Kentucky’s Neutrality during the Civil War

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

CrittendenBy Laura Forde, Bismarck High School, Bismarck, ND

As the Civil War started, states chose sides, North or South.  Kentucky was the one true exception, they chose neutrality.  As Lowell H. Harrison wrote, to an outside observer the United States may have looked like it “had become three countries: the Union, the Confederacy and Kentucky.” [1]  Kentucky tried to take a neutral path in order to bring the United States back together and protect itself from the horrors of war.  The experiment of neutrality ultimately failed, but Kentucky did what it could to achieve its goals of peace and security through neutrality.  

Kentucky’s history prior to the Civil War consisted of leadership at the national level.  Though it was a frontier state many political and economic leaders emerged from Kentucky.  Through the political leadership of the likes of Henry Clay and John Crittenden, Kentucky tried to keep the nation together through the early 1800s as slavery and sectional conflicts threatened to tear the nation apart.  Clay and Crittenden both worked to resolve the sectional conflicts over the issue of slavery.  When the Civil War began, it seemed that Kentucky again would try the road of compromise.  

Governor Magoffin and the state legislature issued a proclamation of state neutrality in the spring of 1861. According to the Kentucky Senate resolution “Kentucky ought, at least, to remain neutral till the end of the controversy; neither hindering the National Government in the exercise of its authority, nor furnishing men, as a State, to either the belligerents; nor asking aid from either to maintain her position.”[2]   Within that same document Kentucky assured its fellow members of the nation that is would “be ready and anxious to mediate between the belligerents.”[3]    As a state, they were following in the footsteps of their political leaders, Clay and Crittenden.  They hoped to avoid conflict and unite the nation again as one through their own mediation.

John Crittenden made a last ditch effort to avoid war in the US Congress, by proposing what became known as the Crittenden Compromise.  The essence of this compromise was to extend the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean and prohibit Congress from abolishing or interfering with slavery in those states and territories which it now existed and would extend.[4] Many supported the Crittenden Compromise, but it was too late.  Several states had already seceded and there was no looking back.

One may wonder why Kentucky would take the stance of neutrality during such an impassioned time when it seemed everyone was taking sides in the war.  The stance of neutrality was not completely original to Kentucky, but they made a formal declaration and tried desperately to stay out of the war.  Kentucky had a unique situation; they were tied to the South with slavery, located next to three Free states and at the crossroads of economic ties to both sides through its extensive river systems and network of railroads[5]

Choosing either side in the war could be a lose, lose situation.   They felt that siding with the North or the South had its potential benefits and pitfalls.  They could not fully side with the North because Kentucky was a slaveholding state with sympathies and connections to the South, both economic and personal.  Much of Kentucky was settled by former Virginians, so the roots in slavery and family relations were strong for the state.  However, the people of the state also strongly believed in and supported the nation the Founding Fathers created and did not want to destroy the nation they had been given.  

As a Border State, Kentucky knew that the state would be right in the middle of the fighting.  Both armies would have to invade or march through their state to fight the other.  Governor Magoffin warned the citizens of the state, “We are a border state; we have the brunt of the battle.”[6] Neutrality was a move to potentially avoid skirmishes on their own land. However, being neutral would prove difficult for the very reason that they were in the middle of both sides of the Civil War, both geographically and ideologically.

Kentucky was also a strong Unionist state.  They believed in the Constitution and the nation that the Founding Fathers left to them.  In a letter to the Editor, Governor Magoffin directed part of his statement to the Southern States which had seceded or were considering it.  He stated that he was appealing to “all the sacred memories which brought the government into existence, and all the ties which should be preserved and strengthened to keep us together.” [7] In that same letter to the editor, he stated that Kentucky would “take her position calmly, fearlessly, wisely, with her whole heart beating for the Union and her whole soul overflowing with patriotism and loyalty to that Union under the compact of the Constitution.”[8] This strong sentiment toward the Union was shared by many Kentuckians and helped keep Kentucky neutral and later in the Union.  

Kentuckians also believed that staying in the Union would better protect their right to own slaves.  They believed the constitution protected slavery and pointed to the Dred Scott decision, authored by Chief Justice Taney of the Supreme Court as evidence.  In that case, the court ruled that slaves were property and all property was protected by the Due Process clause of the 5th Amendment.  Therefore, the government could not deprive citizens of slaves, which were considered property.[9]  This belief is illustrated by Governor Magoffin who stated that Kentucky “will keep her present status upon the slavery question believing the laws, the constitution and the courts afford her adequate protection.”[10] Kentuckians from the Border Slave States Convention issued a statement explaining their belief that “Congress, with a majority in opposition to the Republicans, could have controlled the ‘sectional President, Lincoln, and obtained redress for southern grievance.’”[11]  In the period leading up to the Civil War, the United States Congress had not been able to pass any amendments abolishing slavery, which was essentially the only way to truly get rid of the institution in the country.  In order to pass an amendment, it takes 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the states to ratify it.[12]  Those proportions would have been impossible to reach in 1861 Therefore, the constitution would have protected slavery and Kentucky was relying on that fact. 

Within Kentucky there was strong support for neutrality even though individuals often favored one side or the other in the war.  However, the reaction outside the state was not as supportive.  The Northern states which bordered Kentucky were concerned that neutrality would make their states the battlegrounds of the war and tried to push Lincoln to be more assertive with Kentucky.[13] Though many were pushing Lincoln to act with more force against Kentucky, Lincoln realized he needed to be patient.  Acting too quickly or aggressively could send Kentucky to the side of the Confederacy, which he was desperately trying to avoid.  Lincoln’s inaction, however, did not mean he supported neutrality.  In a speech to Congress in June of 1860, he called neutrality “‘treason in effect’”[14] meaning that though neutrality did not bear the same name as treason, staying neutral had the same effect as siding with the rebels.  However, Lincoln tolerated neutrality to ensure he did not have another state leave the Union.

Neutrality ends when the Confederates invaded Kentucky in the early fall of 1861.  The Confederates believed they needed to take strategic locations in Kentucky along the rivers before the Union army did.  General Gideon Pillow was convinced the Union was about to make a move on those strategic locations so he beat them to it by taking Columbus.[15]  The Union army then made a counter move taking Paducah and Kentucky was forced to take a side in the war.[16]  Due to the South invading the state and being the first to break Kentucky’s neutrality, Kentucky joined the Union.  

The fears of Kentuckians as secession began unfortunately came true.  The Civil War was fought on their land, with the blood of their kin, and created chaos and division in the state beyond which most other states experienced.  The experiment in neutrality was a noble effort to save not only their state, but in their minds, the Union.  Unfortunately, neutrality failed and the human and economic cost to the state of Kentucky was immense.



[1] Harrison, Lowell Hayes. The Civil War in Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 2009. Print. p. 9

[2] Preamble and Resolutions offered by John B Brunder in the Senate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” Journal of the Called Session of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Begun and Held in the Town of Frankfort on Monday the Sixth day of May, in the Year of our Lord 1861, and of the Commonwealth the Sixty-Ninth (Frankfort: Printed at the Kentucky Yeoman Office, John B. Major, State Printer, 1861), 143-145

[3] Ibid.

[4] Crittenden, John “Proposal by Senator John Crittenden December 18,1860” Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 2nd Session pp. 114 (Joint Resolution No. 50)

[5] Harrison

[6] Magoffin, B. “Letter to the Editor of the Yeomen” Journal of the Called Session of the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Begun and Held in the Town of Frankfort on Thursday the Seventeenth day of January, in the Year of our Lord 1861, and of the Commonwealth the Sixty-Ninth (Frankfort: Printed at the Kentucky Yeoman Office, John B. Major, State Printer, 1861), 12-18

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9]Schwartz, Bernard. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.

[10] Ibid

[11] Harris, William C. Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union. Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas, 2011. Print. p. 85

[12] The United States Constitution, Article 5.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid, 93.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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