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AHHS — Chapter 32

Chapter 32 – Political Reconstruction in Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri, by Joyce Bennett of Maryland, S. I. S. H.


In the previous chapter you learned about the loss of State Rights during War and the Republican’s Political Reconstruction of the conquered Confederate states.  Also experiencing these events, but sooner and to a lesser degree, were the states that had not been allowed to secede and join the Confederacy: the subjugated Democrat-controlled states – the so-called “Border States” of West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Delaware, and Maryland.  This chapter presents the history of these states during the years of their Political Reconstruction.  Joyce Bennett tells that story below.

History Relevant To Understanding the WBTS

During the secession crisis, people in the Upper South, while loving the old Union of the sovereign countries we call States, still reserved the right to board the “dissolution wagon.”  Just as meaningless reconstruction-era Republican victories at the polls in the Border Southern States do not constitute evidence of a prevailing love for Unconditional Unionism, neither do the alleged high numbers of men from these States who wore blue.  Many were Northerners brought down to fill draft quotas and Irish and Germans imported to kill “the Dixies,” the foreigners making up about 25 percent of Union forces.    Still others were readily available bonded or free African conscripts or enlistees, a manpower pool denied the Federals in States yet unconquered.

The Republicans had to keep the Upper Borderland from seceding at all costs because of the region’s natural resources, harbors, navigable waterways and industrial potential.   And the Upper South was seen as a strategic buffer zone between the armies of the Confederacy and the North.  Soon disabused of the notion that the Radical Republicans would behave Constitutionally – or allow them neutrality – the citizens of the Border Southern States were to grow increasingly rebellious under an unlawful Federal occupation.   And the complete abandonment of the terms of the U.S. Constitution by the Republicans and President Abraham Lincoln was to foster widespread chaos and political complications in the region.  The key to understanding the internecine contest of the 1860s and its consequences is knowing the truth about the Federal’s Political Reconstruction of the Upper South.  That story is faithfully told here.

West Virginia

For many of the tough, egalitarian frontiersmen west of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the War Between the States offered a long-awaited chance to separate from the “effete” eastern planters.  But in spite of West Virginia’s “loyalty,” it was not to be spared military occupation.  And it was not until 1872 that the State’s onerous Reconstruction would end.

After Virginia seceded from the Union, an action that did not violate the U.S. Constitution, some of the citizens in the western counties, refusing to recognize the government in Richmond, helped to form an unlawful “Restored” Government in Wheeling.  It was this illegal “Virginia” that allowed the separation of those western counties from the Old Dominion. But under the U.S. Constitution, only the parent State, in this case “legal” Virginia, whose capital was Richmond, had the power to approve the creation of a new State within its borders.  While admitting the extra-legality of West Virginia’s admission to the Union, President Lincoln called it a necessary measure to advance the “restoration of the National authority” over the States, an authority not found in the Constitution.

Significantly, it was under Northern occupation that West Virginia had been created and had been admitted to the Union, many West Virginians coping with Federal subjugation by embracing “neutrality,” others just staying home on election day.  The absurdly lopsided vote in favor of the secession of the western counties from Virginia (18,408 to 781) is suspect because of Federal disfranchisement of anti-secession voters.  When they were finally out from under Republican rule, West Virginians immediately repealed and replaced a Radical reconstruction-era state constitution.  They hoped to be a sovereign people again.


Mainly Constitutional Unionists or outright secessionists, the people of Missouri early on professed a desire to “remain neutral” during the War Between the States.  Removed by the illegitimate Republican-friendly State Provisional Government, Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson promptly convened the legal Legislature which passed an ordinance of secession severing ties with the Union.  This Missouri government-in-exile joined the Confederacy.  Towards the end of the WBTS, iron-willed Missouri Radicals aided by “outsiders” were to rise to power through voter intimidation and other malfeasance and were to impose an even harsher form of Political Reconstruction.

Continuing to deny that Missouri was conquered territory, the Provisional Government, allegedly a stalwart of State Rights, frequently found itself at odds with Republican military commanders.  And Provisional Governor Gamble walked a fine line between serving the Lincoln administration and his own people.  Not finding military abuses entirely objectionable, Gamble even asked the Federals to “suppress” a newspaper critical of him.

Biding his time, President Lincoln hoped that Radical Republicanism would eventually tip the balance of power against the more conservative Unionism of the Provisional Government.  He was not to be disappointed.  The 1865 election of Radicals and their subsequent reign were to leave Missouri prostrate, bankrupt and broken    But in the early 1870s, Southern Democrats regained power and home rule.  The Radical state constitution was repealed and order was restored at last to Missouri.


Even the infamous William Tecumseh Sherman protested the abuses suffered by Kentuckians during Political Reconstruction.  Given Kentucky’s intricate politics at the time, it is only safe to say that her people desired a Constitutional Federal Government and opposed a forced Union.  A sovereign convention, favored by Governor Beriah Magoffin and Southern Democrats, was feared by Northern-style Democrats and Constitutional Unionists because it might have led to separation from the Union and invasion from the nearby North.  Many Kentuckians thought the Union could be saved by their example of neutrality, but neutrality was not an option for Kentucky.

The Kentucky Legislature accommodated itself somewhat to the Republican occupation army. But, revolting against military tyranny and the Federals’ so-called public safety measures, sixty-five counties seceded from the State and joined the Confederacy.  Their Provisional Government – the legality of which is debatable – declared that because a “majority of the Legislature of Kentucky” had cooperated with the Lincoln Administration’s armies and abandoned neutrality, no allegiance was due this government.  The Kentucky Ordinance of Secession further declared that the Federal Government had trampled on the “reserved powers” of the States.

But by 1867 deliverance was at hand.  With the return of Democrats to power, Kentucky was liberated from the reign of the Republicans and their German and carpetbagger allies in Louisville.   A once-more “reliable, rebel old Kentucky” was now to begin righting the wrongs committed by her Northern occupiers, a Republican not being elected governor until 1895.   In 1917 Confederate supporters built at Jefferson Davis’ birthplace at Fairview, Kentucky a 351-foot-high Davis Monument that resembles the 555-foot Washington Monument.


In spite of an avowed loyalty, Delaware was eyed with suspicion by the Republicans who thought she had rebellion in her heart.  Declaring martial law in this tiny Border Southern State, military commander General Schenck banned “seditious” language and harassed “evil-disposed persons.” And 3,000 occupation Union troops engaged in voter intimidation and sundry misdeeds.

The Delaware Legislature protested the unjust arrests of citizens, but Republican Governor Cannon, elected by a slim majority in 1862, insisted that the Federal Government was omnipotent.  Suspending the writ of habeas corpus, Cannon so enraged the Legislature they tried to impeach him.  At the beginning of the WBTS, Delaware  had held Union rallies and had dutifully supplied men to the Federal war effort, but by 1863 she was growing ever more hostile to her occupiers, even circumventing her Federal draft quota by appropriating to draftees money to pay for substitutes.

As a result of the usual Republican electoral intrigue, Lincoln in 1864 enjoyed a victory in Delaware, a State which had been won by the Southern secessionist John Breckinridge just four years earlier.  Nevertheless, the Democrats managed to hold on to the Legislature and in 1870 elected a State Rights governor.  Although in 1872 the much-reviled U.S. Grant won Delaware (along with other Southern States still under Political Reconstruction), by 1876 she was fully unreconstructed and solidly Southern Democrat again.


Maryland’s people were repulsed by what they considered Republican aggression.  The first Southern blood was shed by Marylanders who were killed at the hands of Northern troops passing through Baltimore on 19 April 1861.  In an attempt, in the words of U.S. Senator Henry Wilson, to “crush out her boundary lines,” the North conquered Maryland in a matter of weeks.  As Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote in his memoirs, she was the first Southern State to fall to Federal forces.

Maryland Governor Thomas Hicks was the only Southern governor not elected as a Democrat – he was a Know Nothing.  Quisling over his predicament, Hicks, realizing the advantage of siding with the Republicans, stopped protesting all together the occupation army’s depredations against his increasingly restive and secession-minded constituents.  Even in supposedly more Unionist Western Maryland, the Radicals found it necessary to control the ballot box.  On 8 November 1861, Col. J. W. Geary, of the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvania Regiment, informed his superiors that, “owing to the presence of … troops, everything progressed quietly,” and he was “happy to report a Union victory in every place within [his] jurisdiction.” Col. Geary also arrested “disloyal” political candidates.   

In 1867 not only was the vote restored to pro-secessionists and returning Confederates, the illegal Reconstruction-era State constitution was replaced.  Beginning with the 1868 election, the first free Presidential election since 1860 when she overwhelmingly rejected Lincoln and the Republicans, Maryland was at liberty once more to express her Southern Democrat sentiments.


Although the bloody sectional strife of the 1860s was rooted in the irreconcilable cultural differences between Northerners and Southerners as much as in old political quarrels, this chapter has examined only the latter.  It was in the States located immediately below the Mason-Dixon Line that the Radical Republican-controlled Federal Government, declaring an extra-constitutional supremacy, began the Political Reconstruction of the South.  Thus in the Upper Borderland, consolidation first triumphed over subsidiarity.  The original Union of free and independent States was supplanted by a Union of States who would become over the next century and a half increasingly obedient to an ever more powerful central government.

Class Discussion

To what extent has the “Unionism” of the Border States been overestimated or overemphasized?

Recommended Reading

  • The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky, by E. Merton Coulter, pub. 1966.
  • Turbulent Partnership Missouri and the Union 1861-1865, William E. Parrish, pub.
  • History of Maryland from the Earliest Period to the Present Day: 1819-1880, vol. 3, by J. Thomas Scharf, pub. 1879.