Sometime before the end of 1861, the men of a small New York hamlet gathered inside the village schoolhouse and voted 85 to 40 to sever ties with the United States. Seven Southern states had already seceded from the Union, but few could have imagined that this community 250 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line would also choose to leave the United States in one of the quirkiest episodes of the Civil War.
Although Town Line seceded from the Union, it never sought admission into the Confederate States of America, and Karen Muchow, archivist of the Alden Historical Society, says there is no documentary evidence that any of Town Line’s young men fought with the South in the Civil War.
Author Daren Wang, who grew up in Town Line, says this wasn’t a vote in support of slavery. Town Line was not only a stop on the New York and Erie Railroad but Wang’s childhood home served as a depot on the Underground Railroad as well, providing the basis for his historical novel, “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires,” which is set in Town Line during the Civil War. “I could find nothing to document anyone from Town Line aligning themselves with the Confederacy,” he says.
The reason for the secession remains a mystery.
So why did Town Line leave the Union? To this day, no one knows for sure. “There is no documentation that we have or know of,” Muchow says, “so all we know is what has been passed down orally.”
Historians’ best theory rests on Town Line’s Civil War demographics. Many of its citizens at the time were poor farmers who had fled the violence and revolutionary unrest of Germany in the late 1840s. The war-weary refugees feared a prolonged Civil War could result in a draft that would force them onto the battlefields of their adopted homeland. “They wanted to be left alone to farm. They didn’t want the government interfering, and they certainly didn’t want to send their kids off to war and not have a choice about it,” Wang says. “These farmers got together in late 1861 understanding conscription is a real possibility and that people can vote to leave the Union, so they went ahead and did it.”
Then there is a possibility that the entire episode could have been a lark. An article in the February 11, 1861, edition of the Buffalo Commercial reported that Town Liners planned a vote for March 4, the date of Lincoln’s swearing-in, to form their own independent republic with their own president, cabinet members and foreign ministers. The following day, the Buffalo Courier reported the planned vote was a “very large” joke.
No matter the motive, the resolution carried no legal weight as Town Line was an unincorporated entity that straddled the towns of Alden and Lancaster. For decades to come, residents continued to pay taxes and ship their boys off to war. In fact, Wang says, Town Line, Alden and Lancaster all met their conscription goals during the Civil War.
The secession was lost to history for eight decades.
The entire episode seemed to have been forgotten until a Buffalo newspaper reporter salvaged the story from the dustbin of history in 1945. Surprising to some, Town Line’s rebellious streak stubbornly persisted more than eight decades later. When a preliminary ballot was taken to rejoin the Union, 29 of the 30 voters opposed a reunion.
Town Line now had its own civil war, but residents agreed to consult a higher power—President Harry Truman. “Town Line still is outside the Union and is in turmoil over factional differences,” a group of citizens wrote to the president. “Both sides have agreed to abide by your decision.” In response, Truman seemed to imply that a blood sacrifice was in order. “I would suggest the possibilities of roast veal as a vehicle of peace,” the president wrote. “Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started?”
Heeding the presidential advice, the community slaughtered a 190-pound fatted calf and declared January 24, 1946, a public holiday and the date for a vote on whether to return to the United States. As a frosty wind lashed a Confederate battle flag waving overhead, Town Liners gathered inside a sagging, wooden blacksmith shop decorated in red, white and blue bunting to lunch on barbecue veal sandwiches and coffee.
Following the dedication of the hamlet’s principal intersection as Truman Square, the crowd paraded to the volunteer fire house as the Lancaster High School band played “Swanee River” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” There they watched the world premiere of the 20th Century Fox film “Colonel Effingham’s Raid” in which a retired Army officer fights to save his Southern town’s Confederate monument. The movie studio dispatched stars Cesar Romero and Martha Stewart to Town Line for the festivities even though they didn’t appear in the film. “It just added a little glamour to the whole thing,” Muchow says.
Returning to the blacksmith shop, which was once the schoolhouse in which their forefathers severed ties with the Union, Town Line residents cast their votes on whether to reverse the decision. After 113 residents deposited their secret ballots into a wooden box on top of the same desk on which the articles of secession reportedly were signed, the ballot box was handed to Romero. The actor best known for playing the Joker on the 1960s TV show “Batman” counted the ballots and announced the results.
The North had won again.
Town Line’s rebel spirit endures.
After 85 years apart, Town Line rejoined the United States—although 23 rebellious citizens still voted against a reunion. The band switched from playing “Dixie” to “The Star-Spangled Banner” as residents lowered the Confederate flag and raised the Stars and Stripes.
The one-stoplight community still embraces its quirky bit of history. Until 2011, Town Line’s volunteer firefighters wore shoulder patches emblazoned with crisscrossing American and Confederate flags underneath the motto “Last of the Rebels,” and Blair’s Hardware, a local institution, still touts itself as “The Last Rebel Business Still Taking a Stand.”
“Growing up it was a huge sense of pride,” Wang says. “It’s Town Line’s identity.”