I grew up in Alden, New York, a small town about 20 miles east of Buffalo. My parents still live there, and they (especially my mother) are very active in the town historical society and its museum.
In that museum is a worn old wooden desk, unremarkable except for the sign that explains that it was used, in late 1861, to count the votes (85 to 40) whereby Town Line seceded from the Union. (Town Line is a small, unincorporated collection of homes and stores at the crossroads of what is now U.S. 20 and Townline Road, which separates the towns of Alden and Lancaster. In 1861, it was a farming hamlet of around 300 people.)
The reasons for the secession are not clear. According to newspaper clippings from much later, the area was settled by Vermonters and Germans with no ties to the South. One house was an Underground Railway station, and there is men- Hon of an undocumented legend of some violent act or acts by escaping slaves passing through. There is also speculation about a desire to avoid the draft—highly unlikely, since late 1861 predates the draft by a couple of years.
Documentation of Town Line history is very limited—five men reportedly made their way south to fight for the Confederacy, and ten eventually fought for the Union, ft also seems that many of the secessionists fled to Canada during the last two years of the war, as a result of increasing hostility in the area as casualty lists grew ever longer.
Even more remarkable than Town Line’s secession is the fact that the same desk was used to count the votes to rejoin the Union—on January 24, 1946!
Apparently, no one ever thought to force Town Line back into the Union during those 84 years. This raises a number of interesting questions. During that time, were Town Line residents legally subject to federal income taxes? Were they legally subject to the military draft during the two world wars? Were residents legally eligible for Social Security or any of the other New Deal programs? Newspaper articles indicate that residents did pay taxes and vote—”mostly Republican”—all those years. Nevertheless, I’ve seen no reference to any Supreme Court rulings on secession. The Confederate states were conquered, occupied, and returned to the Union, but beyond this display of force, where are the legal issues of secession addressed? Since Town Line was not conquered or occupied, the legal status of its secession seems to be in limbo.
The sign on the desk doesn’t explain why Town Line decided to rejoin the Union. Based on copies of newspaper clippings from 1945-46 that Mom kindly provided from the Alden Historical Society files, it appears that it was largely a publicity stunt. There was some publicity in mid-1945 when Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Dade County, Georgia, officially rejoined the Union, apparently the last official holdouts in the occupied South. This spurred memories in Town Line, and someone saw an opportunity to generate publicity. The result was worthy of today’s political media circus—even Hollywood got involved.
First came a letter to President Truman, seeking advice on how to rejoin. Following his advice, in October 1945, Town Liners killed the fatted calf for a veal barbecue at which a small group voted to suspend the ordinance of secession until a full vote could be arranged. They then appealed to Gov. Thomas F, Dewey for protection until such a vote could be taken, promising to behave in the interim. (There is a mysterious reference in one of these newspaper articles to an earlier 23 to 1 vote not to rejoin, but no details are given as to how much earlier or who was voting and under what circumstances.)
The vote was scheduled for January 24, 1946. Meanwhile, the old school building (long since converted to a blacksmith shop) where the original secession vote was cast flew the Confederate battle flag. (It seems, again from the newspaper articles, that the town was unable to find anyone who could even give a description of the official Confederate colors—the “Stars and Bars.”)
January 24 began with Hollywood propaganda, 1946-style. The world premier of Colonel Effingham’s Raid was held—free of charge—in the Town Line fire hall for the residents, ostensibly to encourage them to “do the right thing” when they voted later. The premier was graced by the presence of the star, Cesar Romero, and his leading lady, Martha Stewart (an earlier celebrity by that name). This moment in the limelight had no lasting effect on Town Line, which has been ignored by Hollywood ever since. If it had any effect on the movie, it must have been to banish it to an obscurity which has kept it from even the early morning hours of the most esoteric old movie channels on cable.
The final vote was 90 to 23 in favor of annulling the order of secession, and the 23 “nay” votes were reportedly a further publicity gesture. The battle flag came down, the Stars and Stripes went up, the intersection was renamed “Truman Square,” and in 1947 the blacksmith shop was demolished to allow for the widening of Townline Road. So ended—at last—the War Between the States.
It’s hard to believe that Town Line’s 1861 secession was unique in the North, though it is possible that this was indeed the case. The myth of national unity is a strong one, but the newspaper clippings indicate that all of Erie County (which includes Buffalo as well as Town Line) gave Abraham Lincoln only the slightest of majorities in I860. Northern “Copperheads” (or “Peace Democrats”) aren’t completely forgotten—they did, after all, run George McClellan for president in 1864—but their story is very much deemphasized in a country where proponents of a New World Order assume great futures for a unified world, where Town Lines of any size, be they in Ireland, Yugoslavia, Turkey, the former Soviet Union, or scores of other places around the world, have little or no ability to determine their own futures. If once-Confederate Arkansas succeeds in imposing carpetbagger Hillary Clinton on now-occupied Town Line and the rest of New York, the South will, I suppose, in one way have come full circle, but it will be a pointless circle and a tragic blow to the kind of local independence that led the South—and Town Line—to try to go their own ways in 1861 —and that led 13 British colonies to do so in 1776.