The Emancipation Proclamation and Changing Allegiances in Kentucky

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

HarringtonBy Keith Spencer, Gainesville Middle School, Gainesville, VA

In early January 1863, John T. Harrington, a soldier in the Union Army, wrote his sister Jennie about his recent experiences in the Civil War.  In it, he gives her information about recent battles and a meeting with Confederate prisoners of war.  While this document details his survival near Vicksburg, Mississippi, it most clearly illustrates his feelings about the recently issued Emancipation Proclamation; he was extremely displeased.  With a few simple words, John Harrington demonstrates how a Unionist Kentuckian could change his allegiance toward the South in the aftermath of the surprisingly controversial Emancipation Proclamation.  As it turns out, many people in Kentucky were not in favor of freeing their slaves.

Historians don’t know much about John T. Harrington; he was an enlisted member of the 22nd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry Regiment[1]. Formed in Louisa, Kentucky in 1862, it is quite probable that Harrington joined the military as a loyal member of the Union and therefore wanted to protect slavery like many other Kentuckians.  A later letter by him to a friend suggests he simply may have joined the military to impress a girl.[2]  Regardless of his reasons for joining, slavery was a major part of Kentucky society and many citizens were against secession but supported the institution of slavery.  Called Conservative Unionism, it embraced “stability, pragmatism, compromise and tradition,”[3] which favored slavery but did not hold that secession provided any necessary solutions to the growing disagreement over the institution.  Despite the rise of a new Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, most Kentuckians believed that remaining in the Union best protected their Constitutional rights regarding property.  Therefore, Kentucky had many Union regiments.

Harrington’s letter to his sister begins with the fatalistic tempo of a veteran soldier of the Civil War.  While fighting around Vicksburg, he notes, “next week may see me in some ditch with a soldier’s honor and about three inches of dirt thrown over me”.  He continues, “I have seen war in all its horrors. . . . I have lain perfectly exhausted among the wounded the dying and the dead” [4]

The July 4, 1863 surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, is often the timeline given for this strategic city’s fall.  However, there had been action for many months before.  Military operations around Vicksburg actually began in late 1862[5].  It wasn’t until May of 1863 that Ulysses S. Grant’s army began their siege and major battles.  The 22nd Kentucky was therefore a part of the early operations.  John T. Harrington was there as a Union soldier, but his feelings toward his allegiance were being tested by the political events of the day.

As Harrington fought around Vicksburg, Abraham Lincoln battled the issue of slavery.  Having run as a candidate to prevent the spread of slavery, by the summer of 1862 Lincoln was now ready to abolish it. Winning the battle of Antietam in September, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.  It stated that on January 1, 1863 “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”[6]  While this didn’t apply to Kentucky, many of its citizens knew that slavery would likely end there too.  “Kentuckians were alarmed by the principles upon which it rested, and few citizens of the state endorsed it.”[7]

As it turns out, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was having a profound effect on Harrington’s opinion on the rightness of his cause. After this recent battle near Vicksburg he had the occasion to spend about an hour with captured Confederate soldiers.  In an astonishing turn of events he praised them:

“I spent over an hour among them [the Confederate prisoners of war] that night and on the word of a soldier they are men and men of the order of the days of [17]76 men who have their hearts enlisted in their cause who believe God is with them and even willing to favor and defend them from the hand of oppression.”[8]

Here he compared his enemy to the kinds of men one would have found during the Revolutionary War (“days of 76”); true patriots.  They (unlike the Union troops) are fighting with all their heart.   Harrington feels that God is with those soldiers and perhaps not with Union troops. 

As a Kentucky Unionist, the letter demonstrates that Harrington was in favor of slavery.  With the Emancipation Proclamation issued just three weeks prior to this letter being written (January 1st), he felt betrayed by the very government he was fighting for. When word of the Preliminary proclamation was announced in September, many “Kentucky troops . . . left their regiments and either went home or joined the rebels”[9] Harrington did not join the rebels or go home, but as the months passed, and with the official proclamation in effect, Harrington expressed his frustration:

“I enlisted to fight for the Union and the Constitution but Lincoln puts a different construction on things and now has us Union Men fighting for his Abolition Platform and thus making us a hord of Subjugators, house burners, negro thieves and devastators of private property.”[10]

Clearly, John Harrington was stating that his army, the Union army, was worse than the Confederates.  He felt that his regiment was essentially doing the work of the abolitionist Abraham Lincoln.  The reason for the war to him was to protect slavery through upholding the Constitution, but now that had been subverted.

These were strong words for a Union soldier, but perhaps not unexpected in light of Kentucky’s role as a border state. With the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, John Harrington likely realized that slavery would soon be over in all of the United States, even Kentucky. In his letter to his sister he expressed the idea that he had joined and was fighting to protect people’s property rights. He believed that the Confederates were fighting for what they believed in but that he wasn’t sure of his cause anymore.  Harrington was caught between his belief in the Union and his devotion to slavery.  With the passage of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, his allegiance to his country was being bitterly tested and would likely continue to be a struggle for him and his fellow Kentuckians long after the war.



[1] Dyer, Frederick H. A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (Des Moines, IA: Dyer Pub. Co.), 1908.

[2] John T. Harrington Letters, SC57. 9, May 1863, Kentucky Historical Society.

[3] Astor, Aaron, The Crouching Lion’s Fate: Slave Politics and Conservative Unionism in Kentucky (The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, VOL. 110, Nos. 3&4, 2012), 296.

[4] John T. Harrington Letters, SC575, 19 Jan. 1863, Kentucky Historical Society.

[5] National Park Service, The Campaign for Vicksburg, History E-Library.  2013

[6] The Emancipation Proclamation, National Archives and Records Administration.

[7] Harrison, Lowell H. The Civil War in Kentucky.  Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1975, 93.

[8] Kentucky Historical Society, John T. Harrington Letters, SC575, Jan. 1863.

[9] Harris, William C. Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union.  Lawrenceville, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2011, 210.

[10] John T. Harrington Letters, SC 575, Kentucky Historical Society.

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