In 1926 historian E. Merton Coulter described Kentucky during the Civil War as a “crouching lion, stretched east and west . . . the thoroughfare of the continent.” Kentucky served as more than the geographic fulcrum of the Union between slave and free states. It also represented the political heart of the Union, its politicians, most notably Henry Clay, having offered Union-saving compromise measures since 1820. It had long embraced conservative Unionism, a political tradition that understood “conservative” both as a social orientation (allowing for only gradual change to the institution of slavery) and a political relationship (with the Union buttressing the social order).
Militarily, Kentucky was absolutely critical to the Federal war effort, as the Ohio River would have become an international boundary if Kentucky had joined the Confederacy. Further, tens of thousands of Indianans, Illinoisans, and Ohioans traced their roots to Kentucky, including President Lincoln himself. Capturing the delicate but essential position of his native state, Lincoln commented that to “lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” After Fort Sumter, Kentuckians hoped to stay out of the war altogether, declaring the state “neutral” and pledging support for neither belligerent. But when Confederate General Leonidas Polk invaded the southwestern tip of the state in the beginning of September 1861, the legislature immediately declared its support for the Union.
What followed was a troubled partnership between a conservative, pro-slavery Unionist coalition within Kentucky and a Federal political and military engine steadily moving toward emancipation as a central war aim. The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply in Kentucky (since it was not in rebellion), and military officials made special efforts not to alienate the state’s civilian leadership. The breaking point came with black soldier enlistment in 1864, when 57% of black male Kentuckians of military age entered the Union army—the highest percentage, by far, of any slave state. The result was a dual rebellion in Kentucky: white Confederates rejected the “Union” part of conservative Unionism, and the slave population rejected the “conservative” part. By the end of 1865, eight months after Appomattox, Kentucky was the last state (along with Delaware) to maintain slavery, requiring the Thirteenth Amendment to bring the institution to an end. Legions of former conservative Unionists welcomed their ex-Confederate foes back to the state with open arms. And the state quickly developed a belated Confederate identity that would provide a rubric of resistance against Radical Reconstruction.
To understand how Kentucky’s slaves converted a pro-slavery Union that many of their masters supported into an anti-slavery republic, we must consider slave attitudes before 1861. Kentucky slaves who rebelled against the old social order drew upon decades of resistance against a small-scale but tenacious slave system. Networks of fugitive slaves, repeated insurrectionary threats, defiant acts in defense of the slave community and family, and everyday forms of resistance made for a slave population that was politically aware of the stakes of civil war in 1861. Slave actions exacerbated tensions within the Ohio Valley, especially in neighboring free states where the Fugitive Slave Act was never popular. Alas, divisions between anti-slavery Midwesterners and pro-slavery Kentuckians—and between pro-slavery Kentuckians over the best means to support the slave-based social order—led to a complicated form of border state warfare by late 1861. Slaves understood that divisions within the master class created an opportunity for freedom, and they positioned themselves to exploit the opening brought by civil war.
This post draws from Aaron Astor, “The Crouching Lion's Fate: Slave Politics and Conservative Unionism in Kentucky,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 110 (2012): 293-326, which won the 2013 Richard H. Collins Prize from the Kentucky Historical Society.