Monday, March 24, 2014

Charles Christopher Sheats: wearing the Union label

When several southern states broke off from the United States after President Abraham Lincoln's election, the support for forming a new nation in the South was far from uniform. Charles Christopher Sheats, one of the most prominent "scalawags" of the Civil War, would never lend his support to secession. His stance made him an enemy of the Confederacy, but ensured him a political future when the Union triumphed in the conflict.

Sheats was born in Walker County, Alabama, on April 10, 1839. He was raised on a farm and attended the public schools, thought he spent time at Somerville Academy in Morgan County. At the age of 18, he became a local schoolteacher.

The secession crisis erupted just a few years into Sheats' teaching career. Winston County was a poor region, with most residents working subsistence agriculture. Few people were wealthy enough to own slaves, and the idea of breaking away from the United States proved unpalatable. When the state held a secession convention in 1860, Sheats easily defeated pro-secession planter Andrew Kaieser in a 515 to 128 vote.

The first vote at a convention in Montgomery was 53-46 against immediate secession. Sheats sided with the "cooperationists," who argued that secession shouldn't take place without giving Lincoln's policies a try and that it should only occur if approved at a popular vote. But increasing tensions and the secession of more states prompted Alabama to take another vote. On January 11, 1861, the convention voted 61-39 in favor of secession. Sheats not only opposed secession on the second vote, but refused to sign the ordinance of secession adopted at the convention.

Sheats would soon grow bolder, leading the opposition to the Confederacy in Winston County. After the CSA went to war with the Union, an anti-secessionist rally was held at Looney's Tavern. The date given for the rally was the symbolic day of July 4, 1861, though other scholars suggest the meeting may have been held as late as the early months of 1862. Sheats was the lead speaker at this rally, which ultimately passed three resolutions. One praised Sheats for his actions at the secession convention. Another denied that a state had the ability to secede, but proclaimed that a county could break away from its state if secession was recognized. The last resolution declared Winston County to be neutral in the conflict. The claims, particularly the second one, earned the region the nickname "Free State of Winston County," although it never formally seceded from Alabama.

Winston County was not without its pro-Confederate residents, who angrily called for Unionists like Sheats to be jailed. But Sheats remained a popular figure, and in 1861 he was elected to the Alabama state house of representatives. He never attended a session. Since representatives had to sign an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy to serve, Sheats opted to stay at home rather than pledge support for the secessionist government.

In 1862, amid increasing concerns that his Unionist statements would lead to his arrest, Sheats fled to the mountains of Morgan County in northern Alabama. This was a common refuge for Unionists who were seeking to avoid conscription into the Confederate military. Soon after Sheats arrived, Colonel Abel Streight led a contingent of Union soldiers into the area. Streight knew about the Unionist sentiment among the refugees, and he was looking for men who would fight for the Union.

Sheats was eager to help, encouraging others to join the Union Army. In one stirring speech, he declared, "Tomorrow morning I am going to the Union Army. I am going to expose this fiendish villainy before the world." He vowed to fight CSA "to hell and back" and said he would "stay here no longer till I am enabled to dwell in quiet at home."

A bad leg would prevent Sheats from ever joining the Union military, but he helped to get at least 150 men to go north. Then, in the autumn, Confederate troops arrested Sheats on the order of Governor John G. Shorter. Shorter accused Sheats of "having communications with the enemy, giving them aid and comfort, and inducing citizens of this state to enlist as soldiers in the army of the United States." The arrest prompted the legislature to expel Sheats in a 69-4 vote, but Winston County remained Unionist. Their choice to succeed Sheats was Zachariah White, a man who had also made pro-Union speeches, helped people join Union army, and proclaimed that he would have fought for the Union if he was younger.

Indicted on a charge of treason, Sheats was unable to get a trial and was transferred to prison in Salisbury, North Carolina. He was later returned to the Madison County jail before his release. However, he was again arrested in the middle of 1863 for his active role in the Peace Society, an organization urging Alabama to surrender to the Union. This time, Sheats would stay in jail until the Confederacy's surrender.

Sheats' consistent opposition to the Confederacy would save his political future. Having never sworn allegiance to the CSA, he was never subject to the postwar restrictions on holding office. He was an unsuccessful candidate, among four other Unionists, for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1864. A year later, he was elected to the Alabama constitutional convention. He turned his focus from education to the law, and was admitted to the bar in 1867 before starting a practice in Decatur.

Sheats was also a Republican elector in 1868 and 1872, the years Ulysses S. Grant ran for President. Grant rewarded him after his 1868 election by appointing him to be consul at Elsinore, Denmark, on May 31, 1869. Sheats remained in this role until 1872, when he was elected to the House. He served one term before he was defeated in the 1874 election.

Sheats was appointed appraiser of merchandise for the port of Mobile, and also served as the state's assistant collector of internal revenue. He held a few other minor offices and maintained a farm in his later years. He died in Decatur on May 27, 1904.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Encyclopedia of Alabama, Portraits of Conflict: A Photographic History of Alabama in the Civil War by Ben H. Severance, Congressional Directory of the Forty-Third Congress by Ben Perley Poore, Northern Alabama: Historical and Biographical, Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. and the South's Fight over Civil Rights by Jack Bass