Here’s an excerpt from the chapter “Kentucky Unionism” in Kent T. Dollar, Larry H. Whiteaker and 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. Apparently, it had nothing to do with racism and white supremacy:
“Although the average mid-century Kentuckian may have been ambivalent about slavery, he was not ambivalent about blacks. Swayed by racially motivated concerns about an uncontrolled African-American population, Kentuckians never considered championing political and social equality for the emancipated slaves. Such concerns also likely contributed to their continued susceptibility to the rhetoric proffered by the state’s proslavery element.”
In the antebellum era, Kentucky and South Carolina used to be the twins poles of the South, which makes sense given that Kentucky has historically been the whitest Southern state and South Carolina the blackest. The roots of White Nationalism can be traced back to the border states.
It is hard to believe this needs to be pointed out, but there are Boomers in the Southern heritage preservation movement who cling to the misguided notion that race relations in the antebellum South and the Confederacy mirrored the multiculturalism of modern America. These people believe that racism, slavery and white supremacy had nothing to do with the historical Confederacy.
Here are a few of the most important reasons why Kentucky’s course of action in the War Between the States was so different from that of South Carolina and the Deep South:
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 it was elsewhere. Very few White people in the hollers of eastern Kentucky had ever seen a black person.
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 Deep South, and East Tennessee, which was firmly part of Greater Appalachia.
There were lots of slaves in Kentucky, which were 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. Kentucky was on the far northern fringe of the Golden Circle.
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. Matt Parrott’s folks are among the people who settled on the other side of the Ohio River.
Northern Railroads – Northern railroads oriented the commerce of Kentucky toward the Midwest. Both Kentucky and West Virginia have been historically far more tied to the Rust Belt.
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. Kentucky was a slave state like Maryland, but there were other things going on in its economy.
Henry Clay and Unionism – Henry Clay’s shadow and influence as the “Great Compromiser” 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.
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. It declared itself neutral in the Civil War.
The author observes that the typical Kentuckian was “Southern in sentiment,” but a “Unionist in his wallet.” As it happens, this would later prove fatal to the Confederacy and Kentucky once the consequences of remaining in the Union became clear during Reconstruction. Ironically, Kentucky finally joined the Confederacy in sentiment after the war was over.