IT is proverbially difficult for historians to make sure of the facts with which they have to deal. Even where the chronicle has been written by the rare men who seek, above all things, the truth, the incidents are half related, for the simple reason that the recorder cannot judge as to the value which they are to have in determining the course of subsequent events. Difficult as it is to make sure as to the exact facts of human conduct, it is yet harder to ascertain the motives which have swayed men in critical times. Few if any narrators, especially where they are themselves a part of the history which they have written, are either disposed or able to analyze the impulses which shaped the deeds of which they give an account. Yet these springs of action are of the utmost importance to the historian : without them his work cannot have a vital quality. Men naturally take the motives which impel them to deeds as a mere matter of course. If they should indulge themselves in the analysis of their emotions, they would be unfitted to accomplish the tasks which fortune assigns them.
Where an important series of events depends upon the action of a small body of men, where they proceed from the will of a cabinet or the desires of a ruling class, it is relatively easy to trace their spiritual history ; where, however, the mainsprings of action exist in the body of the people, as was peculiarly the case in our civil war, it becomes difficult to explain the complicated reactions which the inquirer needs to understand. There is reason to hope that, so far as the motives of this remarkable revolution are concerned, the story of it may be made more complete than any which has been hitherto written. No other chapter in human history has been so fully recorded. The campaigns in debate and in arms were waged by educated men, and the results have been marvelously well preserved by the press and in innumerable private diaries. More than any other people, the Americans are inclined to the tasks of the chronicler ; they have indeed a singularly acute historic sense. The New England element of our society has from the beginning exhibited this recording spirit in a measure not found elsewhere. The result is that the story of this society is more complete and trustworthy than that of any other folk of ancient or modern times. Unfortunately, the history-making impulse in this country is nowhere else so well developed as in the region about Massachusetts Bay. It rapidly diminishes as we go to the west and south of that region, and in the Southern States of the Union it is relatively wanting. When, in the generations to come, a full account of the great rebellion is essayed, the writers will have little difficulty in understanding the state of mind of men in the region between the Hudson and the sea. They will be somewhat puzzled in their task by the facts which are presented by the Northern States of the Ohio Valley. We can foresee that they will have much trouble in interpreting the moral and intellectual attitude of the whole South, and their greatest perplexity will arise in explaining the actions of the so-called Border States.
If it were possible to make a map which, by means of colors or other conventional signs, would show the geographic distribution of the motives which entered into the equations of the civil war, the effect would be most curious. In the regions far away to the north and south of the line which separated the slaveholding from the free States, the signs would have a somewhat common character. Here and there, it is true, there would be patches of territory where the folk would appear as astray amid their neighbors. Thus there were towns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in which a large minority, or even perhaps a majority, of the voters were more or less in sympathy with the South, and whole counties in the southern Appalachians which were peopled by Union men. As a whole, however, the Gulf States on the one hand, and the far Northern States on the other, were characterized by a tolerably uniform public opinion. Approaching the border, we should find the indications of public sentiment becoming ever more and more interwoven, until the entanglement would defy delineation by any graphic skill. The greatest confusion would be exhibited in those slaveholding States which lay along the boundary between the Atlantic and the Western prairies. In Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri, the diversities of spirit in the period immediately before and after the great conflict almost transcend description.
At first sight it seems easy to explain the variety in the motives which actuated the borderers during the civil war, as well as the stages of half-combat which preceded and followed the struggle. It may be said that the folk of North and South were intermingled in these territories, or that the commercial and social bonds affected the minds of men. There is, it is true, something of value in these explanations, but they clearly do not go to the root of the matter. So far as the emigration of Northerners to Virginia and Kentucky was concerned, the transplantation of people was without material influence on the characteristics of the community. These immigrants were rather more apt to be strong proslavery men than were those who were bred upon the soil. The reason for this was simple : it lay in the fact that, with rare exceptions, the Northerners who went South were by nature in sympathy with slaveholding. Moreover, the social and commercial intercourse between the Southern States and the territory on the north was relatively small, and attended by such circumstances of friction that it did not serve in any noteworthy way to commingle the blood or spirit of the people.
Whoever would understand the varieties of opinion which prevailed in the border States during the two generations in which our great conflict really endured must be prepared to trace, at least in outline, the way in which the ideals of social and political institutions have been developed among the English people. A very little study will show the observer that the intellectual and moral considerations which entered into this conflict were not altogether, or even mainly, the product of the life of our people in the generations since they came to this continent. The foundations of these opinions were laid in a much earlier stage of their development. To a certain degree, slavery varied the course of growth of these political tendencies ; it controlled their development in particular areas, and finally brought about the decisive catastrophe of war ; but the substantial foundations of the events dated from other centuries, and were laid on the other side of the Atlantic.
In the vast array of more or less organized impulses which constitute the emotional life of our people, we may trace from an early time two striking and very diverse theories as to the relation of authority to the individual. In the older, we may indeed call it the primal state of mind, the individual man was regarded as the subject of a sovereign authority, set over him by the Divine Will. The measure of personal action was limited on every side by the bounds set by the superior power. In this aristocratic system the conception of government was personal, but the conduct of each individual depended not so much upon himself as upon his several superiors, in the order of their excellence. Curiously enough, along with this theory of an aristocracy, or control by gradation, there appears naturally to have gone a theory of local rights, whereby the people of a particular community acquired a measure of independence of a territorial kind. At an early stage in the history of governmental institutions, particularly among the Gothic folk, the conception of the rights of communities much antedates that of the rights of the individual. Thus the fundamental notion of States’ rights, the idea that a certain locality may justly resist any trespass upon its franchises, whether they rest on written or unwritten law, is among the earliest acquisitions of our people.
The other and modern conception of the citizen, that which postulates his essential freedom, and affirms his responsibility in all that relates to the conduct of the government which he serves, is, among our own race at least, the growth of relatively recent times. It first distinctly appears among the common people in the revolution which ended in the overthrow of Charles I. From that time on to the present day the English folk have been, as regards their sense of loyalty, more divided than any other. Something of the old obligation to their superiors, as such, has been maintained ; a larger share of their loyalty has been devoted to what we may term territorial interests ; yet another share of it has gone to theories of government or the ideals of a social state. When our ancestors came to this country, this divided state of the old simple faith in rulers was already established in the minds of the people in every colony. Their political history represents the growth of these diverse seeds in the several parts of the field which our race has tilled on this continent.
As soon as the new-comers of our race in America had satisfied the simpler needs of the pioneer, and were in a condition to develop any distinct social motives, we begin to trace the growth of their inherited political theories. At first the old-fashioned loyalty to the overlord had a place in their minds. The simple nature of their social system and other circumstances gradually weakened this motive, until at the time of the Revolution it was, save among a small minority, a very shadowy thing. The sentiment of devotion to the community appears to have been the strongest of the governmental instincts. Responsibility and devotion to ideals of government were developed in the minds of but few men. Here and there, as among the Puritans of New England or the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the idealist appeared, and began the true modern work of shaping the state. Such men acted from a sense of individual responsibility, but in so doing they were far in advance of their time. The mass of the people were loyalists, in the larger sense of the word ; that is to say, they acted in all that relates to the control of the state under the guidance of inherited impulses, and not of their individual reason.
When the struggle came which ended in the war between Great Britain and her American colonies, the first result of the conflict was a great increase in the rational and ideal element which entered into the statecraft. The body of this people began to have conceptions as to the conduct of state affairs, and a somewhat crude ideal as to the meaning of individual freedom was widely entertained. Still, even at this time the dominant element of loyalty was that which pertained to the locality in which the individual dwelt. So strong was this motive that only through dire necessity and by means of the ingenuity of many able and commanding men did it prove possible to effect any substantial union among the newly liberated colonies. The covenant which brought them together was accepted with so many reservations, expressed or implied, that the union it secured seemed at first a mere temporizing expedient. The fact is, the spirit of the contract was much in advance of the public opinion of its day. It required, indeed, some generations to bring our people to the plane of its declarations. In so far as the Constitution, by its silence and its reservations, permitted the continuance of local government it was in perfect accord with the spirit of the masses who were to dwell under it; in so far as it purposed to subordinate the interests of particular communities to the good of the whole it foreran the temper of its time.
If the social and economic conditions of the several commonwealths which came to be gathered under the federal roof had been identical, or even measurably the same, it might well have been expected that the ideals and allegiances of the people would have been so nearly alike that no discord would have arisen in the great family. Even the foreseeable differences likely to be brought about by diversities of climate were not of a nature to breed serious trouble. Most unfortunately, however, the institution of slaveholding found a permanent place in one half of our territory, and through its immediate and secondary effects turned the minds of the people in that part of the country almost altogether back toward the more ancient ideals of the race. The conception of local government and of allegiance to the commonwealth in which the individual was born, the state of mind of the master sending down commands to subordinate men, the idea of an aristocracy in which rights were inherited, all naturally came as sequels to this singularly dominant institution. In all that related to the development of society slavery completely mastered and controlled the minds of the landlord class throughout the South. They were the servants of the conditions which it imposed to the point of almost entire abjection. In fact, there were two sets of slaves in the South, the servants and the masters: it is hard indeed to say which was the more heavily enchained. When we consider how firmly bound by the institution was the landlord class, and how relatively free the folk who had just escaped from the despotic savagery of Africa, we might almost justify the paradox that the masters were the real subjugated class of the South. They only had been forced to anything like retrogression by the dominant institution.
The first effect of slavery was to give economic strength to the household, and along with it economic isolation. The next and most important effect was to accumulate wealth in certain agricultural families, in a measure in which it cannot be gathered through inheritance in any free agricultural community. The negroes were prolific people ; the multiplication on well-cared-for plantations was exceedingly rapid. Of itself alone this would often enrich the descendants of a landlord’s family in a way that the increase in the value of their acres or their crops could not possibly effect. The result was a swift destruction of the yeoman or small farmer class, and the formation of a society, in the agricultural districts at least, composed of gentry who held slaves, poor whites of lower estate than the English peasant, and at the foundations a mass of human beings without any social or citizenly status whatsoever.
Very early in the history of the Southern States it became evident to the people that slavery, to be maintained, must be defended. This point was clear even before the separation of the colonies from the mother country. At the beginning of this century the slaveholders felt themselves to be in a state of siege, and decade by decade the perils of the assault were ever more clearly before them. The result of this condition of mind was that all natural political development, such as the English folk were undergoing before this great social change affected them, was totally arrested throughout those portions of the South where slavery overmastered the people. The theory of government became that of an aristocratic oligarchy. It is true that, in the main, the substantial rights of even the poorest white citizen of the South were, by public opinion, as well secured in this system as in any other part of the country. If the lower-class man held no unorthodox views concerning slavery, — and he was not often moved by his nature in that direction, — he was, in a civic sense, as safe as anywhere in the world. His immunities, however, were a matter of tradition rather than of living impulse ; the whole trend of the Southern civilization was steadfastly and inevitably back towards a refined feudalism, wherein even the poorer whites would have found it advisable to commend themselves to some superior in power. In all that regards the tone of society, the characteristically slaveholding States had really recovered more of the feudal spirit than survived the eighteenth-century revolution in the states of western Europe. But for a climatal accident this singular reversion towards the Middle Age system of society might have pervaded the whole South, and there would have been no Border State problem such as we are now to consider.
Although the negro is the one tropical creature, man or brute, who has ever succeeded in the temperate zone, and although his success in extra-tropical lands has here and there been surprisingly great, he cannot endure the cold in the region north of the Ohio and Potomac rivers sufficiently well to make him a valuable laborer. It is true that some families of the race have maintained themselves as far north as Massachusetts Bay, New Brunswick, and Canada for several generations, but, on the whole, they appear to be less enduring and less fecund in the parts of the continent which are visited by severe winters. The result of this incapacity to withstand the climate of the North was that slavery never seriously affected the agriculture in the so-called Northern States, and that in the slaveholding districts there was a territory next to Mason and Dixon’s line where slaveholding was unprofitable except for purposes of domestic service. The field where these conditions existed occupied in general a fringe having a north and south extension of about a hundred and fifty miles, but it included also the Appalachian highlands as far south as northern Georgia. In this part of the country the considerable elevation above the sea induced severe winters, and the topographic division of the surface as well as the prevailing sterility of the soil made large plantations unprofitable.
The result of the above-mentioned physiographic division was that in the border land between central Maryland and the Piedmont district of Virginia and western Missouri slavery never came to have an overmastering effect on the industries of the country. In the highlands and in the less fertile portions of the lowland areas the blacks were very rare ; there are at the present time thousands of people in the southern Appalachians who have never seen a person of African descent. Thus, in eastern Kentucky, there is an area of about ten thousand square miles where negroes are, and ever have been, about as rare as Chinamen in the Atlantic section of the continent. Owing to the failure of slavery to take full possession of the society in this border district, the political motives of the whites were left, in a measure, free to undergo that natural growth which was made impossible by the strength of the institution in the more southern States.
The Border States of the South were settled mainly by the descendants of the people from eastern Virginia. The folk of this colony were much given to thought on political matters. They had inherited and acquired the habit of treasuring ideals in all that relates to the state, and, except so far as they were cramped in their thought by the needs of preserving the system of slavery, they were accustomed to very free political discussion. All the circumstances of these border communities tended to intensify debate on matters pertaining to statecraft. The people were engaged in organizing commonwealths under conditions which forced them to take a broad view of politics. Although the influence of slavery was strong enough to prevent public discussion as to its merits and its future, the matter was ever before the minds of all considerate people, and was an endless subject of household debate.
So far we have been engaged in considering the inherited conditions which affected the border land between North and South. I propose now to limit the presentation of the facts concerning the state of mind of the borderers in the great conflict to that afforded by the history of Kentucky, and this for the reason that there alone I had an opportunity personally to know something of the feelings of the people. As the qualifications of the witness are important, I venture to state, in a brief way, the nature of the opportunities which I had for observing the facts and forming the conclusions which are hereinafter presented.
I was born and bred in a slaveholding family in the northern part of Kentucky. As a student at Harvard, from 1858 to 1862, I had an opportunity of noting the great differences between the Northern and the Southern civilizations. During the civil war I saw a good deal of my native commonwealth. Shortly after its close, as state geologist, I had occasion to visit every one of its hundred and thirty counties, and in so doing made an extended acquaintance with prominent men, soldiers, and statesmen of the two great parties. Still later I had occasion to review the history of the State in much detail in preparing a popular account of its affairs in the American Commonwealth Series. I believe that my opportunities for acquiring the knowledge which is needed for the task which I have here essayed have been very good, and I am, moreover, of the opinion that I have made fair use of them.
In setting forth the matter with which I have now to deal, it will be necessary for me often to recur to matters of personal experience. My reason for doing so is that such individual experience has a peculiar historic value. My first recollections as to politics in Kentucky concern the period immediately following the war with Mexico. The Whig party was then dominant. Questions concerning the endurance of slavery, the dissolution of the Union, and the future of the commonwealth were matters of incessant debate. Although the sympathies of the people were with the South, they were curiously qualified. Calhoun and his followers were generally disliked. Many of the intelligent men foresaw the armed stage of the conflict, and were exceedingly apprehensive as to the fate of the commonwealth in the struggle. I remember that about 1854 my maternal grandfather, a wise and wide-read man, explained to me the history of the great debate concerning slavery, foretold the inevitable war, and adjured me then to place myself on the Union side.
Only of late years have I come to understand the conditions which led to the singular love of the federal Union which prevailed in Kentucky. At the outset of its history, this commonwealth had a long-continued and perplexing experience in its efforts to enter the society of States. For nearly twenty years it lay unprotected on the remote frontier, deprived of the shelter which its needs demanded, and which the broad roof of the Constitution alone could afford. Notwithstanding the contradictory evidence which seems to be presented by the resolutions of 1798, there can be no question that the people of this commonwealth regarded the federal Union with a singular devotion. They valued the association not only because they had secured it with difficulty, but because the sacrifices which they had made, in fellowship with the other States, in the many Indian wars, in the larger undertakings of the second conflict with England and the war with Mexico, had sealed the compact. So far as political motives went, the people of this State, during the lifetime of Henry Clay, were Federals of the New England type.
The agitation concerning the abolition of slavery, which increased in the years following the Mexican war, served insidiously to undermine the union sentiment of the commonwealth. Although the industries of the State did not in the main depend on servile labor, there were at this time about two hundred thousand black people within its limits. Bordering as it did on free territory along a line more than six hundred miles in length, it was easy for these bondsmen, with the aid of abolitionist friends in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, to secure their liberty. Although from a money point of view the loss entailed by the escape of slaves was not great, the moral effect was important. It is not easy for any one who is without memory of the slaveholding conditions to imagine how sore was the infliction brought upon a household when its servants fled to the North. The loss was not only a matter of property; there was a wound to the self-esteem of the family. By far the greater number of the slave-owners took much comfort in believing that they treated their servants well, and that these people were content to abide with them. Most of my readers can readily imagine how disagreeable it would be to have a favorite and valuable horse missing from their stables. The state of mind of the slave-owner whose servant had been enticed away was, naturally, one of far greater exasperation, for the reason that the fugitive was, in a way, a member of his household, and bound up with its life in intimate and human associations.
It is easy to observe the fact that every community frames its moral code and orders its punishments for offenses with reference to its more imperative needs. So long as disloyalty to a chieftain is a matter of life-and-death importance treason is the most abhorrent of all offenses, and impaling or other exquisitely cruel punishments have been resorted to as deterrents. To the frontiersman who depends upon his horse horse-stealing is the greatest of iniquities. Naturally enough, in the old slaveholding States, the act of enticing a negro from his master, or complicity of any degree in the offense, came to be regarded as the most disgraceful of crimes. Although in Kentucky a certain freedom of expression was allowed, at least in a private way, to those who disbelieved in slavery, no man was safe after he was known to have had anything to do with aiding a fugitive. Thus it was that, in the South, the name of “abolitionist" came to have a more detestable connotation than any other epithet which could be applied to a man. He was regarded at once as impious, treasonable, thievish ; in short, an abandoned character. As every abduction of slaves was known throughout the State, and each became the subject of rancorous comment in the newspapers, we can well imagine how, year by year, the dislike of the Northern communities steadfastly increased, and insensibly affected the political ideals not only of the small minority of whites who held slaves, but of the small proprietors who tilled their own fields in the slaveholding districts as well. Nothing so clearly shows the social dominance of the institution as the extent to which the non-slaveholding class of whites partook of this hatred of the abolitionist. These poor people had no profit whatever from slavery, — they indeed lost much by the system; yet when they dwelt in a society where slaves were held, they were most active in persecuting those who sought to set them free. I cannot recall a single instance where the native-born abolitionists came from this numerous and ableminded body of yeoman farmers. Those who protested against the system were from the slaveholding caste.
The most curious fact to be noted in connection with this is that, at heart, a large part, I am inclined to think a majority, of those who owned slaves in Kentucky were opposed to the institution, and would have been ready, if the way could have been found, to make considerable sacrifices to break it up. The greater part of the followers of Henry Clay sympathized with the amiable but impracticable scheme of deporting the blacks to Liberia. In this way they hoped to be rid of the African population. They were unwilling to contemplate a system which should free the slaves and leave them in the commonwealth. Until about 1850 the discussions as to the future of slavery in Kentucky were carried on in a spirit which gave some promise that the commonwealth itself might undertake to deal with the evil within its borders, but in the following decade the ever-growing animosity which was felt toward the abolitionists rapidly destroyed the indigenous antislavery motive. In 1860 there seemed little more reason to hope that Kentucky would legislate against shivery than that South Carolina would take such action.
The crisis of the civil war came much more suddenly than was expected. White the people of Kentucky were congratulating themselves that the increase of the whites was going on rapidly, and bade fair, in a few decades, to overwhelm the slowly increasing negro population, displacing slave labor by free, the storm of arms gathered about them. As soon as the imminent danger of war became evident the whole people fell to discussing the situation. This folk has always been much given to debate upon political matters, but it is doubtful if ever, in any commonwealth, there was as much discussion as to the duties of a State as in Kentucky in the six months before and after the firing on Fort Sumter. The debate brought out the fact that the people were quite unready to come to any general decision as to their attitude in the approaching contest. They were morally unprepared for the emergency. Very few of them, indeed, before this time, appeared to have considered an armed conflict as among the possibilities of the situation.
It is easy to see that to these Border State men the on-coming civil war was to be fateful in greater measure than to those who dwelt in other parts of the country. The speeches and writings of this time show that the people were absolutely divided in their motives of allegiance. So far as personal and social sympathy was concerned they were devoted to the South; in all that relates to political ideals their allegiance was with the Federal cause. This division of sentiment was not marked by territorial or class divisions; it existed in every breast. If the commonwealth had taken counsel of her sympathies alone, she would have been almost as unanimous for secession as was South Carolina. If she had been swayed altogether by her political ideals, she would have been almost as unitedly for the Union as was Massachusetts. The result of this conflict of reason and emotions was a most extraordinary divcrsity in opinion. For a time it seemed as if there were to be as many parties in the commonwealth as there were citizens. Gradually the logic of events led to the organization of thought, or rather, forced men to subordinate their individual judgments, and to array themselves in one of three tolerably distinct parties. Of these, the out-and-out Union men formed one, the pronounced Confederates a second, while a third consisted of a yet greater number of people who had not been able to make up their minds to take up arms against the South, and were at the same time unwilling to proceed to any action looking towards the separation of the commonwealth from the Union. This party of compromise was in a measure made up of slow-thinking people, who felt that the action of their Southern kinsmen was unreasonable and precipitate. They trusted to debate for the cure of all political ills. Many of them remembered the eventful contest which took place in the commonwealth, in the earlier part of the century, between the old and new courts, when a question which aroused the most intense partisan animosities, and which bade fair to bring about civil war, had eventually been settled in a statesmanlike and reasonable way. In a word, this third, or neutrality, party pleaded for time with both North and South. By the course of the swift-moving events they were quickly forced into an attitude which, though in a way logical, proved in a few months to be untenable.
The compromise party proposed a plan which was in substance as follows: the commonwealth should remain neutral in the approaching strife, requesting both factions in the contest to respect her attitude of peace. The idea of the leaders of the movement was in the main to obtain more time for the judgment of the people as to their course of action. They also hoped, and not without reason, that they could persuade a number of the neighboring Southern commonwealths to follow their example, and so break up the new-formed Confederacy. Many of the devoted Union men, as well as a large part of the Confederates, for a time acted with the party of neutrality; each side feeling that time made for its interests. It had already become evident to the Confederates that they could not secure the semblance of a judgment by the people in favor of their cause until they had gained a larger following. Although the state legislature was far more favorable to them than was the mass of the people, that body of delegates had refused to take any action looking towards a formal separation from the Union. Above all, the wise men who secured this temporary declaration of neutrality sought to avoid immediate war within their borders. This effort to make Kentucky neutral territory has been much reviled. It was adjudged by both the competent parties to be cowardly. The fact was, the measure was such as brave and deliberate men are warranted in taking; are, in fact, in duty bound to take when the society about them seems to be going to pieces, as it did in 1861. It should be said here that the greater part of the Kentucky people believed in the right of secession as a revolutionary act. They held to the very rational doctrine that no people can be bound by the covenants of their ancestors in political relations which are intolerable. Their point was that the South was acting under the impulse of a blind and unreasoning rage, which was directed by politicians who wished to secure in a fragment of the republic the national power which the course of politics had denied them in the Union. Thus, notwithstanding their federalistc motive and the love of the Constitution, the people of Kentucky must not be regarded as opposed to the doctrine of States’ rights when tempered with sound reason.
The neutrality of Kentucky was proclaimed in May, 1861. President Lincoln, who was well informed as to the meaning of the project, wisely, though in no official way, assented to the project. He had the good sense to see that, unless the other Southern States showed some decided sympathy with the Kentucky plan of ending the conflict, that commonwealth would quickly be driven to cast in her lot with the Federal cause. If, on the other hand, the scheme were successful, and other Southern States retraced their steps and assumed a neutral attitude, the Confederacy would quickly fall to pieces. The Confederate leaders acted with less discretion. Seeing that the position of Kentucky was full of danger to their cause, they first tried pleading, then reviling, and finally, their patience exhausted, they invaded western Kentucky with a force under the command of Major-General Leonidas Polk, nephew of the sometime President of the name, who abandoned his bishopric in the Episcopal Church for a command in the Confederate army. At the same time, the Southern forces, under the distinguished General Zollicoffer, entered the eastern part of the State through Cumberland Gap.
By this time the disputative people of the State had pretty generally come to a determination as to the course which they should individually take. To the greater part of them it was now apparent that the only politically rational thing for them to do was heartily to support the Northern fragment of the Union, which was contending for the maintenance of the Constitution. So clear had the necessity for this attitude become that the Confederate sympathizers, to the number of somewhere near nine tenths of their effective recruits, had already left the State. The first answer which was made to the Confederate invasions was ominous of the issue. By a fourfifths vote it was ordered that the United States flag should be hoisted over the Capitol at Frankfort. On the 18th of September the State formally declared war on the Confederacy, and asked the aid of the Federal authorities in expelling the invaders.
If the sagacious men who had control of Kentucky politics had permitted a swift decision to be made, it is probable that the sympathetic emotions of the Kentucky people would have carried the State into rebellion. As before remarked, the institution of slavery appealed not only to the interests of the pocket, but to the emotions of men as well. It bound all the societies together with a singular consensus. In favoring neutrality the Union men of Kentucky pursued a very wise course, one which, in its measure of forethought, it is difficult to find equaled in history. The final determination of Kentucky came after the emotional stage of the rebellion, when deliberation had done its work. The fact that the course was not dictated by any undue desire to avoid the risks of war is shown by the record of the commonwealth in the subsequent campaigns. Without a draft and without bounties she furnished her quota to the Federal army, and her soldiers did their full share of duty. About 50,000 of her sons fought under the Confederate flag. Out of a white population of less than 950,000 more than 140,000 men faced the perils of war. Counting the home guards who saw service, it is safe to say that one sixth of the whites had an active share in the war. So far as I have been able to ascertain, in no modern war has so large a portion of a population amounting to about a million of souls volunteered for military duty.
In the months between the fall of Fort Sumter and the end of Kentucky neutrality the people of the commonwealth had time to do a good deal of thinking. It is doubtful, indeed, if ever a community was so subjected to arduous political thought. The peculiarity of this period, which is most interesting to the observer, is found in the singular individuality which the men displayed in their determinations. It might have been expected that the division of sentiment would have been defined by local or family ties, as has been the case in the history of most internecine strife. Here, however, we find that the divisions were made on purely individual grounds. I do not know of a single large family in the State where all the men were arrayed on one side, and only in the mountain counties of the eastern section, where slavery was unknown, was there anything like unanimity of sentiment in local communities.
Nothing else in our history so well shows the intellectual independence of our people, or their political capacity, if time be given them, to deal with important questions without undue influence from the emotions, as the parting of the Kentuckians in this period of trial. The gravity with which they viewed the situation and the dignity with which they dealt with it are shown by the absence of indecent strife among the men who went into the opposed armies. During the period of neutrality, and for some months thereafter, the highways were full of small parties of recruits hastening to the camps of the Federal or Confederate forces. These bands often met, but I know of no case in which they fell to fighting. On both sides there was a desire to free the inevitable struggle from idle brutality, and to spare their beloved ground from the curse of internecine war. In the subsequent campaigns there was very little unnecessary partisan combat, and where, as was often the case, the sons of the commonwealth encountered each other on their native heath, a, singularly persistent and successful effort was made to mitigate the horrors of war. Few houses were pillaged, women were respected, the wounded were tenderly cared for ; it is indeed doubtful if ever war was waged in so merciful a manner. All this merciful spirit was, in my opinion, due mainly to the time for thought and for deliberate action which was afforded by the period of neutrality, and enforced by the state of mind which led men to insist upon that pause. If two or three other Southern States could have been induced to approach the problems of secession in the same considerate way, the Southern Confederacy would have been impossible, and we might have dealt with the question of slavery by the methods of the statesman rather than by those of the soldier.
The nature of the considerations which led the people of Kentucky, by an overwhelming majority, finally to cast in their lot with the North has been scantily recorded. These considerations have, indeed, to a great extent, been forgotten by those who held them. I judge this by my individual experience. But for the recent discovery of some old letters I could not have recalled the steps which led me to the Federal side in the conflict. These show that during the winter of 1860—61 my sympathies were altogether with the South, and that they were very little affected by reason. Then came the disgust due to the unseemly moblike action of the seceding States, and the conviction that the North was right, in making war for the preservation of the Union. In common with most of the people whom I knew, I held to the doctrine that a State had a right to secede whenever it was subjected to inevitable and unendurable ills. In a way, I was then, as I have ever since been, a believer in States’ rights, and regarded, the preservation of our local commonwealths as a condition precedent to any satisfactory system of general government. It was interesting to me to find in the above-mentioned letters that the argument which in the end determined my allegiance was this: The apparent and probably true ideal of the Southern people was the maintenance of States’ rights. With this desire I was in sympathy ; but, granting that the South should win its independence, it was evident that the Northern and the Southern States would be driven by their permanent hostility to eaeh other to change from the type of federal Union to that of consolidated governments. In this alteration all chance of local autonomy would disappear, probably never to exist again on this continent. Moreover, I saw plainly, as did every other rational person of my acquaintance, that the strife concerning slavery would afford a perennial source of war-breeding trouble between the North and the South.
The foregoing personal experiences afford a faint reflection of the motives which actuated men of the border when they had to determine the most momentous questions with which the citizen has to deal. It is probable that something like the same line of argument was elaborated by every intelligent man in the border land. It will be safe for the historian of these days to assume that every one of these people felt at once a loving respect for the federal Union and a keen sympathy with his Southern kindred. Where the sympathetic motive was quick and enduring, or where action was hasty, the people who were moved by it almost inevitably were led to join the South. Where the rational element was relatively strong, and particularly where it found room to act, they were in most cases led towards the Union side. There were, of course, men who were drawn both ways, and who never succeeded in bringing themselves to a determination to act with either side. In the homely but expressive phrase, they remained “ on the fence.” I know of some exceedingly well-balanced persons who have abided in that uncomfortable position to the present day.
It may be said, however, in praise of the moral efficiency of our Border State people that not one in a hundred of the intellectually competent failed to come to a state of mind in which they could act decisively, or at least share in spirit in the fortunes of one or the other side in the great argument. It might have been expected that many would withdraw from the strife, seeking refuge in foreign countries. I am glad to say that I never personally knew one of these absentees, nor did I ever hear it suggested that such a course of conduct deserved consideration. Even the aged and other non-combatants stayed upon the ground. It was hard indeed to move them from the battlefield, so intense was their desire to have some share in the action. If they could not fight, they could succor the wounded, or cheer on the side to which they owed allegiance.
In reviewing the actions of the Border State men, I have chosen to limit my statements as to details to the people of Kentucky; for there alone, as I have already remarked, did I have an intimate personal knowledge with the thoughts and actions of men. There can be no doubt, however, that the intermixture of motives which I have endeavored to delineate existed in other parts of the border. The conditions in Missouri were certainly essentially the same as those among the citizens of my native commonwealth. In Virginia, owing to the swiftness with which that State was precipitated into rebellion, the status was somewhat different. When the State went to the South, all of her sons, committed as they were in mind to some form of the States’ rights theory, were impelled to act against the Federal cause. If the “ Mother of States and unpolluted men” could have taken the course of Kentucky, there is reason to believe that in the end she would have proved as firm a supporter of the Constitution. As it was, the people acted from their emotions, and reason had no chance to assert its juster sway. Even though the element of fidelity to the State had been thrown into the scales, many Virginians, many indeed of the gentry, adhered to the Union and gave it support of inestimable value. I have known a number of these Unionists of the Old Dominion, and it seems clear to me that, as a class, they were cool-headed, deliberating persons, of a nature which is not readily swayed by the emotions. In a certain rude way, the proportion of these Unionists in Virginia, as compared with the number in Kentucky, shows the weight which fidelity to the State had in the minds of the Southern people.
The time is approaching when the philosophical historians may profitably begin their accounts of our great revolution. We may be sure that they will find the questions which are connected with the action of the Border State people among the more instructive though difficult problems with which they have to deal. The greater part of those who had any share in the events have passed away. Of the few who remain, only here and there can we hope to find men who, from memory or from record, are able to set forth the story of their thought. These considerations may, I trust, justify me in the eyes of the reader for giving much of my individual experience in the foregoing pages. Were it not for the value which such personal records have, these trifling personalities would be impertinent.
Nathaniel Southgate Shaler.