The Border States were located geographically in too central a place to stay apart from the conflict, as both the Union and Confederacy recognized the strategic value of the region.
It is a popular belief that the Border States-Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia--comprised the Civil War's middle ground, a region of moderation lying between the warring North and South. This was, after all, the home of great compromisers such as Kentucky's Henry Clay, a U.S. senator who crafted important measures that prevented civil war in the 1820s and 1850s. It was the region in which no states supported Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election - but where no states seceded in response either. And it was a region that sought a unique middle position in wartime, slave-holding states remaining with the free states of the Union. Yet, any hope that this pursuit of the middle ground would bring peace to border state residents was quickly dashed in wartime. Angry confrontations, including some of the most violent guerrilla warfare in American history, became an everyday fact of life in this region, as the two sides lived side-by-side and confronted one another on a daily basis. The border states were both compromising in peacetime and antagonistic in war, two seemingly contradictory positions that in fact sprung from the same source: each state encompassed deep and enduring internal divisions.
The border region had long been the place where Americans' divergent interests coincided, where slavery and abolitionism, industry and agriculture, Democrats and Republicans all existed side-by-side. It was the crossroads of Americans' travel too, as Northerners moved south to obtain land or to vacation, Southerners went north for education or employment, and Easterners moved west to seek new land. The different cultures, economies, and politics of the nation coexisted in this region, making it difficult, as sectional conflict threatened the nation, to pull these states neatly toward one side or the other. Residents felt deeply the nation's struggle over the future of slavery. On the one hand the border states held fewer slaves - only 11 percent of the nation's total slave population in 1860 -- than states further south. Yet the number of slaveholders was not insignificant either, as Kentucky had more slave owners than Mississippi (and ranked third behind Virginia and Georgia by this measure). Public opinion surrounding slavery shared much of the intensity of the national struggle too, as abolitionists made deep inroads in the border states before the war, by setting up new organizations and newspapers, while proslavery vigilantes tried to stop them with mob violence. Border State politicians saw among their constituents nothing less than the divided nation on a smaller scale.
Holding this internally divided population together was a problem that intensified with the secession crisis and pushed border state leaders into a particular form of compromise: neutrality. While the four other slaveholding states that had been similarly reluctant to secede - Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina -- eventually did so by the end of April 1861, the remaining border states initially sought to take no side at all (the exception was Delaware, where Union loyalties were never in doubt). But this proved difficult to sustain. Residents found it hard to be neutral in their daily lives, especially men of military age who began leaving the states in order to enlist elsewhere. These states were also located geographically in too central a place to stay apart from the conflict, as both the Union and Confederacy recognized the strategic value of the region. Maryland surrounded Washington, D.C., on three sides, while Baltimore's port and railroads offered important supply lines. Kentucky possessed the Ohio River, a well-traveled route for western troops, as well as railways into the South, while St. Louis was the home to one of the nation's largest arsenals. The Border States possessed human and material resources that could help either side, and with the opening shots of the war, both set out to win them over.
The earliest challenge to the border states' neutrality took place in Maryland on April 19, 1861. Here, as the 6th Massachusetts Regiment answered Lincoln's call for troops and moved through Maryland on the way to Washington, D.C., a pro-Confederate mob gathered in Baltimore and opened fire as the troops approached. The Massachusetts soldiers fired back, and by the end of the day, 16 people had died. More Union troops continued to arrive, occupying the capital of Annapolis and opening up a safer route into D.C. that bypassed turbulent Baltimore. The state legislature left Annapolis, and although its members openly criticized Union leaders, no convention was called to consider secession. By mid-June, latent Union sentiment emerged powerfully to elect Unionists to all six Maryland seats in the U.S. Congress. Any lingering hope for neutrality, or even secession, faded away. Similar defeats for neutrality took place over the coming months in Kentucky, which, despite the governor's southern sympathies, continued to raise the U.S. flag over its capitol in September, and in Missouri, where the Union pushed Confederate troops out by March 1862. Neutrality was over and the Border States were now officially attached to the Union.
But it was one thing for a state to profess its allegiance to the Union and quite another for all of its citizens to follow suit. Long-standing animosities emerged with a vengeance, as the border-state population openly turned on itself. Communities divided, or in the case of West Virginia, an entire state, split from Confederate Virginia in 1863. Families divided too, in what was widely regarded as a unique border-state problem, as sons fled Unionist parents to enlist in the Confederate army, or as brothers - such as Kentucky Senator John J. Crittenden's own sons - joined the opposing armies, or even as husbands and wives avoided talking politics lest they find themselves on the brink of divorce. "There is scarcely a family that is not divided," a St. Louis woman noted in 1861. This deeply felt inner conflict forced both armies to continue fighting mightily over the region, either to peel away the Border States, as in the case of the Confederacy, or to protect their Union allegiance. The stakes were high. As Lincoln himself put it in September 1861, "I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us."
The ensuing battle over the region witnessed some of the Civil War's most violent warfare, and nowhere was this more true than in Missouri. There, pro-southern forces had been influential from the start, counting among them the governor of the state, Claiborne Fox Jackson. Frustrated with his state's neutrality, Jackson took control of the St. Louis police and mobilized a pro-Confederate militia in April 1861, all in an unsuccessful effort to seize the city's arsenal. Fighting between Jackson's forces, and Union troops led by General Nathaniel Lyon, continued in this ostensibly "neutral" state over the course of that year, culminating in two pivotal battles: first, the Battle of Wilson's Creek on August 10, in which Confederate forces prevailed and Lyon was killed, leading Jackson to call a shadow convention that passed an ordinance of secession; and second, the Battle at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March 1862, in which Union forces turned back Jackson's advances and pushed the governor into exile in northwest Arkansas, thereby solidifying the Union's hold on Missouri.
Protecting the Union's position in Missouri would involve, for the duration of the war, fending off the guerrillas who picked up where the conventional Confederate forces left off. William Quantrill, "Bloody Bill" Anderson, Jesse and Frank James. Their names--especially the James brothers--are now legendary, but at the time, they posed a formidable obstacle to the Union and a rallying point for pro-Confederate residents who cheered them on across this divided state. Unionist guerrillas from Kansas, known as "Jayhawkers," retaliated in this form of irregular warfare that exploited community divisions in gruesome encounters and in effect transformed the border states' divided loyalties into some of the most brutal warfare Americans had ever seen. For the Union this meant that winning the war would require suppressing this rebellion in its own border states as well as winning the conventional battles elsewhere.
The Lincoln administration decided early on that political measures, in addition to military force, were also necessary to curb disloyalty and put down the border region's inner civil war. The result was a series of policies that became controversial for their apparent erosion of civil liberties. The first instance occurred in Maryland, in the early days of neutrality, when the President suspended the writ of habeas corpus in an order mandating that anyone suspected of disloyal acts or speech be arrested and detained in military prison without a hearing in court. It was a move that resulted in the arrest of members of Maryland's legislature, among others, but as the state's unionism eventually prevailed, the policy was extended to other places too. Later that summer, in the aftermath of the Union loss at Wilson's Creek in Missouri, General John C. Fremont imposed martial law on that state, ordering the seizure of property owned by Confederate sympathizers as well as the emancipation of their slaves. By the next month military commissions began trying Missouri civilians, and in September 1862, Lincoln ordered the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus nationwide.
To live in the Border States after this point was to live amid fear of arrest for any word or deed construed as disloyal to the Union. One had to be careful what was written in a letter, which was likely read by Union mail censors, or to ask in writing for permission to travel and prove that such movement carried no disloyal intent. Even women, who might have thought themselves exempt from such scrutiny by not being official combatants in the war, were under suspicion. The policies were heralded as necessary by Lincoln's Republican allies--but many border state residents protested the acts with violent resistance, or in the case of native Baltimorean James R. Randall, by penning a new poem that would later become Maryland's official song. "The despot's heel is on thy shore," the song "Maryland, My Maryland" opens, beginning an extended rant against the "Northern scum" and the "tyrant's chain."
The Lincoln administration acknowledged this sort of backlash by imposing some limits on its political pursuit of the border states. This was especially true with regard to slavery. One provision in Fremont's martial law declaration- the emancipation of slaves - went too far in the president's eyes, as he had long recognized how strong proslavery sentiment was in the border states and feared losing the region if he moved too quickly, or too decisively, to abolish slavery by federal decree. So Lincoln responded to Fremont's action by first requesting that provision revoked, and when Fremont refused, relieving the general from command. Yet, Lincoln did not abandon the goal of emancipation for border region either, because despite the potential to alienate its residents, ending slavery there could also end the South's pursuit of those states. This, in turn, could end the war more quickly. Lincoln, therefore, pursued a state-driven emancipation plan beginning with Delaware in late 1861, in which he promised federal compensation to the states' slaveholders in return for voluntary abolition--but Delaware's legislature rejected it. Then, in the summer of 1862, as the president mulled over the prospect of a sweeping emancipation plan for the Confederate states, he called for a conference of border-state leaders at the White House to plead with them to enact emancipation on their own. They refused. This left Lincoln to draft his monumental Emancipation Proclamation later that month with the border states officially exempted from its provisions. Unofficially, though, as the proclamation went into effect, the promise of freedom now surrounded the border states on all sides, leading the region's enslaved men, women, and children to flee their plantations anyway - severely eroding slavery in the region in practice, if not in policy.
Unionism ultimately prevailed along the border. The majority of white men of military age in these states ended up fighting for the Union (approximately 275,000 as compared to 71,000 who fought as Confederates), and by the war's end, Missouri and Maryland had both capitulated to emancipation and abolished slavery within their borders (West Virginia had already done so with statehood in 1863). Yet, in another sign of how the region's history of compromise coexisted with internal dissent, Delaware and Kentucky did not - and it took until the twentieth century for these last holdouts to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery everywhere in December 1865. Even today the region appears divided in Americans' memories of the war, with a state like Maryland clearly linked to its Union ancestry, while many fail to remember that Kentucky was not a Confederate state. The push and pull of the border states from one side to the other thus continues in the war's aftermath, a legacy of the region's long-standing history of internal division.
This essay is taken from The Civil War Remembered, published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at www.eparks.com/store.
National Parks with Major Resources Related to the Ordeal of the Border States
Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Monument, Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, Antietam National Battlefield, Arkansas Post National Memorial, Buffalo National River, C&O Canal National Historical Park, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, Fort Scott National Historic Site, Fort Smith National Historic Site, Monocacy National Battlefield, Pea Ridge National Military Park, Shiloh National Military Park, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield
Last updated: August 14, 2017