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  • Introduction: "Alsace-Lorraine of Pragmatism Between the Crusaders":Kentucky in the Civil War Era

In 1960, as Americans prepared for the Civil War Centennial, the esteemed southern historian C. Vann Woodward, then teaching at Johns Hopkins University, informed Robert Penn Warren that Kentucky stood "between revelation-happy Yank and deduction-bitten Reb, Alsace-Lorraine of pragmatism between the crusaders."1 In a few words, Woodward touched upon a theme common to students of Civil War-era Kentucky.

During the crisis of the Union, Kentuckians unabashedly proclaimed their exceptionalism and their pragmatism. First, its leaders declared neutrality. Then, after Confederate troops either "invaded" or "liberated" (depending on one's perspective) the commonwealth, state leaders reluctantly established a tense rapprochement with Abraham Lincoln's government. From 1863 onwards, the president's Emancipation Proclamation, and later the Federal recruitment of U.S. Colored Troops in the state, sparked intense opposition to the national government generally and to the president in particular. Unquestionably, Lincoln considered Kentucky, his native state, the most important and troublesome of the so-called loyal slave states. For [End Page 231] their part, Kentucky politicians repeatedly tested Lincoln, pledging allegiance to slavery and white supremacy and to the Union. By 1863, however, Lincoln had determined that slavery and the Union were incompatible. The loyal slave states were quickly proving themselves an anachronism and an oxymoron.

Meanwhile, prosouthern Kentuckians coquettishly kept Confederate president Jefferson Davis, another Kentucky native, hopeful that their state would join the ranks of the Rebels. Many white Kentuckians identified and sympathized openly with Davis's government. Significantly, Kentucky had by far the largest slave population among the border states. In 1860, its 225,483 slaves constituted 19.5 percent of the population of the state. In contrast, the 114,931 bondsmen of Missouri constituted but 9.7 percent of its population. "Sure enough," writes Stephen Aron, "when the test of southern nationalism came, Kentucky failed by staying in the Union, though, of course, this decision was bitterly contested, and the state was truly a house divided during the Civil War."2 Between twenty-five and forty thousand Kentucky volunteers donned Confederate gray. Between ninety and one hundred thousand men, volunteers and draftees alike, wore Union blue.3

Scholars have long recognized Kentucky's strategic value, as well as that of Maryland and Missouri, to combatants blue and gray. Writing in 1927, the political scientist Edward Conrad Smith, reflecting on the importance of the borderland during the Civil War, remarked, "This great homogenous section, extending almost the whole width of the country, had in it the power to determine the outcome of the Civil War. . . . For both the Federal and the Confederate governments the attitude of this section afforded easily the most important domestic problem of the war."4 Though Maryland and Missouri, positioned respectively near the nation's capital and at the "Gateway [End Page 232] to the West," were vital to Lincoln, he considered the commonwealth the crown jewel of the Union slave states. As James C. Klotter has explained, "Given the state's sizable population, rich agricultural stores, and natural Ohio River defense line, its decision would prove vital for the eventual success of the United States."5 And so it did.

For all its complexity, drama, and importance, historians have given surprisingly short shrift to the story of the borderland in the Civil War. According to Klotter, "It is almost as if those places [Kentucky and Missouri] existed in some kind of scholarly Star Trek Neutral Zone, not to be visited, at any cost. Over the years only an occasional monograph or a section in a state textbook survey has told their stories."6 For Kentucky, E. Merton Coulter's The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, published an astounding eighty-seven years ago, continues to control Kentucky Civil War-era historiography, if not the disputed buffer between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Star Empire.7

Given the rich archival resources available both in Kentucky and nationally, and a strong secondary historical literature, the absence of a thorough, up-to-date monograph on Kentucky and the Civil War era remains inexplicable. To be sure, some scholars have...


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