On The Eve Of War: The Commonwealth of Kentucky

(Adapted from a speech given in 2011)

Kentucky in 1860 and 1861 was a very different place on the national scene than what it is today, although arguably Kentucky is inching back to its former place.

Kentucky in 1860 was a national leader and one of the bellweather states in the United States. It was the birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. A Kentuckian, John C. Breckinridge, was Vice President of the United States from 1857 to 1861. Two Kentuckians, Lincoln and Breckinridge, were on the ballot in the 1860 Presidential Election, although the state went for John Bell and the Constitutional Union ticket.

In 1860 Kentucky ranked ninth in the nation in terms of total population, with 1.15 million people. The largest city in Kentucky was Louisville with 68,000 people. In 1860 Louisville was 12th largest in the country, just 3,000 less than Newark, New Jersey. Louisville was in the race to be a leading economic hub as the nation expanded westward.

One of the best indicators of Kentucky’s changed status from 1860 to 2021 is the status of the second largest city in the Commonwealth – Lexington. Lexington in 1860 had 9,000 people in it, only 200 people smaller than the city of Atlanta, Georgia. It was also the home of Mary Todd Lincoln. Lexington also had a great reputation as the “Athens of the West.” One of the first colleges founded west of the Appalachian Mountains, Transylvania University, was in Lexington, and the city was then known as the center for learning and thought.

Kentucky was a slave state; 23% of Kentucky families owned slaves, with 25% of that number owning only one slave. This fact makes Kentucky a very different slave state than a lot of other places. Farms were smaller, with fewer big plantations than elsewhere.

As for the state’s economy, it was and is driven by Kentucky’s geographic location. Ohio River trade and the rail connections, particularly along what is today the Interstate 65 corridor to points north and south, really drove the Kentucky economy as it shipped its products to elsewhere in the country. Kentucky was very much an agrarian state but unlike the Deep South, tobacco was king in Kentucky. Kentucky stood seventh in the value of farms nationally and fifth in the value of its livestock in 1860. The state still ranked 15th in the country, in the top 50%, in terms of manufacturing. These economics tied Kentucky both to the north and to the south.

This divide also showed up in Kentucky’s politics. Nationally, the state has long straddled north and south, as explained in the state’s motto since 1792, United We Stand Divided We Fall. A guiding spirit was Henry Clay, who lived in Lexington and died in 1852. Clay had represented Kentucky as a national-level politician from the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 until his death. Most famously he had earned the nickname of the Great Compromiser and placed himself as a bridge between the north and south and had been a key player and a key pivot point in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. At his passing in 1852, many other Kentucky politicians picked up his banner, most notably Senator John J. Crittenden and Governor Beriah Magoffin, among others. The spirit of Clay guided Kentucky’s leaders as they navigated the Secession Crisis of 1861.

This was Kentucky on the eve of the Civil War. Over the next five years the state would be torn in two by the war and become a battleground for regular and irregular clashes. One hundred thousand Kentuckians fought for the Union, while 40,000 served the Confederacy. The divisions stoked by this conflict and its effects would affect the state for the next century and a half and longer.

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3 Responses to On The Eve Of War: The Commonwealth of Kentucky

  1. James West says:

    On the eve of the Civil War, Kentucky and Missouri were very similar. Both were slave-states and were subjected to significant, competing political forces to secede or remain in the Union. Kentucky ultimately remained in the federal Union, but Missouri was subjected to an outrageous attack by the U.S. Army. The legally-elected government was forced out of the state. Although Missouri held a state convention in early 1861 to “determine its relationship to the federal Union” there was overwhelming sentiment to remain with only one dissenting vote out of the 99 delegates. At a June 11 meeting in St. Louis with Governor Jackson and Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri State Guard, Brig. Gen. Lyon, now commanding all U. S. Army troops in Missouri, declared war on the still-loyal state, an egregious, intemperate action. Jackson and Price immediately left for Jefferson City, the state capital. Lyon, in two days, sent troops upriver and captured Jefferson City, forcing the state government to flee and making Missouri an ally of the Confederacy. He also sent Franz Sigel with a separate force to southwest Missouri in a plan to overwhelm the Missouri State Guard between the two U.S. Army forces before they could link up with Southern forces (C.S. and Arkansas) then in northern Arkansas. This failed, and the resultant Battle of Wilson’s Creek occurred on August 10, 1861. Lyon commanded the U.S. Army although he had just recently been a captain in command of only a regular infantry company. His attack plan for the Southern alliance forces just southwest of Springfield was seriously flawed, dividing his army into two forces in the face of a numerically-superior enemy. The Union Army was soundly defeated, and Lyon was killed — ironically by his own foolish declaration of war on Missouri and his tactical ineptitude. The citizens of Missouri suffered greatly for four years because of Lyon, aided and abetted by Frank Blair whose brother was serving on Lincoln’s cabinet.

    • Mike Maxwell says:

      To summarize the above: the People of Missouri voted 98 – 1 on March 21st 1861 to remain in the Union; Rebel forces fired on Fort Sumter, commencing April 12th effectively initiating the war; on April 20th 1861 the People of Missouri reacted to the Rebel attack on Fort Sumter… by seizing control of the U.S. Arsenal at Liberty Missouri… in sympathy with the Rebel cause.
      Obviously, Union Army officer Nathaniel Lyon was unduly alarmed…

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