Just Call Me Switzerland! Kentucky’s “Neutrality” During the Civil War

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

SmithBy Heather MacKenzie, Eagle’s Landing Middle School, McDonough, Georgia

In the years, months, and weeks leading up to the fateful attack on Ft. Sumter, when the threat of war was no longer probable, but imminent, lines were drawn in our nation, our states, and in our homes. Sectionalism led way to secession and following the cannon fire that echoed from the Charleston Harbor, compromise was no longer an option.  For many the decision to fight was personal and an effort to maintain a certain way of life, and for others a sense of duty and honor.  Regardless of reasons for enlistment, as early as April 1861 the United States of America enlisted tens of thousands of young men prepared to “preserve the Union.”  The positions appeared to be as clear as the divisions on a map: Union, Confederate, or a Border State.  Individuals with a basic understanding of American history can easily decipher the differences between the Union and the Confederacy, however many are often confused by the role of the Border States in this American conflict.  Physically and emotionally, these states were essentially in the middle. As the meeting grounds between two warring nations, Border States would undoubtedly face physical and economic destruction when battle erupted. As slaveholding states, with their allegiance lying strongly in the grasp of the United States, these Border States were an anomaly. Among these contradicting areas, was the state of Kentucky.

Admitted to the union in 1792 as the fifteenth state, Kentucky rapidly grew into a successful state with a stable economy. In 1860, Kentucky was ranked ninth in the country in regards to population, with Louisville as the third largest city south of the Mason and Dixon line (Klotter & Klotter, 2008).  The value of Kentucky’s farmlands and agriculture was seventh in the nation, and fifth in livestock (Harrison, 1975).  Additionally, Kentucky had a good transportation and educational systems, with leading universities like Transylvania University (Klotter & Klotter, 2008).  Kentucky was economically and geographically important to both the North and South.  For decades, Kentucky relied on her southern borders and river access to supply the southeastern region of the United States with hemp, tobacco, cotton, and various grains (Harrison, 1975).  Historically, Kentucky also played a significant role in the Civil War era.  Kentucky was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States during the Civil War, as well as the home of the “great compromiser,” Henry Clay.

It would be fair to say that Kentucky could not quite get its head to agree with its heart, or in most cases, its heart to align with its wallet.  At the outbreak of war, one in five Kentuckians was a slave (Klotter & Klotter, 2008).  As states began falling like dominoes to one side or the other, Kentucky remained steadily unsure of the direction it needed to take.  Like the southern states, much of its thriving economy was rooted in agriculture and slave labor.  However, Kentuckians maintained a strong desire to stay part of and maintain the Union (Shortridge, 1923).  For those in northern Kentucky, the economy differed nearly as much as the ideology. To Kentucky, it was neither nationalism nor states’ rights – she wanted both.  Was this not a conflict of interest?  Dr. Brian McKnight (2006) contends that it might have been easy to confidently stand as an abolitionist or Unionist in a city such as New York, or a staunch secessionist in the Carolinas, but it was not easy to be either in Kentucky.  Inevitably, the question arose; “how do you choose sides?”  The Kirby Smith recruiting handbill (Kentucky Historical Society, 1862) is one example of the political propaganda that painted the towns of Kentucky in this period.  How would it be possible to be pro-Union and pro-slavery?  In short, it would not be. Therefore, in a time when society equated inaction with cowardice, Kentucky, initially, chose to remain neutral.  On May 20, 1861, Governor Beriah Magoffin declared a state of neutrality and insisted to both the United and Confederate States that should an army from either side choose to invade Kentucky they would be met with the same means of defense (Finck, 2012). The May 22, 1861 publication of the New York Times quoted the proclamation: “I hereby notify and warn all other States separate and united, especially the United States and Confederate States, that I solemnly forbid any movement upon Kentucky soil, or occupation of any port or place therein for any purpose whatever, until authorized by invitation or permission of the legislative and executive authorities.” For the time being, the line was drawn in the sand.

Through September 1861, as a state, Kentucky remained free of battle and imposing armies. Union leaders viewed this move as being provided with additional planning time. Author Christopher Phillips (2013) explains that Lincoln’s view on neutrality was that it was not a sign of loyalty; that one could not claim to be neutral and be fully supportive of the Union.  Radical Republicans from Lincoln’s camp viewed the move as an act of treason (Harris, 2011) and yet Lincoln refused to push or dissuade Kentucky in any way. The allowance of this from either side speaks volumes as to the importance of Kentucky to the North and the South as the Border States held a large amount of control over the waterways.

The citizens however, did not necessarily agree with this position and many young men began leaving their home state to enlist in others. This is similar to the men who joined the British military at the outbreak of World War II, despite America’s isolationist stance. Furthermore, remaining neutral did not ease the burden of division among the citizens of Kentucky. State leaders may have desired to simply stay out of it but that is seldom possible in the land of public opinion. Embattled, it was difficult to decide who was for what side. In the few short months of claimed neutrality, Kentucky experienced large numbers of soldiers who fled to Tennessee or north to Ohio to join the army. In this sense, Kentucky was neutral in name alone. It is questionable what state leaders truly believed would be accomplished by committing to a position of neutrality but as history has taught us, earliest perceptions of the war’s extent and reach was underestimated at best.

The decision to remain neutral essentially likened Kentucky to the most desirable girl in school during prom season.  Strategically, Presidents Lincoln and Davis eagerly sought to gain the favor of this Border State. The courtship lasted a few months until when in Sepember 1861, Union and Confederate forces converged upon Kentucky, immediately forcing her hand and changing the land, the economy, and its people permanently. Following the war Kentucky became overwhelmed by its population, which now consisted of freed slaves. In addition to all southern economies reliant upon slave labor, they took a financial hit and also like the South, had lost their livestock that was once declared fifth in the nation. Twenty-thousand Kentucky men did not return from the war and an unintended consequence of this was the decline of the once honored education system, because at the time, most teachers were male. Therefore, it begs the question – was it worth it? Would Kentucky have endured had they committed to either side earlier on? Historians continue to debate this point and as a learner, I look at Kentucky the way I do at my cheerleading captain – back in the day, she was kind of a big deal.



Finck, J. W. (2012).  Divided loyalties: Kentucky’s struggle for armed neutrality in the Civil War. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie.

Gov. Magoffin’s Proclamation of Neutrality (May, 1861). The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1861/05/22/news/gov-magoffin-s-proclamation-of-neutrality.html

Harris, W. C. (2011).   Lincoln and the border states: Preserving the union. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Harrison, L. (1975). The Civil War in Kentucky. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Kentucky Historical Society (n.d.). Kirby Smith recruiting handbill (1862);  FF1.36 Kirby Smith recruiting handbill. Retrieved from http://www.kyhistory.com/cdm/singleitem/collection/MS/id/1070/rec/2

Klotter, J. C. (2013, week two session). Torn Within, Threatened Without: Kentucky and the Border States in the Civil War. Class Lecture. Kentucky Historical Society.

Klotter, J. C. & Klotter, F. C. (2008). A concise history of Kentucky. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

McKnight, B. (2006). Contested borderland. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Phillips, C. (2013, week two session). Torn Within, Threatened Without: Kentucky and the Border States in the Civil War. Class Lecture. Kentucky Historical Society.

Shortridge, W. P. (1923). Kentucky neutrality in 1861.  The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 9(4), Bloomington, IN: Organization of American Historians, 283-301.

Trackback from your site.