Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, is one of America’s greatest presidents and one of history’s most admired leaders. He led the country through its greatest crisis: the secession of 11 Southern states to form the Confederate States of America and the ensuing Civil War. And he was instrumental in the abolition of slavery in the U.S., first by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and then by working behind the scenes politically to make sure that a constitutional amendment was passed before the war ended.
Lincoln was born in a log cabin on a farm near what is now Hodgenville, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. Though his family moved away from Kentucky when he was 7 years old, he maintained important ties to his native state throughout his life. His first political hero, Henry Clay; his first mentor as a young lawyer, John Todd Stuart; his lifelong best friend and confidant, Joshua Speed; his wife, Mary Todd; and another law partner, William Herndon, were all Kentuckians.
During the Civil War, Kentucky was strategically located between North and South and a hub of both river and railroad transportation, and Lincoln considered maintaining control of the state vitally important. He told a senator, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” But Kentucky was a slave state—the Clay, Speed, and Todd families all owned slaves—and had not voted for Lincoln, a Republican running on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery. So to keep Kentucky in the Union, he promised not to interfere with slavery there and to respect the state’s wish to be neutral in the war.
Both of those promises eventually were broken. After Confederate forces occupied a western Kentucky town on the Mississippi River, Union troops moved in, too, and several large battles were fought in the state during 1862. Even after the armies withdrew, residents of Kentucky were subjected to frequent raids from both official and unofficial detachments from both sides, who pillaged for supplies and destroyed transportation links. These depredations fed anti-war sentiment, and more and more Kentuckians grew sympathetic to the idea of just ending the fighting and letting the South secede. One group of Confederate supporters even formed a shadow state government and was granted admission to the Confederacy.
Lincoln eventually imposed martial law in Kentucky to quell the rising violence, further angering many Kentuckians. And as the war ground on and volunteers became harder to come by, he changed military policy regarding slaves. Instead of returning runaway slaves to their masters, commanders were allowed to hire them on as manual labor. Slave owners in Kentucky and the other border states were incensed at what they considered an unjust confiscating of their “property.” Then in 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, and African-American men began to be accepted into the Union Army, actually taking up arms against their former owners. The Union military command even established a major camp for training the new black troops in Lincoln’s home state of Kentucky.
So by the time Lincoln ran for reelection in 1864, Kentucky had turned much more pro-South and anti-Lincoln. He got even fewer votes than he had four years earlier as Kentucky became one of only three states to vote for his opponent, former Union general George McClellan.
Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 set off an unprecedented period of national mourning. And in the years that followed, monuments and tributes to Lincoln sprang up around the country. Numerous schools and other institutions were named for him; his face was carved on Mount Rushmore and pictured on both the penny and the $5 bill; a memorial designed to look like a Greek temple was built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; and a flood of books celebrated his life and leadership. Indiana and Illinois, the two other states where Lincoln had lived during his childhood and adolescence, celebrated their connections to him by turning his former homes and places of business into historic sites and tourist attractions.
Kentucky, though, was much slower to embrace its native son. The resentments left over from the Civil War lingered for decades. A nationwide association of citizens created a memorial at Lincoln’s birthplace and then donated it to the National Park Service, and a private citizen funded a statue of Lincoln in the state capitol rotunda. But other memorials and statues were erected to honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who also was born in Kentucky.
Individual Kentuckians, of course, differed in their feelings about Lincoln. African Americans celebrated him as the Great Emancipator, and several all-black schools in the state were named for him during the years of segregation. But it wasn’t until the civil rights movement overturned segregation itself and prompted a reexamination of the legacy of the Confederacy that the state truly began to celebrate its role as the place that produced and nurtured Abraham Lincoln.