Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States of America, and Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, were both born in Kentucky, less than a year and about 80 miles apart. And as the crisis over the future of slavery led to secession and civil war in the 1860s, no state was more divided than their native land.
In the late 1850s, Kentucky was geographically and politically at the center of the United States. It was where East met West, with borders in the Appalachian Mountains and the wetlands of the Mississippi River. And it was where North met South, with the natural barrier of more than 600 miles of the Ohio River forming its northern border—and marking the division between states that had abolished slavery and those that still allowed it.
Kentucky’s economy also occupied a middle ground between industrialization and agriculture. The rivers and a growing network of railroads had made the state a hub of transportation. Louisville, located at the Falls of the Ohio, had grown into the 12th largest city in the country, with miles of riverfront lined with warehouses. The mining of coal to fuel Northern factories was becoming increasingly important in the Appalachians. Much of the rest of the state was still rural, but neither the climate nor the topography of the land was suitable for establishing the kind of large cotton plantations that were common farther south. Instead, most farms were small family operations, and the owners of larger plantations tended to grow tobacco or raise livestock.
Therefore, few Kentucky families actually owned slaves. But those who did tended to be wealthy and politically influential—including the family of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, who was born in Lexington. Slaves were not considered a mainstay of the state’s agricultural economy, but they did make up a lucrative part of the stream of “goods” that flowed through Kentucky. Lexington had a thriving slave market. And while visiting with his friend Joshua Speed of Louisville, Lincoln had seen shackled slaves on a boat, being delivered to a new owner in the South.
Kentuckians had lived with a high degree of geographic, economic, and social diversity ever since the state’s founding. When confronted with a divisive issue like slavery, they tended to seek out a middle ground and mistrust “radicals” on either side. During the presidential election of 1860, Kentuckians actually had a choice between two native sons: Lincoln and John C. Breckinridge, vice president under James Buchanan. They picked neither, voting for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, who ran on a platform of continuing to seek compromises and avoid the issue of slavery for as long as possible. Lincoln, representing the new and specifically anti-slavery Republican Party, was seen as yet another radical in his native state and got less than 1% of the vote. But Kentucky did choose to remain in the Union after other slave states had seceded, under the condition that slavery be allowed to continue—one of four such “border states” during the war.
Lincoln considered the border states critical to the war effort. To keep them in the Union, he at first promised not to interfere with slavery and to respect Kentucky’s official position of neutrality in the Civil War. But after a Confederate commander moved troops into Kentucky, violating that neutrality, Union forces responded, and the campaign to control Kentucky—and its water and rail supply routes—brought several large battles to the state in 1862.
That year also saw a change in federal policy toward slaves. Instead of returning runaway slaves to their masters, Union military commanders were empowered to free the fugitives and put them to work as paid laborers for the army. Lincoln followed up that order with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in all rebel territories and invited African Americans to join the U.S. armed forces. Eventually, more than 24,000 black Kentuckians would serve as Union soldiers, and Kentucky’s Camp Nelson would become a center for housing and training them. Lincoln saw these measures as necessities of war. But to many in Kentucky, encouraging slaves to run away and join the army was a betrayal of the president’s earlier promises and an unconstitutional elevation of federal power over that of the state.
Long after Confederate troops had withdrawn from the state, Kentuckians continued to suffer from the depredations of raiders from both armies, who pillaged supplies and destroyed rail lines and other infrastructure to disrupt enemy plans. In July of 1864, Lincoln imposed martial law on the state in an attempt to suppress the increasing violence. But its harsh measures fueled anti-Union and anti-Lincoln resentment. In the presidental election that November, Kentucky was one of only three states to vote for Lincoln’s opponent, former Union commanding general George McClellan.