On the podcast, in the latest episode I mentioned America’s first war in Korea, the Shinmiyangyo Incident of 1871. Now here is another strange war in the 1800s that most people have forgotten, to the point that I just heard about it. On The Xenophile Historian, I have added it to Chapter 4 of the North American history series.
The Free State of Van Zandt
One part of the South that wanted nothing to do with slavery and Reconstruction was Van Zandt County, in northeastern Texas. Almost no one in this county owned slaves, and they didn’t like the idea of fighting for someone else’s right to own slaves. When Texas seceded in 1861, some folks in Van Zandt County proposed seceding from Texas, so that like West Virginia, they could remain with the Union. However, the threat of military intervention by the state of Texas was enough to keep the citizens of Van Zandt from acting, for the duration of the Civil War.
After the war, the citizens of Van Zandt decided that another thing they didn’t like was letting Union troops and carpetbaggers run around in the county. In 1867 Texas was readmitted into the Union, and a convention was held in Van Zandt to propose seceding from Texas, the Confederacy, and the United States of America! The county commissioners approved of this move, and drafted a declaration of independence, which looked a lot like the more famous 1776 Declaration of Independence.
Naturally General Sheridan saw this move as an act of rebellion, and he sent a cavalry unit to deal with it. However, the heavily forrested terrain of Van Zandt County canceled the advantage cavalry normally has, and the rebels knew their home ground well enough to surprise their opponents. The first (and only) battle of the Free State War was won by the rebels, who ambushed and drove off the cavalry. Then, to celebrate the ultimate David-vs.-Goliath victory, the rebels gathered in Canton, the main town of Van Zandt County. At the party they drank too much, and while they were totally blotto, Sheridan’s troops returned, arrested the whole bunch, and built a stockade near Canton to hold them.
You’d think that would be the end of the story, but it has an epilogue. One of the prisoners, a former Confederate soldier named William Allen, had a knife in his boot that was not discovered by his captors, and over the course of several days he used the knife like a file, wearing down the anklets restraining him until he could break them off. Around the same time the rainy season started, and the guards posted on the site were reduced to one, who did his best to keep an eye on the prisoners by simply walking around the compound. This allowed Allen to free the other prisoners while the guard wasn’t looking, and when they broke out of the stockade, most of them fled in two different directions, one group going north to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) and the other going west to the neighborhood of Waco, TX.
Arrest warrants were put out for all the prisoners that escaped, but Federal troops did not look very hard for them, and none were caught. Even Allen was able to return after most people forgot about the affair, and he spent the rest of his life as a doctor in Canton. As for the Feds, they departed as soon as they brought Van Zandt County back into Texas, considering their work complete. Nobody bothered to void the county’s declaration of independence, so technically the county is still independent. Today the county calls itself "The Free State of Van Zandt," though today it isn’t clear if it got that name from the 1867 secession, the 1861 secession attempt, the county’s lack of slaves, or some incident that happened even earlier.