Kentucky was a Union state during the Civil War

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Neutrality was preferred but never adopted

By Tom Watson

A map of the Confederate States of America shows Kentucky among the states that seceded from the Union prior to the American Civil War.

Artist George Kirchner of Brentwood, Tenn., says he drew the map and based it on acts of the Kentucky Confederate Legislature and Congress of the Confederate States of America. Under those criteria, he also lists Missouri and the Arizona territory as also parts of the Confederacy.

The state’s top historians have said the elected Kentucky General Assembly never seriously considered secession, but sought to keep the Commonwealth neutral.  

So what was Kentucky’s official position during the war between the states?

“Kentucky was admitted to the Confederacy on Dec. 10, 1861,” said Russell Harris, assistant editor of the Kentucky Historical Society Register. “That was the date the Confederate Congress in Richmond, Va., approved the admission of a provisional government for Kentucky.”

The provisional government met in Russellville, Harris said.

“Delegates from across the state, who were largely self-appointed, met there and drew up what they called a ‘Declaration of Independence,’ then elected a governor, George W. Johnson from Scott County,” he added.

It was the provisional government that voted to secede. The elected General Assembly never voted to secede, leaving Kentucky a northern state … for a while.

Confederate President Jeff Davis, a native Kentuckian, suggested the ad hoc group apply for admission to the Confederacy, which it did. Johnson then moved the provisional government to Bowling Green.

“Johnson tried to set up a government there but it was a losing cause and he left the state when Albert Sidney Johnson’s Confederate army retreated from Kentucky in February, 1862,” Harris said.

When Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army entered Kentucky in the summer of 1862, Richard Hawes returned with him and was installed as (Confederate) governor, but he had to leave when Bragg pulled out of the state.

It was during the incursion of Bragg and Gen. Kirby Smith that Frankfort became the only state capital to be captured by the Rebel Army during the war, Harrison noted.

“The (elected) government in Frankfort scurried up to Louisville and was prepared to cross the Ohio into Indiana if necessary,” Harrison said. “Temporarily, you had the Confederates in control of Frankfort.”

The Confederates hoped to put a conscription law into effect, but they weren’t in control of Frankfort long enough, he added.

“The number they succeeded in getting in volunteers was considerably fewer than the number of casualties they had during the campaign,” Harrison said.

On May 16, 1861, the House of Representatives of the elected General Assembly in Frankfort voted 69-29 in favor of Kentucky remaining officially neutral, said Ron Bryant, curator of rare books at the Kentucky Historical Society. For simple assurance, that would be the tenure of the state … it turned out there was even more support for it.

“On August fifth that year, the new legislature had a huge Unionist majority and the House voted 76-24 and the Senate 27-11 in favor of neutrality,” Bryant said, quoting Kentucky House and Senate Journals.

“The second vote clinched it, although it had already been approved,” he added. “When the armies started coming into Kentucky, neutrality was abandoned and Kentucky joined the Union.”

Kentucky was officially admitted on Dec. 10, 1861, into the Confederacy by action of the Confederate Congress, said historian-author Lowell Harrison.

“We never took a vote on secession,” Bryant said.

“It (the neutrality vote) went through the legislature,” said historian and author, Dr. Lowell Harrison. “The funny thing is of course, if you get down to it, neutrality is no more constitutional than secession is.”
The neutrality bill was approved by the Senate and House within a week of each other.

“With Union forces in control of the state for most of the war, it was a lot easier for the Union to persuade people to volunteer or to draft Kentuckians,” Harrison said. “These were things the Confederacy could not do.”

About the photo: The above illustration is the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky’s largest Civil War conflict.