I’m currently reading Kent Dollar, Larry Whiteaker, W. Calvin Dickinson’s book, Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The book explores why Kentucky, officially, chose to remain in the Union while Tennessee, officially, seceded and joined the Confederacy.
Last year, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the history, culture, and origins of the Upper South, but that project was derailed by developments in my personal life and the shift activism in the summer. After hammering away at Haiti for two months, I think learning more about Kentucky will be a welcome respite.
Here are a few reasons why Kentucky’s course of action in the War Between the States was so different from the Lower South:
1.) Blacks – In 1860, blacks were around 20 percent of Kentucky’s population. The state was growing whiter as slaves were “sold down the river” to the Lower South. As we have noted here on multiple occasions, eastern Kentucky was overwhelmingly White because plantation slavery didn’t exist in Appalachia. Therefore, the perceived threat posed by abolitionism wasn’t as great in Kentucky as elsewhere.
2.) Slavery – Whereas South Carolina was completely dominated by the Cotton Kingdom, Lower South-style cotton plantations could only be found in the extreme southwestern corner of Kentucky. This was really just an extension of the sectional divide between West Tennessee, culturally and demographically part of the Lower South, and East Tennessee, which was firmly Appalachian.
There were lots of slaves in Kentucky, which concentrated in the Bluegrass region and southwestern Kentucky, but slavery in Kentucky was a very different animal than slavery in the Lower South. In Kentucky, slaves worked on tobacco farms and hemp plantations, which were less labor intensive and smaller scale than Lower South cotton plantations. The typical slaveowner owned “fewer than five slaves.”
Slavery just wasn’t as intensive, profitable, or important in Kentucky as it was in Alabama or South Carolina.
3.) The Kentucky Rhineland – By 1860, tens of thousands of Kentuckians had moved across the Ohio River and settled southern Illinois and southern Indiana. The Ohio River was a geographic barrier between the slave states and free states, but it wasn’t an ethnic or cultural border between North and South.
4.) Northern Railroads – Northern railroads oriented the commerce of Kentucky toward the Midwest.
5.) Commerce – As a border state, Kentucky and Louisville in particular had much closer economic ties to the North than the Lower South. As we saw above, the slave interest was weaker in Kentucky and other commercial interests were relatively more important in state politics than elsewhere.
6.) Henry Clay and Unionism – Henry Clay’s shadow and influence as the “Great Compromiser” was hung over Kentucky in the 1860s. Compared to South Carolina, Kentucky was a moderate and conservative state that always gravitated toward compromise in sectional controversies.
7.) The Lower South – Kentuckians feared that the Confederacy was dominated by the cotton interest of the Lower South and would neglect the interests of the Upper South and the Border States in favor of cotton, free trade, and cheap slaves.
The author observes that a Kentuckian was “Southern in sentiment,” but a “Unionist in his wallet.” This would later prove fatal to the Confederacy and Kentucky once the consequences of remaining in the Union became clear. Kentucky joined the Confederacy in sentiment after the war was over.