WINSTON COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — By some accounts, the longtime nickname of Winston County, “The Free State of Winston”, was originally meant as a joke, referencing the reported attempt residents made to secede from Alabama.

1861 brought turmoil for the country and the county. Many citizens in Southern states feared that President Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican government would guarantee the abolishment of slavery, and their concerns spurred murmurs and rumblings of succession from the Union by many Southern states, including Alabama. The state organized Alabama’s Secession Conference, set for January 1861.

Unlike in many parts of the South, there were very few slave owners in Winston County at that time. In fact, there were a large number of citizens in the county who actually supported the Union, and schoolteacher Christopher Sheats was sent to represent the Winston County delegation.

Christopher Sheats (Courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Alabama)

According to Drue Duke’s book “Alabama Tales”, Sheats ran into trouble when he refused to sign an oath to join the Secessionist movement.

Duke describes the moment: “‘I am an American,’ Sheets declared, ‘and an Alabamian, I don’t need to sign anything to prove who I am.'”

“At that point, he and the remaining few who sided with him were seized and dragged off to jail. A few of the non-secessionists were able to slip away and hide,” Duke wrote, describing the consequences of Sheat’s stand.

Sheats’ arrest illustrated the growing tensions between Winston County Unionists and citizens who supported the Confederacy, and community leaders planned a meeting to discuss the option of neutrality.

On July 4, 1861, between 2,500 and 3,000 people from across the area and neighboring states met at Looney’s Tavern in what is now known as the Inmanfield community. During the meeting, residents drew up several resolutions stating their positions on the war and the Secessionist movement.

According to Wesley S. Thompson’s “The Free State of Winston: A History of Winston County, Alabama,” one resolution resulted in a sarcastic aside that became the area’s nickname.

“We agree with (Andrew) Jackson that no state can legally get out of the Union, but if we are mistaken in this, and a state can lawfully and legally secede or withdraw, being a part of the State, by the same reasoning, a county could cease to be part of the State,” Thompson wrote.

It was at this time that “Uncle” Dick Payne, a meeting attendee, reportedly spoke up.

A confederate flag and a US flag are seen near a statue as supporters of the Republican party arrive for a meeting of the local Republican party at Winston County courthouse in Double Springs, Alabama on October 12, 2020. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

“‘Ho! Ho! Winston secedes: The Free State of Winston! The Free State of Winston!’ laughed Uncle “Dick” Payne, sarcastically, belying the seriousness of the occasion,'” Thompson wrote.

Thompson writes that Payne’s sentiments were likely not meant to be taken seriously, especially since he was a Confederate sympathizer in a room full of Unionists. Nonetheless, the name stuck.

A simple resolution was not enough for Winston County to leave the state, however. In his book “Best Little Stories from the Civil War”, Brian Kelley describes another attendee, J. L. Meeks, pointing out that secession from a state that had already left the Union meant that the county would have no governmental representative beyond their own borders, meaning it would be wiser for them to declare themselves neutral.

Through it all, the county never actually left Alabama, a fact confirmed by documents from the Alabama Historical Commission that details the succession attempt as part of an effort to designate a historical marker for the Looney’s site.

“While it is true that the people of Winston County opposed Secession and elected officials who would not cooperate with State and Confederate officials and that many of those of military age refused to serve in the Confederate army, there is no evidence to substantiate the idea that the county actually seceded from the State or that the resolutions adopted on this site had any legal bearing,” the document states.

Today, there are multiple markers of the attempt: signs commemorating the site of Looney’s, a musical about the meeting and a statue located in Double Springs in which a Civil War-era soldier holds both the American flag and the Confederate flag, representing the dual loyalties the county once held.