By GENE H. McINTYRE
Last week I wrote an article about what’s known to be our nation’s longest war (August, 1996 to the present time and counting), inviting, thereby, anyone interested to Name that War. As a suggestion, I offered “Eternal War” as possibly the most appropriate label for that interminable conflict.
On the lighter side, it may be uplifting to present a piece of obscure U.S. history by telling the story of the shortest war ever fought by the United States. We know it to have lasted only one day and took place against a self-declared independent state located within the U.S.
It happened in 1867 when the U.S. was suddenly up against a newly-established republic named the Free State of Van Zandt. Here’s its story:
Before declaring itself a free state and getting into a war, Van Zandt was just another county in then-sparsely populated east Texas. The place and its inhabitants had been mainly ignored by occupying federal troops during and following the Civil War. Nevertheless, many of the residents resented the very idea that they were under the rule of a Yankee military officer.
In the summer of 1867 a number of male citizens gathered at Canton’s old brick courthouse on the town square. They called a convention at which they produced a Declaration of Independence and then voted to secede from the state of Texas and the U.S.A.
When word reached U.S. General Philip H. Sheridan in New Orleans, he immediately ordered a cavalry unit dispatched to Van Zandt to put down the rebellion. When the folks there learned that federal troops were on their way, they declared war on the U.S.
They then marched to the “national border” or county line and took up defensive positions in a dense forest that flanked the main road to Canton. The U.S. troops viewed the whole venture as nothing more than a casual ride in the country until, when they came around a certain bend in the road, they were greeted by gunfire.
No cavalryman was hit but it startled all of them and a quick retreat ensued. It all looked very much like a rout to the Van Zandters as the soldiers quickly turned their mounts about and galloped back down the road. The defenders roared a victory cheer and then departed the scene to celebrate their accomplishment in the local tavern, continuing well into the night.
Under cover of dark, the federal troops resumed their march on Canton, all the way into town. There they found the last stragglers of the party that ensued after the “battle,” shackled them, and took the city and county back without firing a single shot.
With most of the former defenders having contracted splitting headaches from the night-long reverie, they were all awakened and rounded up. It was never determined whether the sobering up was more painful than the wrath of the wives and mothers of the formerly intrepid local militia.
A federal rider was dispatched to summon a circuit judge while a wire was transmitted for orders from superiors. What were they to do with almost a hundred rebels under guard with no means to house or feed them?
The federal troops built a makeshift stockade to house their prisoners. However, during the second night, while a heavy rain sent the guards into a shelter some distance away, one of the Van Zandters had a sharp tool and cut through a weak link in the chain that tethered the men together. To a man, the rebels escaped into the night.
They ran far and wide in search of farmers who’d sympathetically cut their ankle irons and set them free. Although warrants were issued for arrests, not one of the rebels ever went to trial. It has been reported, although assuredly as no surprise, that the Army spent no time looking for the escapees.
What came of the rebellion? Although history might have forgotten it, the locals did not. A sign on a highway leading into Canton, Texas, today reads simply: You are enterting the free State of Van Zandt. Too bad for all of us that the U.S. does not have a sign posted at the entry to the Middle East: You are entering the zone of Eternal War.
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)