Tentative Neutrality in Kentucky and Delaware

On the 17th, Kentucky Governor Beriah Magoffin responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers to destroy the Confederacy: “Your dispatch is received. I say emphatically, Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern states.” Magoffin received support from both Unionists and secessionists in his state, largely because Kentuckians sought neutrality in any struggle between North and South.

Kentucky’s dominance of the Ohio River meant that if she joined the Confederacy, she could threaten Ohio’s security and even the Great Lakes trade that furnished the material for northern factories, foundries, and furnaces. On the other hand, if Kentucky joined the U.S., she could threaten Tennessee’s security. Thus, both the Federals and Confederates handled Kentucky with caution out of fear that she would join the opposing side.

Secessionists had the influential support of Kentuckian John C. Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president under James Buchanan. Addressing a large crowd at Louisville, Breckinridge denounced Lincoln’s militia proclamation as illegal. Governor Magoffin also began leaning toward the Confederacy; on the 24th he called on militia to defend the state and scheduled the legislature to meet in special session on May 5. Magoffin sought to persuade legislators to abandon “neutrality” and follow Tennessee’s lead in aiding the Confederacy.

To combat the secessionist wave, Lincoln met with Garret Davis, an old friend and main leader of Kentucky’s Union Party. Lincoln assured Davis that he did not intend to occupy Kentucky, even though “he had the unquestioned right at all times to march the United States troops into and over any and every state.” Lincoln’s position, as Davis saw it, was that “If Kentucky made no demonstration of force against the United States, he would not molest her.” This satisfied Davis that Lincoln would not invade Kentucky if the state maintained its neutrality.

Delaware was the border state least likely to join the Confederacy. Although a slave state, she had the smallest slave population of any other of her kind. Governor William Burton responded to Lincoln’s proclamation by allowing the people “the option of offering their services to the general government for the defence of its capital and the support of the Constitution and laws of the country.”

Burton was not certain if he had the authority as governor to raise a militia force to serve the Federal government rather than the state. He also was unsure whether he wanted to defy Lincoln’s proclamation or support it. He therefore issued a decree for “the formation of volunteer companies for the protection of the lives and property of the people of this State against violence of any sort to which they may be exposed.” Like Kentucky, Delaware would try to maintain a kind of neutrality in the conflict. Unlike Kentucky, neither North or South took much stock into Delaware’s decision.


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