The Secession of Town Line, New York

It was 1946, and after a long, bloody struggle, two warring parties finally put aside their bitterness and sat down to end their conflict. A small ceremony was held, and a vote was taken, where the fight was finally put to rest by a grateful population. Was it some obscure World War II holdout? No, it was the tiny hamlet of Town Line, New York (population 2,367, as of 2010) voting to rejoin the United States of America after their ancestors had seceded during the Civil War and joined the Confederacy. Or at least, that’s how the legend goes. The reality of Town Line’s “struggle” in the War of Northern Aggression is a little more complicated than that – and a fun example of how an urban legend can take on a truth of its own.

Because of their ancestors act of rebellion (or treason, as some might call it), and the fact that it was rescinded 80 years after the Civil War ended, Town Line has prided itself on being the last stronghold of the Confederacy. Citizens speak with pride of their tiny hamlet’s distinction, and the town’s firefighters still wear rebel flag patches on their uniforms. But did the vote actually take place? If so, what led a town closer to Canada than to Charleston to leave the Union? And was it even recognized by the Federal government at the time?

Like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree or any number of apocryphal quotes from figures of the past, the secession of Town Line is one of those stories that’s become accepted historical lore despite not having much evidence to support it. The most repeated version of the story is that many of the town’s residents sympathized with the Confederacy, leading to heated arguments and strife among the people, a scenario that was being repeated all across the country, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Finally, in late 1861, the men of Town Line met in a schoolhouse and took a vote to see what the town’s official position was.

The Town Line Courthouse. (Buffalo Courier Express)

The Town Line Courthouse. (Buffalo Courier Express)

The result was an 85-40 decision to leave the Union and join the rebellion (though some sources say the vote was 80-45). This was an almost entirely symbolic act that meant little for either the war or the town. The Union didn’t recognize the secession (assuming anyone knew about it), and there certainly was no attempt made to bring the town back into the USA. No occupation forces were sent, the Post Office continued delivering mail and taxes were still paid. Town Line even sent men to fight for the Union, though about half a dozen rebels left the state and joined the Confederate army.

When the tide of the war turned, the “rebels” of the town put aside their differences (fleeing to Canada, as the legend goes) and the matter was quickly forgotten by the embarrassed townsfolk, until 1945. Town Line’s status as an outlier of the US was resurrected in a wave of post-World War II patriotism and national unity, with none other than President Truman writing a letter to the townspeople, urging them to “rejoin” the United States and celebrate with the barbecuing of a fatted calf. The letter from Truman apparently had some real impact on the town, as they held several more votes, all of which rejected unity. Finally, in 1946, they gave it one more try, in a vote which was presided over by several celebrities, including actor Cesar Romero. The townspeople finally voted to leave the Confederacy, and Town Line was officially American soil again.

The oldest record that I was able to find about the original 1861 vote comes from a 1933 story in the Buffalo Courier Express, liberally quoting Town Line resident George Huber, who would have been 12 at the time. Huber claims to vividly remember the arguments on both sides that lead to the secession vote. As he recalls:

“When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news,” [Huber] continued, “and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out. […] I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation. George Bruce held court on the steps of the building where he and his son were closing up the affairs of the Merchants Bank and was the center of a group of rabid Southern sympathizers and avowed democrats. He made no pretense of concealing his sympathy for the South.

Thurston Carpenter, an argumentative invalid sitting in his wheel chair at his store on the opposite side of the road, was a red-hot Republican, and the leader of the other faction. Bruce and Carpenter clashed daily. […] Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.”

I couldn’t find another primary source to corroborate Huber’s account, but it does seem to match up with the generally accepted version of the story. It seems clear that the secession vote took place, but with no other records surviving from 1861, that’s about as much as we can say with any certainty.

Harry Truman's letter to Town Line, asking them to fire up the grill and put aside their differences. (AP)

Harry Truman’s letter to Town Line, asking them to fire up the grill and put aside their differences. (AP)

There is also no clear reason why Town Line was so tempestuous, or why the secession vote went down the way it did. Town Line is located in Erie County, only a few miles away from the Canadian border. Its miniscule population was mostly first and second-generation German immigrants with no ties to the South, and they certainly wouldn’t have approved of the owning of slaves. And the town supported Abraham Lincoln in the previous year’s election, making the subsequent vote even more baffling.

Some speculate that the tension was due to the role of government interference in daily life. Others believe that Confederate-leaning people were upset about the Lincoln administration’s treatment of Confederate prisoners in nearby Elimra Prison, though this is impossible, as Elmira didn’t open until 1864. A case can be made that the German heritage of the town played a role, as the Democrats at the time were much friendlier toward recent immigrants.

Whatever the reason, or even if there was no reason other than the stubbornness of a few locals, nobody knows for sure why Town Line seemed to be the only town in the North that voted to leave the Union. And with so much of the records of the time lost (or perhaps destroyed out of embarrassment), we’ll likely never know. Other than local pride, the secession is merely a footnote in the history of the Civil War, and probably would have be little more than folklore if not for the rediscovery in 1945. As it stands, it’s an interesting, and mostly true, urban legend.

But just to show the stubborn independent streak of the Town Line’s people, even eight decades after the muskets fell silent in 1865, the 1946 re-vote had a few outliers. While 90 people voted for Town Line to give up the “independence” their ancestors had sought out, 23 still voted to stay with the Confederacy. These truly were the “last of the Rebels.”

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
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14 Responses to The Secession of Town Line, New York

  1. John Denys says:

    Hi,
    For me there isn’t enough proof given to believe the succession even took place. The oldest document you found was from 1933, and that was a newspaper article. Any regular Skeptoid listeners have probably developed a strong sense of skepticism toward newpaper articles. Sometimes reporters have been given inaccurate facts about breaking stories, sometimes they embellish to make the copy more interesting and sometimes they simply make up stories out of whole cloth.

    One more issue is that it’s only an eye witness account. It’s not even a quote from a better source. If it were an article quoting town records that would be much better.

    Another problem is the age of the witness. This is a problem in two ways. You state the boy would have been twelve in 1861. I would be hesistant to believe a twelve year old. Then, by 1933 he would have been 82. I think most people’s memories aren’t top notch by that age. He also had 70 years to read books, talk to people, and, once they were invented, watch movies and listen to the radio. All of these might corrupt his memories. Just look at how the JFK assassination witnesses’ testimony has changed over the years. Unless you have more information I would have to keep this one in the unconfirmed urban legend category.
    Cheers,
    John

    • Do you really know who George Huber is? He was probably the most knowledgeable person ever on Lancaster, N.Y. He had a long political career, holding nearly all the prominent local offices in Lancaster, N.Y. 1874 elected village trustee, a member of the Village Board for twenty years (president for 10 years. 1885 was appointed postmaster general by his friend Grover Cleveland and served in that position for 4 yrs. 1889 elected justice of the peace of Lancaster Township, served 16 yrs. Served various times as: village police justice for Lancaster and Depew. Village street commissioner for Lancaster, member of Town Board of Assessors for 6 years., town tax collector for two terms. He also was involved in the community in other ways: charter member of one of the organizers of the Lancaster Fire Dept. *1874) and served as president and treasurer, one of the founders and six-yr president of the Lancaster Brewing Co., helped organized and served as president for several yrs of the Lancaster Mutual Fire Insurance Co, he was in the vitrified tile business in Lancaster for 20 yrs. he, along with friends Jacob Gottschalk and George Bingham pleaded for a village water system to eliminate a recurrence of the disastrous fires that occurred in the village of Lancaster from 1894-1896. And another thing in 1861 a 12 yr. old was considered a man. They went off to war on both sides and fought for what they believed in. We have just published a book called ” Town Line, N.Y. seceded from the Union 1861-1946 by Curtis A. and Gloria J. Early. Go to the web and punch this in or go to face book and punch in Gen Early

  2. John Denys says:

    Sorry, make that 84.

  3. Reg says:

    Can’t help wondering if Harry Truman’s letter was initiated from greater evidence than newspaper headlines. If a copy of that letter is still on file in the White House or in Truman’s archives, it should have the earlier reference attached. More likely it was a light-hearted attempt to extend the good-will engendered by the end of the war and the suffering it had brought. (Let’s not mention the bomb.)

    Bearing in mind that such an invitation may have had greater purpose than the one stated. Especially if there was suspicion that the German descendants had also been supporters of the enemy in WW1 and/or WWII. ( I do hope I am not beginning another urban myth.)

    Maybe young Karl went and joined the Nazis as others did. We must also wonder if Henry Ford got a letter, forgiving him for being a fan of the ogre? Then the guys who fought in the International Brigade in Spain should have got special recognition for their insight and bravery against greater odds.

    It just rolls on and on.

  4. If the story originated with the 1933 article, and the testimony of a 12 year old boy, I’d write it off as folklore. But that’s only the first mention of the vote that I could find. There were records that went farther back, they just don’t exist anymore.

    Like I said, I accept that the vote took place, simply because it’s so ingrained into the town’s lore. Beyond that, I don’t accept anything with certainty.

    • John Denys says:

      Hi,
      Did you find documents that refer to the older records? Is there anything else available online? Something being ingrained in a town’s lore isn’t much in the way of evidence. Many people believe Washington had wooden teeth simply because of American folklore. Many people believe in the Loch Ness monster because it’s part of Scottish folklore but being ingrained in a town’s folklore shouldn’t be enough for a skeptic.
      Cheers,
      John

  5. I read a couple of interviews with the town’s historian, who thinks the older records were destroyed out of embarrassment after the Civil War ended.

  6. LTC (Ret) John C. Cox, MSSG says:

    It is a legal fact that neither a town nor a county can “secede” from the entity which created it. Unlike the several states comprising the Union which had constitutions and the US constitution itself which guaranteed that “all powers not granted to the government” were retained by the states, there is no possible recourse for these subsidiary governmental entities to exist outside of
    the State itself.

    As with the legendary “Free State of Jones” in Mississippi, the “Free State of Winn” in Louisiana and the “Free State of Winston” in Alabama, just because some people objected to the manner in which their state was moving (toward secession for whatever reason) does not mean that that County or City actually seceded.

    You will note that the actual Confederate States held Secession Conventions involving hundreds of representatives, several days, much discussion and left behind complete journals of their proceedings.

    There is NO “paper trail” for any of these other (and there are many others) “secession movements” during the War for Southern Independence.

  7. Terry Sweeney says:

    The town historian suggests that records were destroyed because towns people were embarrassed, the cause of the confederacy was, all men are not created equal. Embarrassed, they should have been ashamed.

  8. Coleen miller says:

    I am from town line. My ancestors go back here to the 1800s. My great uncle Leland Kidder is shown in some of the photos at the resigning ceremony. There may not be any official proof remaining, but we all love the story. And that’s all that matters.

  9. Karen Muchow says:

    The arguments between George Bruce & Thurston Carpenter took place in the village of Lancaster, not in Town Line. Town Line does straddle the border between the Towns of Lancaster & Alden. President Truman was informed about the desire to rejoin the Union in a letter from an intrepid Buffalo Courier Express reporter. (Don’t have his name here at home.)
    What I have found fascinating is that neither H. Perry Smith in his History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County (1884) nor Truman C. White in his Our County and Its People, a Descriptive Work on Erie County New York (1898), mention the secession even though they both have chapters on the Civil War.

  10. Keith Joye says:

    Can anyone explain why, then, the Confederate Flag flew (on and off, according to some) for 85 years over the town if it was just an “urban legend?” I think there is too much “circumstantial” evidence that it indeed happened, but the town was so small that no one outside of it really cared. They probably kept paying taxes, etc. because they had no way of resisting if they decided not to do so, and after the war ended everyone just came home and got on with their lives. But the underlying reasons for their vote to secede must have remained in many of their minds…otherwise, why not immediately vote to rejoin the Union? It took two World Wars to bring it to the point that people felt the need to undo something that had been left that way for 85 years. And it was a majority, but not unanimous, for reportedly, there were still some 23 or so that voted NOT to re-join! There were reportedly also some residents who left to fight for the South. If their names are known, their service records should be available and more could possibly be learned about where they served, under whom the served, what battles they were in , etc. Are they buried in local cemeteries? Are their graves marked as Confederate Veterans? I’m feel certain there is more evidence to prove (or disprove) this “legend.”

  11. Tkkupp says:

    Feb. 22,1862
    Deo vindice

    Sic semper tryannis

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