Despite compromise and neutrality efforts, Kentucky — a border state — found its government and people divided during the Civil War. Families and communities held opposing views regarding states’ rights and slavery. Disputes led to a shadow Confederate government, loyalty oaths, and martial law..
Political divisions dominated the 1860 presidential election, particularly regarding popular sovereignty, which gave citizens regional, domestic policy-making power. Republican Abraham Lincoln promised no slavery in territories, while Democrats splintered debating over popular sovereignty. Former Whigs and Know-Nothings held a separate perspective, and formed the Constitutional Union party. Lincoln won nationally but lost his native state — Kentucky.
In December 1860, Senator J.J. Crittenden addressed secession with the Crittenden Compromise. It proposed re-establishing the 36°30’ parallel, permitting interstate slave trading and popular sovereignty for new states, enforcing fugitive slave laws, and revoking personal liberty laws. Southern congressmen refused acceptance without Republican support. Congress tabled the bill. Nevertheless, compromise attempts continued.
Despite southern sympathies, Governor Beriah Magoffin wanted to preserve the Union. He proposed economic and political compromises to southern governors. They desired Kentucky’s secession; an issue dividing the Legislature in early 1861. Meanwhile, national legislators organized a Peace Convention, which failed. Congressmen left Washington as states seceded. John C. Breckinridge believed a "Border State Conference" could unite opposing sides.
Border states held strategic significance. Kentucky was valuable for its resources and location. Military forces could command the Mississippi River and Ohio River Valley. Both sides initially attempted control through trade restrictions and secret appropriations. Breckinridge’s conference never occurred because Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, and Kentucky broached neutrality by denying militia to Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
By May 1861, Kentucky officially declared neutrality; a position that quickly failed. The Union recruited from across state boundaries, but smuggled weapons to civilians before founding Camp Dick Robinson in July. Despite Magoffin’s pleas, it remained open. Confederates reacted with Camp Boone in Tennessee then occupied Kentucky in September, which counteracted Union forces in Missouri. The Union took Paducah, while Confederates controlled Bowling Green and most of the southern border. States’ Righters called a Peace Convention, failing when legislators requested only Confederates withdraw, overriding Magoffin’s veto. In response, many States’ Righters and State Guardsmen defected.
Unionists controlled the Legislature, but Southern sympathizers wanted secession. In late 1861, Chairman John C. Breckinridge and delegates formed a shadow government in Russellville, consisting of Governor George W. Johnson, few officials, the Kentucky Constitution, and a capital — Bowling Green. Despite irregular proceedings, the Confederacy admitted Kentucky in December 1861.
Confederate Kentucky was inherently unstable. It never raised sufficient funds or militia. The central government followed military defenses, evacuating Kentucky in February 1862, when the Confederate line, including Bowling Green, fell. Richard Hawes became governor after Johnson died in battle. By September, Confederate gains offered hope. On October 4, Hawes’ inauguration in Frankfort (an effort at a permanent government) was interrupted by Union shelling. As Confederates retreated, opposing armies fatefully clashed at Perryville. Confederate Kentucky didn’t rise again.
The Union continued holding the border state, occasionally respecting its status. Excluding Kentucky, Lincoln authorized African-American enlistment in 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation applied to Confederate states, except Kentucky, despite its shadow government. Nevertheless, Camp Nelson became an African-American haven, and Union commanders imposed bouts of martial law to intimidate "disloyal" citizens. Liberties taken by occupying militia led to political and social conflicts.
Magoffin had resigned in 1862 due to military and civilian discord and repeated clashes with General Jeremiah Boyle. Boyle arrested "treasonous" citizens, forbidding them to run for office, despite required loyalty oaths. Struggles continued between General Stephen Burbridge (Boyle’s replacement) and Governor Thomas Bramlette regarding harsh punishments. Lincoln instituted martial law in July 1864, suspending habeas corpus. Election corruption followed with ballot-tampering and even incarcerating candidates! Nevertheless, state conditions caused Lincoln to lose Kentucky in November.
Soon after the Confederacy surrendered, Lincoln was assassinated. Kentucky commemorated him, yet renounced emancipation of enlisted African-Americans and relatives, citing "illegal" slave marriages. In May 1865, General John Palmer (Burbridge’s replacement) authorized "Palmer Passes," permitting easier movement for slaves than ex-Confederates. Courts dismissed charges that Palmer aided escapes, violating the slave code. President Andrew Johnson ended military rule in October, and reinstated habeas corpus. This allowed rejection of the 13th amendment, which prohibited slavery and was ratified in December.
Through attempted compromises, neutrality, and border state struggles, Kentucky was torn by battles, politics, and allegiances. Even after the rebellion fell and Kentuckians eventually regained political control, exiles returned to tumultuous communities. Unification and identity conflicts continued well into the 20th century.