By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
Both the Union and the Confederacy looked early on to the border states as a very important arena, and hence they applied enough resources to bring those states to their side of the balance sheet. The border states—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware—possessed significant populations, resources, industry, and railroads, among other things.
Kentucky had the Ohio River as its northern border. If it joined the Confederacy, that would give the Confederates an enormous barrier to Union advance. They could defend the Ohio River, which would be much easier to defend than the northern border between Tennessee and Kentucky.
Kentucky was, in some ways, the most divided of all the states on the border. The birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, though neither man grew up there, Kentucky had profound economic and cultural ties to the South; it also had strong ties to the North along the Ohio River.
Kentucky eventually stayed with the Union. Lincoln deliberately kept United States’ troops out of Kentucky early in the war, as he didn’t want to precipitate an incident that would push Kentucky toward the Confederacy.
Many Kentuckians ended up fighting with the Confederacy, but far more fought in United States military forces. It was a true brothers’ war in the state of Kentucky. For example, three of Henry Clay’s grandsons fought for the United States, and four fought for the Confederacy. Guerilla warfare was bitter in the state as the conflict unfolded. There were also a few set piece battles in Kentucky.
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Mayhem in Missouri
Missouri had a head start on the Civil War, in the sense that it had been involved in the Kansas turmoil of the 1850s. Early in the Civil War, Unionists and pro-Confederates fought a series of skirmishes in different parts of the state, with the Unionists finally winning out.
By November of 1861, Missouri remained firmly in the Union, but, like Kentucky, it sent troops to both armies. It sent about three times as many men to the United States army as it did to the Confederate army.
Also like Kentucky, Missouri witnessed significant guerilla warfare during the conflict. In fact, it witnessed the most bitter guerilla warfare of the entire conflict. Guerillas such as William Quantrill, “Bloody” Bill Anderson, Jesse and Frank James, Cole and Bob Younger, among many others, practiced a particularly vicious brand of bushwhacking in Missouri during the war, a lot of lynchings, murders, terrorism of various kinds.
Maryland Moves with the Union
Maryland posed a special problem for Abraham Lincoln, because if it seceded, the United States capital would be in the Confederacy, which was something that Lincoln, of course, could not tolerate.
Thus, unlike in Kentucky, Lincoln took direct action in Maryland. He had pro-southern sympathizers arrested in Maryland, including 19 members of the legislature, at one point. He prevented anti-Union men from voting, and he worked to ensure a Unionist victory in the fall elections in Maryland in 1861.
By the end of that year, Maryland remained firmly in the Union. Maryland sent about 20,000 men into the Confederate army and about 40,000 into the United States army. There was not significant guerilla warfare in Maryland.
The last of the border states, the least important in many ways, at least in a Civil War context, was Delaware. By 1861, it had just a handful of slaves left, and its loyalty was never really in doubt.
Its economic orientation was very strongly toward Pennsylvania, toward the North, rather than toward the South, and its governor and legislature were solidly Unionist. Still, about 1,000 citizens from Delaware fought for the Confederacy; about 11,000 fought for the United States.
Vying for West Virginia
A fifth border state was created in the midst of the war, and that was West Virginia. It was created from the state of Virginia and established as a new state, long at odds with the eastern part of the state.
An area of few slaves and economically and culturally tied to Ohio and Pennsylvania, West Virginia broke away from Virginia following the secession of Virginia in the spring of 1861. Fifty counties in all were taken away from Virginia to create West Virginia. More than 10 of those wouldn’t have probably voted, if they’d been given the chance to go with West Virginia, but they were forced to go by Unionists who were backed by United States military forces. In the end, it is a 50-county state.
West Virginia came into the Union in 1863 as a state without slavery. The area that we now know as West Virginia sent about 25,000 soldiers into the United States army, and about 15,000 into the Confederate army. Stonewall Jackson was from what is now West Virginia.
By the end of 1861, none of the border states had cast their lots with the Confederacy but they still remained slave states, which made Lincoln proceed very slowly on emancipation. He was afraid that if he alienated the slaveholding interest in the border states, they might join the Confederacy.
They were a problem in some ways for Lincoln, but not a problem in the sense, after 1861, that on their own, they would join the South. Their absence from the Confederacy cost the Confederates a lot in terms of population, and logistical support, among other things.
Common Questions about Border States During the Civil War
The border states—Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware—possessed significant populations, resources, industry, and railroads, among other things. Both the Union and the Confederacy looked early on to the border states as a very important arena.
Missouri witnessed significant guerilla warfare during the conflict. Guerillas such as William Quantrill, “Bloody” Bill Anderson, Jesse and Frank James, Cole and Bob Younger, among many others, practiced a particularly vicious brand of bushwhacking in Missouri during the war, a lot of lynchings, murders, terrorism of various kinds.
West Virginia was the fifth border state created in the midst of the Civil War. It was created from the state of Virginia and established as a new state, long at odds with the eastern part of the state.