The American Civil War: Question of Border States’ Loyalty

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

During the first great battle of war in July 1861 at Manassas, Virginia, both sides wondered how the four slaveholding border states would react to the unfolding events. Would they side with Confederacy, or would they remain loyal to the Union?

Soldiers ready for action during the American Civil War.
There was a level of uncertainty as to whether the border states would join the Union or not. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Four Border States Join the Union Camp

Four border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware made the decision to remain in the Union. Certain events led a piece of the state of Virginia to split from the state and form a new state called West Virginia, in effect becoming a fifth border state.

The first eight months of the war were full of activity for both sides. In the broad Northern military strategy, a key goal in many ways for Abraham Lincoln was to maintain the loyalty of the four slave-holding states that remained in the Union. These states possessed large populations, important resources, and key geographical positions.

Concerns for Abraham Lincoln

Oil painting of Abraham Lincoln depicting him in deep thought.
Abraham Lincoln intended to keep the border states in the Union. (Image: George Peter Alexander Healy/Public domain)

The stakes were high on the issue of what those four states would do. An immediate concern for Abraham Lincoln, which continued from the spring of 1861 all through the summer and into the fall of that year, was the necessity of keeping them in the Union.

The firing on Fort Sumter had sent the four Upper South states into the Confederacy. Virginia left on April 17, Arkansas on May 6, and North Carolina on May 20.

Finally, Tennessee went out on June 8, without a secession convention. Among the Lower South states, only Texas had held a comparable popular referendum to see if the people agreed with the decision of the state secession convention.

Learn more about the election of 1860.

Border State of Kentucky

Four out of the 15 slave states were still with the Union. More than any other border state, Kentucky was torn between allegiances to the North and South.

Birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Kentucky had profound ties to the South through the institution of slavery, family connections, and various economic ties that looked southward and tied the state to other slaveholding states. But it also had connections with the Lower North because of its long Ohio River border.

Compromise between North and South?

Kentucky was a state that worked hard to achieve a compromise between the sections of the North and the South. The state had voted for John Bell and the Union in 1860. Henry Clay, who often pushed for compromise over many decades, and John J. Crittenden tried to find a compromise in late 1860 and early 1861. Clay and Crittenden represented the compromising spirit of the State of Kentucky when it came to sectional tensions and problems.

Henry Clay addressing the U.S. Senate for the compromise.
Henry Clay was an expert at pushing for a compromise like the Missouri compromise and the compromise of 1850. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The description of the war as a brother’s war had real meaning in Kentucky. Three of Henry Clay’s grandsons fought for the Union, while four did the same for the Confederacy. In John J. Crittenden’s family, one of his sons became a United States general during the war while another became a Confederate general. So those families in Kentucky were literally divided by this great conflict.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Kentucky’s Decision to Remain Neutral

Kentucky at first hoped to remain neutral. It sent no troops in response to Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers, and it declined to meet a similar request from Jefferson Davis as well.

The Governor of the State, Beriah Magoffin, was pro-Southern who issued a proclamation of neutrality. That condition lasted from May until September 1861. During that time, Lincoln made no move to coerce Kentucky and neither did Davis, hoping that Kentucky would come their way, so they avoided overt act.

Learn more about the common soldiers of the American Civil War.

Lincoln’s Hands-off Policy

During that uneasy time, individual Kentuckians were making their choice: some went into the United States Army, some into the Confederate Army, some into the pro-Confederate militia, and some into the pro-Union militia units of the state. There was a thriving trade in military supplies that went on between Kentucky and the Confederacy.

A portrait of Confederate General Leonidas Polk
General Leonidas Polk ordered Southern troops to occupy Columbus, a strong point on the Mississippi River. (Image: T. Lilienthal, New Orleans/Public domain)

Lincoln’s hands-off policy paid off when in special elections for Congress in June and the state legislature in August, Unionists won convincingly in Kentucky. On September 3, 1861, the crucial moment arrived when Confederate General, Leonidas Polk ordered Southern troops to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, a strong point on the Mississippi River, which allowed the Confederates to place artillery there.

It was a wise military move that gave the Confederates a great spot to contest Union naval advances. But politically it was a disaster, which was more important than the military because the Unionist legislature in Kentucky condemned what they called those Confederate invaders. They asked the federal government to help drive the Confederates out and created a military force to oppose Confederates in the state.

Learn more about the Peninsula Campaign.

Despite Choosing the Union, Kentucky Stays Divided

Kentucky made its choice by choosing to remain in the Union, an official part of the United States, but the sentiment remained divided in Kentucky. There were still thousands of pro-Confederate people in Kentucky. The secessionist minority called a convention of its own in November 1861 and voted to join the Confederacy. There were only 11 Confederate states and the Confederate flag had 13 stars, one of those was for Kentucky. Kentucky didn’t really leave the Union, but this minority pretended they did, and the Confederacy pretended that it was all on the level.

Kentucky sent nearly 75,000 men into the Union Armies, and Kentuckians fought with the Confederate Army. Kentucky voted against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 Presidential election as the State suffered from a particularly vicious form of guerrilla warfare during the conflict. Ironically, after the war, Kentucky became a Confederate State. It hadn’t been a Confederate State during the war, officially, but everybody in Kentucky was pro-Confederate after the war.

Common Questions about the loyalty of the border states in the American Civil War

Q: What were the four border states in the Civil War?

The four border states in the civil war were Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware. Also considering the events that led a piece of the state of Virginia, to split from the state and form a new state called West Virginia, which in effect became a fifth border state.

Q: Is Kentucky a Confederate state?

Kentucky at first hoped to remain neutral and sent no troops in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers. But Lincoln’s hands-off policy paid off gradually and in special elections for Congress and the state legislature, Unionists won convincingly in Kentucky.

Q: Why did Kentucky stay in the union?

Kentucky stayed in the union because on September 3, 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk ordered Southern troops to occupy Columbus, Kentucky, a strong point on the Mississippi River. It was a wise military move but politically it was a disaster, so the Unionist asked the federal government to help drive the Confederates out by creating a military force to oppose Confederates in the state.

Q: What were the two sides in the civil war called?

The two sides in the civil war were called the states of Union and the states of Confederacy

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