What Are the Border States?

Photo of Civil War cannon

Border States – American Civil War

The American Civil War was a military conflict fought between the Confederacy, a group of 11 southern states that had seceded from the country, and the remaining northern states. The war arose primarily as a dispute over the institution of slavery, with growing anti-slavery forces in the northern states convincing the southern states that secession was the only way to preserve slavery. The Confederate states seceded in two stages, with seven leaving the country soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and four others joining the Confederacy after the Battle of Fort Sumter.

Contrary to popular belief, not all the states who decided to remain in the Union opposed slavery. Four remaining Union states, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, chose to stay in the country, despite allowing slavery to exist within their borders. These states were known as border states and were the focal point of the first year of the Civil War. 

Union Politics and the Border States

The presence of pro-slavery states within the Union posed a challenging political situation for President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had to find a way to conduct the war against the pro-slavery Confederacy without alienating the pro-slavery border states, whose potential withdrawal from the Union could tip the balance of power in the Confederacy’s favor. Lincoln famously stated, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln

As a result, Union leadership was careful in the early years of the war to emphasize the reunification of the United States as their primary war goal, with little or no reference to slavery. Lincoln repeatedly emphasized that he had no desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed. This strategy succeeded in officially keeping all four border states within the Union, maintaining the balance of power in favor of the Union. 

Confederate Politics and the Border States

Although the border states remained in the United States and chose to support the Union war cause, large pro-Confederate partisans and factions in some of these states actively joined or supported the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis of the Confederacy knew that he needed to cultivate large amounts of support from these states to compete with the vast resources and manpower of the northern states. Like Lincoln, Davis was careful to frame the Confederate struggle in a specific way to attract support from the border states.

Specifically, Davis wanted the perception of the Civil War to be comparable to a struggle for independence, like the original American Revolutionary War, against an oppressive aggressor. The southern states were fighting to preserve their sovereignty and culture from being destroyed. He also deemphasized the issue of slavery. Davis knew that while the border states allowed slavery to exist within their borders, they weren’t nearly as supportive of it as most Confederate states

Kentucky 

Kentucky was the most important border state, captivating the attention of both the Union and Confederacy throughout the Civil War. In addition to being the 9th most populated state out of 33, it possessed a strategic location right at the center of the United States. If Kentucky joined the Confederacy, it would immediately threaten much of the Midwest.

Photo of Civil War reenactment
Kentucky was key to the Union Civil War success.

Lincoln ingeniously adopted a lenient approach to Kentucky in the early days of secession furor, honoring the initial “neutrality” declaration by the state to win unionist support. He refused to send Union troops to occupy the state and declined to impose a land blockade of trade against Kentucky. Lincoln’s forbearance with Kentucky helped strengthen unionist support throughout the state, resulting in it rejecting secession and remaining in the Union. 

Missouri

Missouri was the most hotly contested border state and the scene of vicious fighting throughout the first year of the Civil War. Open warfare over the issue of slavery had been actively raging between Kansas and Missouri for much of the decade before the Civil War. Large pro-Confederate factions within the state effectively mobilized and pushed back the Union presence in the state throughout the summer and fall of 1861.

However, by the end of 1861, Union forces were able to overcome Confederate resistance, ending any possibility of the state joining the Confederacy. However, Missouri became the scene of bloody guerrilla warfare for the rest of the Civil War, with pro-Confederate vigilantes and factions sparring with occupying Union troops. The early success of Confederate resistance in Missouri marked one of the only successful campaigns the Confederates enjoyed in the western theater. 

Maryland

Maryland posed the biggest immediate threat to the Union, as it bordered Washington DC on three sides. If Maryland joined the Confederacy, Washington D.C. would be surrounded by hostile territory, as Virginia represented the capital’s other border. Large pro-Confederate activity and support in Baltimore called into serious question the state’s loyalties.

In direct contrast to his lenient approach toward Kentucky, Lincoln immediately dispatched troops to put down uprisings in Baltimore and jailed many pro-Confederate leaders. Although these draconian measures seemed harsh to many of his supporters, they successfully stabilized the situation and stifled the secession movement. After the initial secessionist threat, Maryland would never again seriously entertain supporting the Confederacy and remained safely in Union hands. 

Delaware

Delaware was the only border state whose Unionist loyalties were never in doubt, firmly supporting the northern war effort from the outset. Less than two percent of residents were slaves, and over 90 percent of its African American population was free. The Delaware legislature completely rejected secession in January 1861 and would never again address the issue.

The only areas of Confederate support were the southern counties of the state that bordered Maryland’s eastern seashore. However, this support was very insignificant compared to many of the other border states and served very little purpose in the Confederate war effort. Overall, Delaware did not play a major impact in the American Civil War, despite its location near Maryland and Virginia, as no battles were fought within or even near the state’s borders. 

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