Neutral Kentucky Leans Toward Union

June 20, 1861 – Pro-Confederate Kentuckians boycotted an election that resulted in several pro-Union candidates winning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Kentucky had been torn between sympathizers of the Confederacy and the U.S. since the war began. Governor Beriah Magoffin, who leaned toward the Confederacy, authorized the payment of $60,000 for weapons to arm secessionists. However, the guns were defective, having been sold by a northern sympathizer. Meanwhile, Federal Lieutenant William Nelson furnished 5,000 guns to Kentucky Unionists and former Congressman Emerson Etheridge distributed 1,000 guns to Unionists in eastern Tennessee. Confederate sympathizers called these “Lincoln guns,” a name in which Unionists took pride.

Kentucky militia commander Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit:
Kentucky militia commander Simon B. Buckner | Image Credit:

On June 8, Federal Major General George B. McClellan reached an agreement with Simon B. Buckner, commanding Kentucky militia. Buckner pledged to protect Federal property, enforce Federal laws, and prevent Confederate forces from entering the state. However, if Buckner could not stop the Confederates, then McClellan would send a force into Kentucky to do so, pledging to leave the state once the Confederates were expelled.

Tensions increased along the Mississippi River and Kentucky’s southern border. The steamer City of Alton, moving down the Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois, spotted a Confederate flag on the Kentucky shore about five miles south of Columbus. Federal crewmen went ashore and seized the banner. Meanwhile, Buckner reached an agreement with Tennessee Governor Isham Harris in Nashville to respect Kentucky’s neutrality by keeping Confederate troops out of that state.

On June 20, a special election took place for Kentucky’s six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Most secessionists belonging to the States Rights Party boycotted the election because they rejected the pro-U.S. state government and did not want their elected officials working with the Republican majority in Washington. Consequently Union Party candidates won over 70 percent of the popular vote and gained five of the six seats. The total number of ballots cast was less than half of the total in last November’s elections.

Kentucky would continue to have its share of internal conflict in the coming months.



Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 48; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 85; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 295; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261


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