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The Secession of Town Line, New York

by Mike Rothschild

June 24, 2013

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Donate 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Because of their ancestors act of rebellion (or treason, as some might call it), and the fact that it was rescinded 80 years after the Civil War ended, Town Line has prided itself on being the last stronghold of the Confederacy.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 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.

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."

by Mike Rothschild

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