House Divided: Lincoln, Kentucky, and the Civil War
Lincoln understood the importance of the border state of Kentucky. With rivers, railroads, horses, and manpower, Kentucky’s natural and material resources were vital to the Union cause. Early in the conflict, Lincoln told a U.S. senator, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol.” He knew the centered role that the Bluegrass State would play during the Civil War. As historian Kenneth W. Noe has written, “Victory likely would go to the belligerent that occupied the Border States, and securing that vital region meant holding Kentucky at all costs.”
Despite their entrenched commitment to slavery, the people of Kentucky voiced their dedication to preserving the Union with a plurality of voters supporting the Constitutional Union Party in the fateful presidential election of 1860. Although the Kentucky electorate returned a near-unanimous repudiation of Lincoln’s Republican ticket, the state’s strong Unionist tradition ultimately cast it on Lincoln’s side. Just like Lincoln’s hero, Henry Clay, the people of Kentucky hoped to hammer out one more compromise over slavery. The state’s last-ditch attempt to remain neutral in 1861 dramatically illustrates its divided loyalties and the quixotic hope of avoiding the impending war.
Most of Lincoln’s in-laws supported the Confederacy. When the conflict erupted, Lincoln offered the post of paymaster to his brother-in-law, Benjamin Hardin Helm. Helm, who turned down this post. Instead, he joined the Confederate army and eventually led the famed “Orphan Brigade,” which was Kentucky’s most famous infantry unit. Brigadier General Helm was killed on September 20, 1863, at the Battle of Chickamauga. Lincoln reportedly wept when he heard the news.
After Helm’s death, his widow, Emilie Todd Helm, visited Abraham and Mary Lincoln in the White House. This created a stir in Washington, and newspapers complained when Lincoln’s rebel sister-in-law visited. Union General Daniel Sickles told Lincoln, “You should not have that rebel in your house.” The president retorted, “General Sickles, my wife and I are in the habit of choosing our own guests. We do not need from our friends either advice or assistance in the matter.” These divisions created bitterness in the family. Later, when Emilie was seeking the president’s permission to travel into the Confederacy to sell cotton, she told Lincoln that she had been “a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and Justice always give to Widows and orphans. I also would remind you that your Minnie bullets have made us what we are & I feel I have that additional claim upon you.”
Lincoln was keenly sensitive to his precarious political position in Kentucky. His dismal showing in the state’s presidential election, the Confederate allegiances of tens of thousands of Kentuckians, and the actions of his wife’s family reminded him that the Union’s hold on the state was fragile. Members of his “rebel kin” served in the Confederate Army and hundreds of other Kentucky families broke apart over the war. Southern sympathizers created a provincial state government and the Confederacy dedicated substantial forces and other resources in its efforts to pull Kentucky into its sphere, including a major invasion in 1862. The Confederates wanted the state for many of the same reasons that the Union was determined to hold it – troops, supplies, and its strategic location on the Ohio River.
Despite these difficulties, the president never lost sight of Kentucky’s vital importance. He employed all his political skill and deployed large numbers of Union troops that were in demand in other theaters to keep the state in the Union. As he remarked in the early stage of the war, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.”
Lincoln’s deep personal friendships and family ties in Kentucky provided him with keen insights into the dual nature of this vital border state. Given his commitment to preserving the Union and unwillingness to precipitate a constitutional crisis by attacking slavery where it existed, the future president perhaps said more than even he knew when he stated in 1861, “I, too, am a Kentuckian.”
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the trial of his co-conspirator assassins was handled by his cabinet member, Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. Previously a member of the Buchanan admiration, Holt was a staunch Unionist who helped keep Kentucky from joining the South. As Judge Advocate General, Holt was indefatigable in rooting out Confederate sympathizers in the North. After Lincoln’s death, Holt was charged with prosecuting the remaining co-conspirators, whose role in attacking Lincoln and members of his cabinet resulted in their executions in 1865.
* Interpretive research provided by the Kentucky Historical Society and the National Park Service. All rights reserved.