding place into the house and shot the soldier dead. Hiram Marcum later joined the Union army and his family moved to Kentucky. Years later after the war was over, Julia Marcum claimed a Union pension to compensate for the injuries she had suffered while fighting the Confederate soldier. She was one of only a few women who received a pension for her own service, as opposed to the service of a family member.
The war eventually turned in the Union’s favor, with Tennessee falling to its troops. In 1863, Union troops marched through Scott County on their way from Lexington, Kentucky, to Knoxville. A story in the Oct. 24, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly described one soldier’s recollection of how he and his comrades were received upon entering East Tennessee: “As we approached the settled part of the country we were greeted every where [sic] with shouts for the Union, cheers for the old flag, and the most unmistakable evidences of loyalty.”
The soldier said local residents came forward waving the Stars and Stripes flag and offering fruit and fresh water.
“The sufferings of these people have been terrible,” the soldier reported. “I have seen them come from the caves and the mountains, where they have been hiding from the rebels for months.”
According to the soldier, some East Tennesseans greeted them by shouting: “Glory be to God, the Yankees have come!” and “The flag’s come back to Tennessee!”
‘It’s Good to Belong’
After the Civil War ended, no action was taken to dissolve the “Free and Independent State of Scott.” The reasons for this are largely a mystery. Because the vote to secede from Tennessee was symbolic and never officially recognized by any country, it may have been that no one thought it necessary to repeal the measure. Or it could have been that Scott Countians, like many during the post-war years, simply wanted to move on and get about the business of healing the country.
For the next 122 years, the “Free and Independent State of Scott” was little more than a historical footnote. Scott County continued to function as a part of Tennessee, just as the state’s other 94 counties did.
On occasion, though, Scott Countians did try to reassert their independence. One example came during World War I, when according to Esther Sharp Sanderson’s book, Scott County decided to declare war on Germany before the United States did.
“Again, when war clouds hung over embattled Europe during the early part of World War I, this omnipotent body of Scott County magistrates passed a resolution declaring war upon the entire German nation and her allies,” Sanderson wrote in her 1958 book. “So far as any Scott County records are concerned, Scott County has never voted to come back into the state, nor made a treaty of peace with the German nation and her allies.”
The issue of a peace treaty with Germany and its allies remains unresolved. However, in 1986, then-Scott County Executive Dwight Murphy decided it was time for his community to “officially” realign itself with Tennessee during that year’s Homecoming ’86 celebration.
“Gov. (Lamar) Alexander was really trying to get communities to focus on history, to focus on things that had happened,” Murphy said. “Everyone in Scott County knew about the seceding from the Union. So there had been some talk and there was a plaque at the courthouse.”
Murphy thought it would be fitting to have a Scott County reunification ceremony as part of the Homecoming ’86 festivities. “Folks were having events all across the county,” Murphy said. “We wanted to draw attention to the history, to the uniqueness of Scott County. We thought it was something that would really showcase Scott County.”
Murphy petitioned Gov. Alexander and the Tennessee General Assembly to accept Scott County back into the fold. The General Assembly passed Senate Joint Resolution 336, which resolved that “the petition of the Scott Commissioners and the people of Scott to readmit the former Free and Independent State of Scott as a county of the State of Tennessee is hereby accepted” and “it is hereby proclaimed that the former Free and Independent State of Scott shall henceforth be known as Scott County, Tennessee.”
Following that vote, the Scott County Board of Commissioners met during the Fourth of July celebration in Huntsville that year to come out of the cold – or at least as cold as it gets in the middle of the Tennessee summer.
Larry West, who was a county commissioner at the time, said he and his colleagues took the resolution in the humorous spirit in which it was intended.
“Some of them didn’t want to join the Union,” West joked. “They thought they could get more foreign aid than federal aid.”
When the vote was taken, there were only a couple of dissenters and one commissioner recorded as present but not voting. West, for one, is glad Scott County chose not to stand alone.
“I hope Tennessee doesn’t push us out and the federal government doesn’t push us out,” West said. “We’d all starve to death in Scott County. It’s good to belong.”
Unpaid War Reparations
Scott County’s decision to officially rejoin Tennessee drew a smattering of media attention at the time. After the General Assembly’s vote, which occurred several weeks before the Fourth of July event in Huntsville, The New York Times wrote: “A century and a quarter after Scott County seceded from Tennessee and remained loyal to the Union, the rift is over. Gov. Lamar Alexander signed a resolution Wednesday officially readmitting Scott County to Tennessee. ‘After 125 years of independence, in this the year of Tennessee homecoming, the Scott Commissioners and the people of Scott have declared the Free and Independent State of Scott to be dissolved,’" the resolution said.
A couple of weeks after The New York Times article appeared, Knoxville-based writer Bill Stanley penned a satirical piece about Scott County’s reunification for the Independent Herald, one of the community’s local newspapers.
“There is still a hold-out group in the town of Oneida, however, that refuses to join anybody,” Stanley wrote. “It seems they still bear a grudge against the Federal Government stemming from an incident that occurred in 1863 when Gen. A.E. Burnside encamped there with some 2,000 Union troops for three days, while on the way south to fight the Confederacy. While encamped in the Oneida area, Burnside’s troops appropriated a cow, 23 chickens, two horses, and an Oneida lass who followed the troops south and was never heard from again. Oneida townsfolk figured the damage at $158.50 (in 1863 currency) and steadfastly refuse to negotiate with the ‘foreigners’ from Nashville or Washington until reparations are paid. In today’s economy, the town of Oneida’s claim figures to $318,550. If collected, these funds will be applied to Oneida’s traffic engineering department and the school system equally. So listen up, Nashville! You may have most of Scott County toadies licking your boots, but the smaller, prouder town of Oneida is not ready to rejoin Tennessee, the U.S. of A., or anybody else until these rightful war reparations are paid!”
Following the Fourth of July vote, the Scott County News carried a photo and caption of the commissioners, describing what they had done. Hughett, the Museum of Scott County curator, said there might have been more news coverage at the time, but the somewhat-whimsical resolution was overshadowed by more serious news about the arrest of the local sheriff on drug smuggling charges and the opening of the Dollywood theme park in Sevier County around the same period.
A Final Mystery Solved
Following the General Assembly and Scott County commission votes in 1986, it would have appeared that chapter of local history had been closed. And it was - sort of. However, there still was no written documentation that Scott County had seceded in the first place.
From the various accounts of the Battle of Huntsville, it appeared any documents chronicling the Scott County Court’s vote to create the “Free and Independent State of Scott” had been part of “Books A and C,” records taken from the courthouse and apparently destroyed by the invading Confederate troops.
Then there were the missing records from Nashville, which the Scott County Historical Society’s Stephen West surmised had been destroyed upon receipt by angry state officials in the Capitol.
Then within the last two to four years, during a routine cleaning of the courthouse, the Scott County Clerk’s office found a book titled “Scott County Minutes, Civil & Criminal, April 9, 1866 – Feb. 22, 1870.”
Although the minutes covered a period after the war had ended, they made reference to the fact that Scott County’s wartime records had been destroyed and would need to be rewritten.
Although that rewriting work apparently was never done, West said the acknowledgement of the destruction of the Civil War records is the best written evidence found so far related to Scott County’s secession.
Murphy, the former county executive, acknowledges that Scott County’s “separation” from Tennessee never carried any real legal weight. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important to the people living during the Civil War era. Nor does Murphy believe it’s OK for people to forget about that chapter in the county’s history.
Speaking of the focus on history during Homecoming ’86, Murphy said, “I think it really revitalized Tennessee looking at itself and I think we need some of that today, to tell you the truth about it…I’m afraid we’re losing history and any time we can look back at what brought us to where we are, I think events (like Homecoming ’86) need to happen.”
Murphy said history can be a source of inspiration for people, in good times and in bad.
“Sometimes we need to look at the good things that have happened, the sacrifices that have been made to get us to where we’re at,” Murphy said. “I think we need to always remember our roots.”