N.Y. Town Still Uncertain Why It Left The Union

The hamlet of Town Line, N.Y., voted to secede from the Union during the Civil War. People in this tiny town are very proud of it. In fact, firefighters still wear Confederate insignias on their uniforms. The town is marking the 150th anniversary of its secession — and dragging out old artifacts and stories. Yet, the reason why Town Line voted to leave the Union is still unknown.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The firefighters of Town Line, New York, are known as the Last of the Rebels. They sport a Confederate flag on their uniforms. And we repeat, this is in New York state, near the Canadian border. At the start of the Civil War, the hamlet of Town Line seceded from the Union. And as Daniel Robison reports, the story behind that secession remains a mystery.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention, please?

DANIEL ROBISON, BYLINE: The only church hall in Town Line, New York, is filled past fire code. It's a party marking the 150th anniversary of this Northern town siding with the South. Ladies are in elaborate period dresses. Gentlemen swelter in woolen soldiers' uniforms, like Brandon Adkins who tells people he's a natural-born Confederate from Upstate New York.

BRANDON ADKINS: One guy, he was calling me a Yankee. And I says, excuse me. I says, I'm from Town Line. I says, I'm a Confederate. He says, well, if that's true, he says, I'll kiss your rear end in front of everybody to see. He looked it up, and I guess he believes me now that they were the Last of the Rebels.

RAY BALL: I mean, I was very surprised when I first heard it about 10 years ago. I thought, no, you're - come on.

ROBISON: That's Ray Ball, a local history teacher. According to him, townsfolk gathered at the schoolhouse just after war broke out. After a rowdy debate, they voted 80 to 45 to secede from the Union. Shortly after, Ball says, five local men headed south and joined the Confederate Army.

BALL: The country was literally coming apart at the seams, and the seams tore much farther north than most people realize.

ROBISON: But locals are still unsure why Town Line, just minutes from Canada, took such a dramatic step. The town supported Abraham Lincoln for president just the year before, Ball says. And residents were mostly German immigrants without connections to the American South.

BALL: They had nothing less to do with slavery here. But - so it had to be something beyond that, why they voted the way they did.

ROBISON: Karen Muchow has researched the story for years and still hasn't pinned down an answer. After the Civil War was over, she says, Town Line's secession was conveniently forgotten.

KAREN MUCHOW: I think it was an embarrassment that it happened. There are no records that we know of. So there is no names, which may have been - it was on purpose.

ROBISON: So life went on. Residents paid federal taxes and even had a U.S. Post Office. Then, in 1946, right after World War II, a local newspaper dug up the story. Word spread around the country. Telegrams flooded in, hounding the town to rejoin the Union. Even President Harry Truman weighed in, writing an open letter. So bowing to pressure, a vote was scheduled.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBISON: Back at the 150th anniversary celebration, the crowd watches grainy film footage of past residents dropping ballots into a box and then lowering Town Line's rebel flag, which had flown on and off for 85 years. For NPR News, I'm Daniel Robison.

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