Most Americans think about the Civil War in terms of the Union north and the secessionist south. But perhaps no states played as decisive a role in the war as Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky, the “border states.” These were slave states that fought for the Union. For strategic and political reasons, the loyalty of these states proved essential to a Union victory. Kentucky, with its abundant natural resources, its water access via the Ohio River, and its burgeoning industrial centers, would play a particularly important role. “I hope to have God on my side,” Lincoln supposedly said in 1861, “but I must have Kentucky.”
At the start of the Civil War, Kentucky was home to 225,000 enslaved people. The fact that Kentucky proved willing to throw its lot in with the United States to subdue fellow slaveowners tells us an awful lot about Kentucky – and about Lincoln’s changing beliefs about emancipation as the war progressed.
It would be wrong to distill Kentucky’s politics down to one simple idea. But by and large, the state was greatly influenced by its most celebrated politician, Henry Clay, often dubbed “The Great Compromiser” or “The Great Pacificator.” By and large, Kentucky chose a path of moderation when it came to national politics. While they defended the right to own slaves (even though many white residents did not own slaves), many Kentuckians also expressed a staunch Unionism.
When South Carolina seceded, followed eventually by 10 more states, Kentuckians stayed true to the legacy of Clay. “To most Kentuckians,” one scholar has written, “the Union was the best protector of the slave-based social order. They trusted their native-born president to protect the peculiar institution.”
Many Kentuckians actually believed that secession would harm the interests of slaveowners. Moreover, most Kentuckians believed strongly that Lincoln was committed to upholding the rule of law. And the law protected slavery.
Thus many Kentuckians – particularly those fighting in the Union Army – faced a deep personal and political crisis when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. One soldier John T. Harrington, who fought in the 22nd Kentucky Infantry, expressed his frustration and dismay about the Emancipation Proclamation in a letter to his sister Jennie:
“I enlisted to fight for the Union and the Constitution, but Lincoln puts a different construction on things and now has us Union Men fight for his Abolition Platform and thus making us a hord [sic] of Subjugators, house burners, Negro thieves, and devastators of private property.”
Like many other Kentuckians, Harrington questioned what it meant to fight for the Union now that emancipation had become central to the meaning and outcome of the war. Kentuckians would prove very critical of the Proclamation and black enlistment. And at war’s end, slavery would not end in Kentucky until emancipation was federally enacted by the 13th Amendment.
Voices like Harrington’s remind us how drastically the meaning of the Civil War changed between 1861 and 1865. It began for Kentuckians as a war to save the Union. By its end, the war freed millions of human chattel and transformed the country’s social and political fabric irrevocably.
Source: John T. Harrington to Jennie, January 19, 1863; John T. Harrington Letter, Kentucky Historical Society.