“Governor Magoffin’s neutrality …”

June 29, 1861

artist unknown

“Governor Magoffin’s neutrality …”

Civil War, Border States; Symbols, Uncle Sam; Wars, American Civil War;

Davis, Jefferson;

American South; Kentucky;

Governor Magoffin's neutrality means holding the Cock of the Walk (Uncle Sam) while the Confederate Cat (Jeff Davis) kills off his Chickens.

It was two months into the Civil War when this cartoon appeared, and Kentucky was one of four slave states--along with Delaware, Maryland, and Missouri--that remained in the Union.  The loyalty of these Border States was crucial both to the Union and the rebel Confederacy.  Union sentiment was assured only in tiny Delaware, while vocal and determined secessionism pervaded Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri.  If those three states seceded, they would enhance the Confederacy's military manpower by increasing the region's white population by 45 percent, its manufacturing capacity by 80 percent, and its animal transport (horses and mules) by 40 percent.  

The strategic importance of Kentucky also lay in the Ohio River, the nation's major east-west waterway that comprised the state's 500-mile border with three Midwestern states--Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  Furthermore, two of the Ohio River's main tributaries, the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, flowed into the southwest portion of the Confederacy.  Whichever side could control Kentucky possessed an excellent staging area for an invasion into the heart of the enemy's territory.  For all these reasons, President Abraham Lincoln allegedly said that while he hoped to have God on his side, he had to have Kentucky.

As this cartoon makes clear, Kentucky's commitment to the Union was anything but certain in the early months of the Civil War.  On May 16, 1861, the Kentucky lower house overwhelmingly adopted a resolution of the state's official neutrality in the Civil War and a resolution refusing to heed President Lincoln's call for military volunteers; Kentucky's upper house concurred five days later.  On May 20, Governor Beriah Magoffin issued a proclamation recognizing and affirming Kentucky's neutrality.  

Magoffin also urged his fellow governors of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Tennessee to send delegates to a conference intended to force the Union and the Confederacy to cease hostilities and negotiate a settlement.  The three northern state governors refused to consider the proposal and busied themselves with mobilizing for the Union cause, while Tennessee staked its claim with the Confederacy.  On June 8, only Missouri and Kentucky were represented at the peace conference, which passed a few resolutions and quickly adjourned.

Governor Magoffin rejected requests from both Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, to supply their respective armies with troops from his state.  The governor, however, was sympathetic to the Confederate cause and looked the other way when Confederate recruiters entered Kentucky.  There was also a substantial and lucrative trade in various wartime goods, such as horses, food, and even munitions, flowing from the north through Kentucky into the Confederacy.  The Union army and Midwestern governors took steps to curb the trade, but they could not eliminate it.  President Lincoln believed that theoretically he had the constitutional authority to compel Kentucky's compliance with the Union, but recognized his "real world" options were severely limited.  Any premature show of force could send Kentucky into the arms of the Confederacy.  As bad as neutrality was, that scenario would be far worse.  

Lincoln's patience was finally rewarded.  On June 20, 1861, (the day after this postdated cartoon was published), Kentucky Unionists secured five of six congressional seats in a special election (many pro-Confederates boycotted the vote).  That political victory was reinforced in the legislative elections on August 5 when Unionists won large majorities in both the state house and senate.  On August 16, President Lincoln issued a proclamation prohibiting all trade with the Confederacy.

The final turning point came on the battlefield.  At the westernmost edge of Kentucky, Confederate troops under Leonidas Polk were stationed in northwestern Tennessee and Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant manned Cairo, Illinois, fifty miles north.  On September 3, 1861, Polk and his men invaded Kentucky to capture the railroad terminal at Columbus.  In reaction, Grant moved his troops into Paducah and Smithfield, Kentucky.  Both sides had violated Kentucky's neutrality, but the Confederates were the initial aggressors.  On September 18, the Kentucky legislature resolved that the Confederate "invaders must be expelled."  The American flag was hoisted above the capital, and Governor Magoffin resigned.  

By the end of 1861, 50,000 Union soldiers occupied most of the state except for the southwest corner controlled by 35,000 Confederate troops.  More than any other state, the idea that the Civil War was a war between brothers was true in Kentucky.  One example of many was the family of the late Henry Clay, Kentucky's longtime congressman and senator who forged sectional compromises in 1820 and 1850:  four of his grandsons fought for the Confederacy, while three grandsons fought for the Union.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Governor Magoffin’s neutrality …”
July 14, 2024

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