The persistent myth of ‘The State of Dade’

Posted by | June 23, 2011

The second annual State of Dade Heritage Festival took place last month at the Dade County [GA] Recreational Facility and Fairgrounds without much of a hitch.  However, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, State of Dade, Camp No. 707, did not mention the festival on their 2011 events calendar, though in helping to promote the 2010 festival they had prominently featured the history behind the phrase State of Dade in their 2010 newsletter.

Trouble is, they got the history wrong.

Here’s how the SCV tells the story of the State of Dade:

“In May of 1860, the Georgia General Assembly was locked in debate at the State Capital in Milledgeville, GA.  Several days were spent hotly debating the question of Georgia’s secession from the Union.

“Up from his seat in the back of the Senate rose a representative from Dade County by the name of Robert H. Tatum. ‘Uncle Bob,’ as he was fondly called, gained the floor and shouted out the fiery speech, which has become both legend and law: ‘By the gods, gentlemen,’ the old man said,  ‘If Georgia doesn’t vote to immediately secede from the Union, Dade County will secede from Georgia and become The Independent State of Dade!!!’

“A few days later when Georgia had still not seceded from the Union, the fighter made good his promise. He hurriedly left the Capital and by trains, buggy, and then horseback, came to the village of Trenton, where he called for a public meeting. The countrymen and townspeople gathered on the Courthouse Square where Bob Tatum stepped up and told the crowd of the arguments and the endless debates going on at the Capital.

“A vote was taken that very day on Trenton’s Courthouse Square and led by Bob Tatum; Dade County seceded from the state of Georgia.”

On July 4, 1945, over 4,000 people attended a celebration at Trenton when Dade graciously struck the Confederate banner, raised Old Glory and rejoined the Union.  This celebration attracted national attention and even a congratulatory telegram from President Harry S. Truman.  Everyone enjoyed the occasion and it left a lasting impression in the minds of Georgians.

One of these minds belonged to E. Merton Coulter, one of Georgia’s most respected and best-loved historians.  In “The Myth of Dade County’s Seceding from Georgia in 1860,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 41, Dr. Coulter looked very carefully at the records and concluded that this most popular story was not true.

In point of fact, Dade’s two delegates to the secession convention did vote against the secession.  However, Dade County did not secede from either the Union or the state of Georgia.

When the state as a whole seceded from the Union in January 1861, Dade Countians immediately joined the Confederate Army in quantity. They served their new nation well in units like the Yancey Invincibles, the Lookout Dragoons, the Dade County Invincibles and the Raccoon Roughs, who wore coonskin caps.

During the Civil War more than 40,000 soldiers traveled through the area on their way to Chickamauga, building themselves a road to carry their equipment and munitions. The Battle of Chattanooga resulted in some minor skirmishes in the county. Dade County men saw action at Manassas (1st and 2nd), Fredricksburg, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, Vicksburg and most of the major battles.

E. Merton Coulter, "The Myth of Dade County's Seceding from Georgia in 1860,"

First page of E. Merton Coulter's article "The Myth of Dade County's Seceding from Georgia in 1860."

Rep. Bob Tatum remained in the Georgia state legislature through at least 1863. In a June 29, 1863 letter responding to backers (published in Southern Confederacy, Atlanta, GA, Vol III, No 122) who were encouraging him to run for another term, he stated “At the close of the last session of the Legislature the state of the health of my family and the absence of my sons in the army, who have also been in bad health, determined me to retire from public life and give my entire attention to my family and my private affairs.”

As for the State of Dade, it did exist in a physical sense until 1940.  Dade is tucked into the northwest corner of the state behind the steep slopes of Lookout Mountain.  Until the completion of Georgia 143 (Old S.R. 2), Dade was accessible only from Alabama or Tennessee unless the traveler had the skill of a mountain goat.

“For a mountain county, the roads are fair,” noted George White about Dade County in his 1849 book Statistics of the State of Georgia. “Isolated from the world, the people seem to care for nothing except the supply of their immediate wants. Hospitality is eminently their characteristic. The stranger is greeted with a hearty welcome, and his conversation listened to with evident signs of pleasure. In this county, the refinements of polished society do not exist.”

Until the all-weather road went through, Dade had been tied to the economy of Chattanooga.  Maybe the celebration on July 4, 1945, was a belated announcement that the State of Dade was ready to join Georgia culturally, physically and economically.

Whether the story had a true basis or not may be irrelevant.  The story was believed, and continues to be believed, by enough people so that it has become viable cultural folklore, which is almost as good as history.

Nonetheless, the organizers of the 2011 State of Dade Heritage Festival decided to hedge their bets on how to present the county’s nickname to the public.  On the exploregeorgia.org site, this year’s promotional copy reads:

“State of Dade Heritage Festival is a celebration of the history behind the myth of the Independent State of Dade. It is focused on the myth and truth of Dade County threatening to secede from the Union and the recognition by President Truman of Dade County’s return to the Union on July 4, 1945.”

Sources: E. Merton Coulter, “The Myth of Dade County’s Seceding from Georgia in 1860,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 41 (December 1957): 349-64.

Retired Senior Volunteer Program, ed. and comp., History of Dade County, Georgia (Summerville, Ga.: ESPY Publishing Co., 1981).

Newsletter Of State Of Dade Camp No. 707, Vol 15, No 5, May 2010
online at www.stateofdade.com/pdf/MayNewsletter2010.pdf

http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2320

Tatum letter: http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GADADE/2010-11/1290110668

Statistics of the State of Georgia, by George White, publ by W. Thorne Williams, Savannah, 1849.

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