Kentucky Unionism

Explaining Kentucky Unionism
Explaining Kentucky Unionism


I’m currently reading Kent Dollar, Larry Whiteaker, W. Calvin Dickinson’s book, Sister States, Enemy States: The Civil War in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The book explores why Kentucky, officially, chose to remain in the Union while Tennessee, officially, seceded and joined the Confederacy.

Last year, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the history, culture, and origins of the Upper South, but that project was derailed by developments in my personal life and the shift activism in the summer. After hammering away at Haiti for two months, I think learning more about Kentucky will be a welcome respite.

Here are a few reasons why Kentucky’s course of action in the War Between the States was so different from the Lower South:

1.) Blacks – In 1860, blacks were around 20 percent of Kentucky’s population. The state was growing whiter as slaves were “sold down the river” to the Lower South. As we have noted here on multiple occasions, eastern Kentucky was overwhelmingly White because plantation slavery didn’t exist in Appalachia. Therefore, the perceived threat posed by abolitionism wasn’t as great in Kentucky as elsewhere.

2.) Slavery – Whereas South Carolina was completely dominated by the Cotton Kingdom, Lower South-style cotton plantations could only be found in the extreme southwestern corner of Kentucky. This was really just an extension of the sectional divide between West Tennessee, culturally and demographically part of the Lower South, and East Tennessee, which was firmly Appalachian.

There were lots of slaves in Kentucky, which concentrated in the Bluegrass region and southwestern Kentucky, but slavery in Kentucky was a very different animal than slavery in the Lower South. In Kentucky, slaves worked on tobacco farms and hemp plantations, which were less labor intensive and smaller scale than Lower South cotton plantations. The typical slaveowner owned “fewer than five slaves.”

Slavery just wasn’t as intensive, profitable, or important in Kentucky as it was in Alabama or South Carolina.

3.) The Kentucky Rhineland – By 1860, tens of thousands of Kentuckians had moved across the Ohio River and settled southern Illinois and southern Indiana. The Ohio River was a geographic barrier between the slave states and free states, but it wasn’t an ethnic or cultural border between North and South.

4.) Northern Railroads – Northern railroads oriented the commerce of Kentucky toward the Midwest.

5.) Commerce – As a border state, Kentucky and Louisville in particular had much closer economic ties to the North than the Lower South. As we saw above, the slave interest was weaker in Kentucky and other commercial interests were relatively more important in state politics than elsewhere.

6.) Henry Clay and Unionism – Henry Clay’s shadow and influence as the “Great Compromiser” was hung over Kentucky in the 1860s. Compared to South Carolina, Kentucky was a moderate and conservative state that always gravitated toward compromise in sectional controversies.

7.) The Lower South – Kentuckians feared that the Confederacy was dominated by the cotton interest of the Lower South and would neglect the interests of the Upper South and the Border States in favor of cotton, free trade, and cheap slaves.

The author observes that a Kentuckian was “Southern in sentiment,” but a “Unionist in his wallet.” This would later prove fatal to the Confederacy and Kentucky once the consequences of remaining in the Union became clear. Kentucky joined the Confederacy in sentiment after the war was over.

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Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Occidental Dissent


  1. And Kentucky remains sentimentally southern. Culturally it is a southern state, with the exceptions of Louisville and the Northern Kentucky exurbs. The latter populated through mass flight of culturally northern whites from a disintegrating and blackening Cincinnati.

  2. I’m a lifelong Kentuckian from Lexington. Still here. One of the largest slave auctions in the nation was here on a street called Cheapside next to the courthouse. Lexington and most of the state outside Louisville is still culturally southern. I understand the state stayed neutral in the war because it would have been decimated by joining the confederacy being the nearest state to the north.

  3. “I understand the state stayed neutral in the war because it would have been decimated by joining the confederacy being the nearest state to the north.”

    I thought so too. Just like the other border slave state Maryland where Lincoln had half of the state legislature arrested so they couldn’t vote for secession. It was a case of Federal force majeure.

    Braxton Bragg’s biggest crime was constantly running back to Richmond politicking for himself and keeping Nathan Bedford Forrest from higher command.

  4. Thanks Porter. Cheapside is ok but I’m sitting at the bar at Coles, best new place in town, having the wagyu burger and glass of simi cab. All the best to you, hunter and all at OD. Keep up the fight. Lots of support flying just under the radar here in the bluegrass.

  5. Grinding wagyu into burger patties is an abuse of beef. The whole point of grinding beef is that the fat and connective tissue are evenly distributed throughout the meat, thereby creating a patty of uniform texture and flavor.

  6. DixieGirl, it’s true ‘you are what you eat’ or become what you eat. I cannot eat foreign or immigrant food, and it’s healthiest in more than one sense to eat just what your ancestors ate (going back a generation or two, or three or four in some cases) when they fed themselves from their own soil. We are still adapted to a traditional diet.

  7. DixieGirl, in Peoria, we have one German restaurant, an English pub, and an Irish pub. Come on up sometime.

  8. Dixie Girl. We gots variety here in Lex. Be glad to show you around sometime if your single and beautiful.

  9. Citizen, even if she’s old, fat, and ugly, show her around. It’s the right and Southron thing to do!

  10. Dixie G., I apologize for the crassness of the members of my sex.

    Well, the week is over, and Spring Vacation now commences. Thanks for this article, HW. Just applied for a job in the bluegrass state. We’ll see what becomes of it.

    But nice to read some history of an area I’ve only driven through, once.
    Congrats on knowing your baby is boy. Family name, lineage, racial consanguinity, and all that.

  11. As a Southern nationalist originally from Northern Kentucky (Fort Mitchell), I can say Southern culture is not completely dead in NKY… but it has been seriously deluded from all the northern transplants.

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