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AHHS — Chapter 20

Chapter 20 – Federal Military Occupation of the Border States, 1861 – 1865, by Clyde N. Wilson of S. C., Ph.D., S.I.S.H.


As the crisis caused by Republican control of the Federal Government deepened, everyone realized that the Border States of MD, KY, and MO were critical from their geographic location and population and resources.  The border area was mostly of the Southern Culture.  Most people were reluctant to secede from a beloved old Union but had no sympathy with the Republican regime.  Lincoln had received 2.5 per cent of the vote in MD and 0.09 per cent in his native KY.  He received somewhat more in MO – there were many Northern-leaning Democrats and, in St. Louis, a large Republican group of New England businessmen and militaristic recent German immigrants. To secede and join the Confederacy required public debate and discussion, elections, and constitutional proceedings.  To control these States for “the Union” Lincoln needed only quick and decisive military action.  Lincoln realized the vital importance of the Border States to Union victory and, significantly, would exempt them from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia

When Lincoln demanded troops to suppress the “rebellion,” the governor of MD, the only non-Democratic governor in the South, temporized, although the legislature rejected the demand.  On April 19, 1861, Massachusetts troops marching through Baltimore fired on a protesting crowd, killing a number of citizens and increasing Southern sentiment.  Mayor George Brown said: “Our people viewed the passage of armed troops to another State as an invasion of our soil, and could not be restrained.”  James Ryder Randall, a Marylander who had moved to LA, wrote a song that is one of the best produced by the war: “Maryland, My Maryland! Avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore . . .”

Lincoln moved swiftly.  The army seized the mayor, city council, and police chief of Baltimore, a congressman, and many members of the MD legislature, which had a strong secessionist minority and a large anti-Lincoln majority.  A prominent Baltimore railroad man and military veteran, Isaac R. Trimble, on orders of the mayor, blew up the bridges that facilitated Union entry into the city before departing for the Confederate army. (He would lose a leg and be captured fighting for the South at Gettysburg.) These arrests created a strange irony.  The grandson of Francis Scott Key, writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was imprisoned in the same fort where his grandfather had been inspired to write the National Anthem.  From Lincoln’s prison the grandson wrote of his grandfather:  “The flag which he then so proudly hailed, I saw waving at the same place over the victims of as vulgar and brutal a despotism as modern times have witnessed.”

MD was thereafter officially declared to be for “the Union” although it remained under army occupation for the rest of the war and the Lincoln administration treated its people with great suspicion as Confederate sympathizers and controlled the voting  polls.   A similar situation prevailed in the little State of DE where there was much Southern sentiment, although the Dupont industrial empire in the North provided strong Union support. (Breckinridge carried DE in the 1860 election.) The District of Columbia was also treated as a potentially “disloyal” part of the Border because its permanent, pre-Republican residents were mostly Southern.  Republicans saw “traitors” under every bed in this area and one editor demanded that Baltimore be obliterated, man, woman, and child.

During the war, the Senators from MD and DE, elected before Union army control of the polls, were a determined and eloquent though tiny minority opposition in the Republican Congress.  The “Unionism” of Maryland has perhaps been over-stated.  As soon as the military occupation was lifted, both MD and DE elected Southern Democrats to office and opposed Republican Reconstruction.  Maryland’s state song and state flag have Confederate origins.


KY was, after VA, perhaps the most prestigious State in the Union, noted for its patriotism and efforts to keep the peace between Northern and Southern Cultures.  It was the birthplace of both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.  Lincoln was determined to keep control of KY.  He once said, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we cannot hold Missouri, nor Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capital.”  (Who did Lincoln mean by “us”?)

The governor of KY vehemently refused Lincoln’s demand for troops to suppress the South and he and many Kentuckians hoped to avoid war and promote peace by a policy of armed neutrality, which was proclaimed on May 20, 1861. However, the entrance of Confederate and then Union forces motivated by military concerns ended that hope. Many prominent Kentuckians, including several congressmen and former governors, recent Vice-President John C. Breckinridge, and Simon B. Buckner, commander of the State army, to avoid arrest by the Union army, left to become Confederates.  Probably a majority of Kentuckians opposed breaking up the Union, but they also opposed Republican policies and continually protested the heavy-handed Union occupation of the State and violation of the rights of citizens.  It truly felt to them like a civil war – families were divided and some followed the old Irish tradition of having members on both sides so their property would be safe whoever might win.

Lincoln appointed the ruthless Stephen Burbridge to be a general and commander at Louisville.  Interestingly, Burbridge was one of the largest slave-owners in the State but hated his fellow citizens who had repeatedly voted against his attempts to achieve public office.  He did not hesitate at summary executions of suspected Confederates. The Louisville Military Prison was known as “the Killing Pen.”  Kentuckians were “loyal” to the Union but felt like an occupied people.  Whenever Confederate cavalry raided into KY they were received enthusiastically and departed with recruits and supplies.  There were two State governments, neither of which was entirely perfect constitutionally.  It has often been remarked that KY joined the Confederacy after the war.


The governor of Missouri, like those of KY and the upper South States, vehemently refused Lincoln’s call for troops to suppress “the rebellion.” Governor Claiborne F. Jackson called Lincoln’s demand “illegal, unconstitutional, and revolutionary . . . inhuman and diabolical.” On April 26, a Union officer, Nathaniel Lyon, organized a military force of 6,000 volunteers in St. Louis, 80 per cent of them recent, mostly German, immigrants.  In response, Governor Jackson called out the State militia.   Citizens of St. Louis protested the Union military force, resulting in an altercation which left 28 dead, including women and children.  At this point MO still had a vain hope of maintaining neutrality.  The legislature created a Missouri State Guard under the command of Sterling Price, a former governor and perhaps the most respected man in the State. On May 12 Price and U.S. General William S. Harney agreed to a truce.  However, on June 12 Lyon marched on the state government at Jefferson City, forcing it to flee.

Price’s Missouri Guard joined with Confederate forces under General Ben McCulloch and defeated U.S. forces at Wilson’s Creek.  On October 31, 1861, in the town of Neosho, Jackson and the exiled state legislators enacted a secession ordinance, and the next month MO was admitted to the Confederate States of America.  Following indecisive battles at Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove in northwest Arkansas, the Confederate state government of Missouri was exiled.  The State was now considered “Unionist,” with a government supported by the army and part of the people.

If it felt like a civil war to Kentuckians, that went double for Missouri, where violence continued even after the war.  Unable to suppress bold and skillful Confederate partisan fighters, the Republicans resorted to ethnic cleansing.  In the infamous Order 11, U.S. General Thomas Ewing, a step-brother of William T. Sherman, ordered four western MO counties where he thought the civilians supported the partisans, to be cleared of population.  The resulting hardships are depicted in a famous painting by Missourian George Caleb Bingham, one of the foremost American artists of the time.  Women relatives of some of the partisans were jailed in a rickety building in Kansas City which collapsed, killing a number of the prisoners.

The guerilla war in MO is conventionally pictured as carried on by brutal Confederates against hapless civilians.  The truth is more nearly the opposite. “Jayhawkers” from KS before and during the war plundered, burned out, and killed Southern-leaning civilians in MO, as pictured in the films “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” and “Ride with the Devil.”  The postwar banditry of former guerillas like Frank and Jesse James has attracted much attention, resulting in mostly inaccurate if not absurd portrayals.  The guerilla leader “Bloody Bill” Anderson, not surprisingly, raised the black flag after his sister was killed in the Kansas City incident.  The most famous of the guerilla leaders, William C. Quantrill, is an interesting case.  He was from OH and came to KS as an antislavery man.  He was so disgusted with the stealing and plundering of his associates that he joined the other side and became a Confederate guerilla when war broke out.  The Confederate government did not approve of his activities, notably the sacking of the Republican town of Lawrence KS.  Historians generally fail to notice that this raid was in retaliation for Union atrocities against Southerners.  During the raid not a single woman was harmed.

Ex-Confederates who tried to return to peaceful pursuits were harassed by “Unionists” and forced to turn outlaw, like the James and Younger brothers who became sensational for robbing Yankee banks and trains.  Frank and Jesse James were the sons of a prosperous Baptist minister.  In 1874 agents of Allen Pinkerton, the immigrant head of Lincoln’s secret police, who after the war turned to strike breaking, attacked the James family home, although knowing the “outlaws” were not there.  After killing the James’ half-brother and torturing their step-father, the Pinkerton’s blew up the house, destroying their mother’s arm.  It is little wonder that Missourians honoured and protected their “outlaws.”

The Strange Case of West Virginia

The voters of VA approved secession on April 17, 1861, by a vote of 132,201 to 37,451.  Ninety per cent of the no vote came from the northwestern area of isolated mountain people and towns economically tied to the Ohio River Valley.   In June about 100 self-appointed delegates from the area, claiming to represent the people, met at Wheeling.  They announced that a rump government appointed by Lincoln in Alexandria was the government of VA.  The Constitution requires that no State can be divided without its consent. The rump, which represented nobody, granted the Wheeling group its consent to form a State.    The next year the U.S. Congress admitted the new slave of West Virginia, consisting of 50 counties, to the Union.  While this area contained more “Unionists” than other parts of the South, it seems that not all the people approved of this.  It is estimated that West Virginia supplied about an equal number of soldiers (around 20,000) to the Union and Confederate armies.


The Border States are said to have furnished 120,000 Union soldiers and 86,000 Confederate soldiers.  Many of the Union soldiers resembled those in Northern regiments – immigrants and unemployed labourers, conscripted or enlisted for large cash bounties.  The Confederates were volunteers who risked much to join the War for Southern Independence.  Historians have rather too easily assumed that the Border States were “Unionist” and rather too easily overlooked the role played by military force.  The devices used by Lincoln to quash dissent in the Northern States – suppression of newspapers, control of the mails and telegraph, and warrantless detention of civilians by the army – were carried out in the Border States and other occupied areas and then some. There was hostage taking and executions of civilians. Clergymen who refused to pray for Lincoln and persons named in anonymous complaints disappeared into distant military prisons.  These prisoners included women and African Americans. It is perhaps significant that the people of the Border States (including WV) welcomed their Confederates home and had no hesitation in electing them to public office when U.S. troops departed.

Recommended Readings 

  • Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky by E. Merton Coulter, pub. 1926.
  • Maryland: The South’s First Casualty by Bart R Talbert, pub. 1995.
  • Turbulent Partnership, Missouri and the Union, 1861-1865, by William E. Parrish, pub. 1963.