May 20 1861: Kentucky Proclamation of Neutrality

“I hope to have God on my side but I must have Kentucky.”  Anyone, North or South, who could read a map would have agreed with that sentiment of Abraham Lincoln for their side in 1861.  With Kentucky part of the Confederacy, the South would have a broad rampart in which to defend Tennessee and the Deep South.  With Kentucky part of the Union, the North had a clear hand to punch into Tennessee, capture Memphis and Nashville, and begin dual invasions down the Mississippi and into Georgia and Alabama.

Kentucky was a house bitterly divided.  Governor Beriah Magoffin, although not a full fledged secessionist, had little sympathy for Lincoln’s attempt to preserve the Union by force.  The Kentucky legislature leaned towards the Union, and in June elections in Kentucky Unionists would win nine of 10 Congressional seats and a 76-24 majority in the state House of Representatives and a 27-11 majority in the state Senate.

One thing all Kentuckians could agree on was an effort to avoid the War coming to Kentucky.  A Proclamation of Neutrality was passed by the state legislature and signed by the governor on May 20, 1861.  On the same day North Carolina became the eleventh state to join the Confederacy, underlining the impossibility of neutrality in the conflict.

On September 4, 1861 Confederate forces seized Columbus, propelling Kentucky fully into the arms of the Union.  The Dark and Bloody Ground would be one of the prime battlefields of the War.


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  1. This is another interesting post about the Civil War

    I have read arguments that the Civil War may have been delayed and perhaps been more limited had the North been able to persuade Virginia to proclaim neutrality. Although Virginia would have likely been a sympathetic state for the Confederacy, neutrality may have deprived the Confederacy of some of its best generals such as Lee, Jackson, and Hill.

    Although General McCollum has been historically considered as a failure for not being aggressive enough in pursuing the war, perhaps his goal was to contain the Confederacy. The North had great non-military advantages over the South and could have brought enormous economic and political pressure to weaken and isolate the South. With the availability of cheaper high quality cotton from India the South’s greatest asset to seek European support was greatly marginalized and exposed the weakness of a nation to economically rely upon a single export product.

    In his book “Before the First Shots are Fired “Anthony Zinni has an excellent discussion of continuing the containment of Iraq verse invasion. Perhaps if some of this reasoning could have been applied to the Civil War the consequences may have been less catastrophic.

  2. On both sides initially in the Civil War there was a popular view that their opponents were not really in earnest. The North tended to believe that the South was not really serious about forming a new nation and the South assumed that the North was not really serious about waging war to preserve the Union. Alas, this was all wishful thinking. The Civil War resulted from a great many miscalculations on both sides, usually premised on not really listening to what the other side was saying.

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