Overview of the Civil War in Kentucky


battle scene Kentucky was one of the "border states" in the Civil War, both geographically and politically. It was situated on the dividing line between the northern and southern regions of the United States. And it was one of only a few slave states that opted to stay in the Union. Though the Commonwealth was officially neutral, its citizens were deeply divided over the issues that caused the Civil War, and over the war itself -- a division symbolized by the fact that both Civil War presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were Kentucky native sons.

Kentuckians had ties to both the North and South. The tobacco, whiskey, snuff, and flour produced in the state were shipped to Southern and European markets via the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and to the Northern cities by rail. Losing either of these markets because of war would be a blow to Kentucky's economy.

Politically, Kentucky was proud of its role in preserving the Union. Through the work of the Great Compromiser, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, conflict was prevented for more than 30 years, even though bitter feelings between the Northern and Southern states over tariffs, states' rights, and the slavery issue threatened to rip the country apart. At the time of the Civil War, the Kentucky governor, Beriah Magoffin, was a Southern sympathizer, while the representatives in the legislature supported the Union. When the time came for the legislature to vote whether to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy or agree to provide troops for the Federal army, the representatives voted to remain neutral, angering many Kentuckians who supported the South.

By law, Kentucky was a slave state. Kentucky was a source of slaves for the cotton plantations in the lower South, and the slave trade was a very profitable business for many Kentuckians. However, most Kentuckians did not own slaves. Those who did were wealthy plantation owners who stood to lose a lot if slavery were abolished. The major slave-owning areas in the state were the Bluegrass region, Henderson and Oldham counties on the Ohio River, and the western Kentucky counties of Trigg, Christian, Todd, and Warren. Many Kentuckians from these areas joined the Confederate army.

In 1861 and 1862, Kentucky saw a number of battles and skirmishes. By the end of 1862, after the battle of Perryville, Confederate forces retreated from the state. But the destruction caused by war was not over for Kentuckians. From December 1862 to January 1865, famous Confederate raids by John Hunt Morgan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Quantrill, and "Sue" Mundy destroyed Union supply depots, bridges, county courthouses, and people's personal property. Kentucky also experienced a period of lawlessness in 1864, when "Bushwhackers" -- small bands of unruly soldiers from both sides -- looted small towns and robbed local farmers of produce and livestock.

When President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, all slaves in the Confederacy were legally set free. Because Kentucky remained in the Union, slaves in this state were not free. Lincoln declared in 1864 that any slave who enlisted in the Union army would be given freedom as well as the freedom of his family. A flood of Kentucky slaves rushed to Camp Nelson to enlist. Soon, the camp in southcentral Kentucky became a recruitment center for "coloured" troops, as well as a refugee center for their families.

The Civil War ended in 1865, and Kentucky slaves were legally freed when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified soon afterward. But Confederate sentiment was still high in Kentucky after the war. The Kentucky General Assembly failed to ratify either the 13th Amendment; the 14th, which gave equal protection under the law to blacks; or the 15th, which gave African Americans the right to vote.


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