The Border State Reality of the Emancipation Proclamation

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

WolfordBy Valerie Cichy, Rhodes Junior High School, Mesa, AZ

It is clear that there are numerous misconceptions and pieces of misinformation where parts of history are concerned. Unfortunately, many of these distorted perceptions of reality come from the classroom; as, for example, when a teacher instructs his or her students that Lincoln did free all the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the Civil War.[1] Obviously, this is erroneous. However, it does prove the point that many Americans have been misinformed on the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation. Still, in a remotely accurate classroom, many young adults are still lead to believe that slaves were freed in the South—not very true; the South hated the proclamation—sure enough; the North loved the proclamation—not really, compromise never really makes anyone happy; and the border states were okay with it because it didn’t free their slaves—definitely not true.

In fact, the border states of the Civil War are often left out in the description of what many Americans know of the Civil War. In doing so, many assumptions are made that are definitely not true. It would be odd to believe the reality that many border states, such as Kentucky, strongly sided with the Union, while intensely siding with the continuation of slavery. Yet, the idea of staying in the Union made more sense with the belief that slavery would be better protected by staying in the Union.[2] These conflicting ideals would create strong tensions when Lincoln chose to deliver his famous Emancipation Proclamation. Would the border states support it with their support for the Union as it did not affect their property? This is the general assumption.

The assumption that border states would support and accept the Emancipation Proclamation would be incorrect. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that border states, such as Kentucky, were not supportive of emancipation. In fact, in the gradual, compensated emancipation plan, which would provide apprenticeships and release African-Americans over a longer period of time, was still widely opposed by the border states.[3] The fact of the matter is that roughly 20% of Kentucky’s population consisted of free or enslaved blacks.[4] The fears that played on the white population of these border states may have been enough, along with the loss of property values of slaves, to cause them to oppose most any kind of emancipation.

Obviously, the Emancipation Proclamation was met with a mix of emotions in the border states, as it would have been met with in the North, but in a different way. There were abolitionists in Kentucky, like the German immigrants who called for the immediate abolition of slavery[5], who may have liked the direction, but like many other abolitionists in the North would have liked the measure to go further and free all enslaved populations. Yet, for many people in the border states, how they reacted did not fit this mold of likability. This newspaper article can eloquently illustrate just how a border state responded to this proclamation by stating, “We scarcely know how to express our indignation at this flagrant outrage of all Constitutional law, all human justice, all Christian feeling”. [6] And, in fact, Lincoln did not really believe that he had the constitutional authority for this proclamation[7], yet even with Kentucky’s slaves seemingly unaffected by this proclamation, the reaction to this measure was strongly against Lincoln. In the same newspaper article, it goes on to state that “civilization should be so disgraced by an imbecile President as to be made to appear before the world as the encourager or insurrection, lust, arson and murder!”[8] These are such strong words, when technically, according to this measure, slave property was secured. This speaks to the level at which many border states opposed this measure. In addition, it also shows the fear that it was only a matter of time until their property would be illegally confiscated by the government as well.

Many border state individuals in the military were also greatly upset by the proclamation. A group of officers went so far as to begin working on tendering their resignation from the military in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. Other responses by border state military officers were to remain in the military, but refuse the order to free slaves or to enlist free Negroes into their regiment, as in the case of Col. Frank Wolford. In response to Wolford’s policies, the government was willing to remove him from the military as “violating the fifth article of war.”  As Wolford discussed, he could easily raise all-white troops, without the need for colored troops. And, as he was a strong Union supporter, he was against the confiscation of slaves and their enlistment into the military. [9] This is not very hard to consider given the social ramifications of the day. Realistically, few white men would want to serve beside colored soldiers. And, for the purpose of raising regiments of new soldiers, the decrees of only taking white men for his regiments allowed Wolford to raise his troops much faster than could be found elsewhere in Kentucky.[10] Yet, this did not follow the Union’s agenda of using colored troops to defeat the Confederacy, much to the frustration of the white members that their service meant far less.

Everyday soldiers also became aggravated at the intentions of the Emancipation Proclamation and how it changed what they were fighting for. As Charles Hanson declared that he would “not fight to free his own negroes” and “did not feel satisfied to fight in a cause so detrimental to his own interest”.[11] This idea would have been similar of many other Kentuckians in the military as many people in Kentucky had slaves, even though they were small in amount to make Kentucky to lowest per capita of slaves. [12] Thus, many soldiers would begin to leave the military, rather than to serve an army and a government that would take their property. In the end, the results of the war would not work to their advantage.

In conclusion, there are many misconceptions that exist regarding the border states and the Emancipation Proclamation. In order to clear this up, we must come to fully understand that Lincoln did not really free the slaves; the 13th amendment would accomplish that. As for the Emancipation Proclamation, it would anger the South, as well as the border states. Some individuals would follow the Union ideal and remain loyal to the United States, as in the case of Col. Wolford, but refuse to follow the actions of the Emancipation Proclamation by not confiscated property (slaves) and declining to admit any African Americans into the army. Others simply refused to remain in the military to aid a government, which in their mind, would destruct their present living standard. It is a complicated web of reality and not one that could or should be broken down to a single assumption. It is a complicated story that should be told in its entirety as it shows the problems and tensions that tell the story that was the Civil War, rather than a series of battles.

[1]Leigh Owens. “Abraham Lincoln: The Man Who Freed the Slaves?” The Blog. 19 November 2012. Retrieved from

[2] James Klotter. “Kentucky in the Civil War”. Frankfort, Kentucky. 24 June 2013.

[3] William C. Harris. “Lincoln and the Border States”. Frankfort, Kentucky. 24 June 2013.

[4] Brian McKnight. “The Border States in the Civil War”. Frankfort, Kentucky. 23 June 2013.

[5] James Klotter. “Kentucky in the Civil War”. Frankfort, Kentucky. 24 June 2013.

[6] Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth, 1-5-1863, Kentucky Historical Society.

[7] William C. Harris. “Lincoln and the Border States”. Frankfort, Kentucky. 24 June 2013.

[8] Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth, 1-5-1863, Kentucky Historical Society.

[9] Col. Wolford’s Letter to President Lincoln. The Casey County News. April 1966. Kentucky Historical Society.

[10] Col. Wolford’s Letter to President Lincoln. The Casey County News. April 1966. Kentucky Historical Society.

[11] Patrick Lewis. “All Men of Decency Ought to Quit the Army: Benjamin F. Buckner, Manhood and Proslavery Unionism in Kentucky.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 107, No. 4 (Autumn 2009), 513-550.

[12] Christopher Phillips. “Sister Border States: Missouri and Maryland in the Civil War”. Frankfort, Kentucky. 24 June 2013.

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