The Demise of Slavery on the Border: Federal Policy and the Union Army in Henderson, Kentucky
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The Demise of Slavery on the Border:
Federal Policy and the Union Army in Henderson, Kentucky

On the night of January 1, 1865, about ten black Union soldiers, with fixed bayonets, entered the Henderson County jail and demanded the keys from the jailor. The soldiers then released all eleven incarcerated blacks, including five women, and headed toward the Ohio River, just a few city blocks from the jail. Once alerted of this usurpation of civilian law, Union military authorities stopped the unauthorized escape attempt at the riverbank and placed the ringleader in jail. By that point, however, it was apparent that civil authorities lacked the power to stop such raw uses of power by uniformed, and well-armed, blacks. This early January jailbreak aided by Federal forces was not an isolated incident. The same night that the jail breakout failed, the Henderson Weekly Reporter noted that thirty to forty slaves had already escaped across the Ohio River. A week later the Weekly Reporter admitted “that the institution is virtually dead in the state” but went on to argue against the state legislature repealing the slave codes, an act that would have effectively ended the institution. The editor concluded, “If slavery in this state is virtually dead—as many of both its friends and enemies believe—it would be far better to let the institution crumble to ruin by the influence of another power than the sovereign act of the State of Kentucky.”1 Slaves and slave [End Page 601] owners alike thus found themselves in a cruel situation as the system collapsed around them. Slaves saw that freedom was close, but the slave regime refused to let the institution die.

How the Civil War led to the destruction of slavery in Kentucky remains a complex story that merits more attention because it informs us about the system of slavery itself and what specific factors led to its destruction. Historians who have examined the dissolution of slavery during the Civil War have generally tried to determine what factors and decisions had the greatest impact in destroying the institution—namely, who freed the slaves? Until recently, this discussion had mostly divided into two camps. James McPherson has argued that the decisions of President Abraham Lincoln and the Republican-controlled Congress had the greatest effect. Conversely, Ira Berlin and fellow authors at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland have led the contention that the slaves freed themselves and thus forced the Lincoln administration’s hand in the process toward abolishing slavery.2 Gary Gallagher, however, in his recent book The Union War, insisted that the Union army was the critical factor in ending the institution of slavery in the South; without the presence of the Union army moving through the South, neither party in the earlier debate, Lincoln and the Republicans or the slaves, “could have succeeded on a broad scale.”3 This article examines that debate on the ground level. How did federal-level policies, the slaves themselves, and the Union army affect the destruction of slavery in one part of the South, the Henderson area in Kentucky?

The Henderson area in western Kentucky presents a unique set of variables that allow scholars to ask big questions of small places. Located on the Ohio River across from Evansville, Indiana, the Henderson area, consisting of Henderson, Daviess, and Union counties, [End Page 602] developed a thriving slave-based economy focused on growing a particular variety of dark tobacco, which was highly valued on the international market. The slave population in the three counties grew steadily from initial settlement in the early 1800s to consisting of between 22 to 40 percent of each county’s population just prior to the Civil War.4 Once the war came, most of the white population became what historian Aaron Astor has labeled conservative Unionists, who “felt that the perpetuation of the Union was the only way to preserve the slave-based social order.”5 By staying in the Union and fighting to preserve the Constitution, whites in the border area sought to find and hold a middle ground between the perceived extremism of abolition and secession. Both...