Four states where slavery was legal—Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware—chose not to secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America at the beginning of the Civil War. Kentucky was the birthplace of both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln (though he was by no means thought of as a “favorite son” at the time) and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and the state was deeply divided over the war and over slavery. So the state government at first declared Kentucky officially neutral in the conflict.
But neither side was willing to leave Kentucky out of its plans. The state was located at the geographic center of the country. It bordered the Ohio River for more than 600 miles, including that river’s junction with the Mississippi, and much of the nation’s freight passed through Kentucky’s river ports. A growing network of railroads also made Kentucky a rail hub for accessing Tennessee and the Deep South.
Both the Union and the Confederacy respected the state’s official neutrality for the first few months of the war, though they positioned troops very close to Kentucky’s borders, ready to move quickly in case of a move into Kentucky by the other side. In September 1861, the Confederates violated neutrality by occupying Columbus, Kentucky, a small town on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The Southern forces then attempted to block access to the river by stretching a heavy chain across it. The scheme failed, with the chain breaking and sinking under its own weight, but the Union responded swiftly to the threat, and the battle to control Kentucky was on. In a letter to Sen. Orville Browning, Lincoln declared, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
After the resignation of pro-Confederacy Gov. Beriah Magoffin, Kentucky’s General Assembly officially ended the policy of neutrality and voted to support the Union cause. But a group of fellow Southern sympathizers declared themselves a “shadow government” and named Bowling Green the Confederate capital of Kentucky. Though this group never actually represented the state or affected events at home, its petition to join the Confederacy was accepted, and “Confederate Kentucky” actually received a star on the CSA battle flag.