A Prophetic Voice from Kentucky

On June 21, 1861, the New York Times published a letter from an unnamed correspondent in Louisville, Kentucky, dated February 12.  In it, the writer discussed the blandishments of the Lower South states seeking to encourage the Blue Grass State to join the new Confederacy.  They promised, “that Kentucky will be the Massachusetts of ‘the Confederate States of America, and Louisville their Lowell or Birmingham. Secession would secure and perpetuate Kentucky Slavery, and make Louisville the New-York City of the South!”  In essence, the Lower South states had promised Kentucky the best of both worlds: lucrative manufacturing in Louisville and profitable slave-based agriculture in the rest of the state.

The unnamed Louisville correspondent, however, wasn’t buying the blandishments of Confederate leaders.  This person saw the potential of the war to strain the southern economy and ultimately bring down slavery.  They wrote:

Our Unionists know better and talk better. They avow that their State and metropolis, out of the Union, would gain nothing and lose everything; that all their interests and pursuits would be prostrated, paralyzed and ruined. While cut off from the North and exposed to all the perils, risks and uncertainties attending their position and situation outside of the Union, this State and city could not procure nor raise nor use the material for any kind of trade or manufactures. All confidence would be lost — all sense of security gone — all business stopped, and everybody bankrupt.

Property of every kind, especially slave, would be insecure and valueless along a slave border, hostile, warlike, dark, and bloody. The exactions upon property, in the form of direct taxation alone, would be ruinous. Military rule and martial law, and forced loans and confiscations, would be the order of the day, but they could not save Slavery. The stupendous madness of Kentucky’s secession would seal in blood the death-warrant of Kentucky Slavery. Mr. PRENTICE and many others predict that the whole State would, to all practical intents and purposes, be drained of its slaves the first year after separation from the Union, and that the northern border counties, which now contain one-fifth of all the slaves in the State, would be drained of them in less than three months.

Until free, however long or short the transition, Kentucky, out of the Union, would be so convulsed that nobody and nothing within her limits could prosper; and the capital, credit, population, and importance of Louisville would meanwhile suffer and decline immensely. Kentucky’s transition from Slavery to Freedom, through secession, precipitation, convulsion and revolution, stampedes, and servile and civil wars, would of course be incalculably ruinous to all the existing interests of her citizens. When thus made free, she would, in fact and in effect, be altogether part and parcel of the North.

That Kentucky, with Maryland, Missouri and Virginia, will eventually be free — either through gradual and peaceful means or their opposite — and will use only free white labor as best adapted to their soil and climate, is not at all doubted by very numerous Kentuckians. HENRY CLAY always maintained this; and even the Secessionist, IVERSON, in the United States Senate, distinctly admitted it the 11th of last December. Mr. IVERSON then said: “The Border Slave States can get along without Slavery; their soil and climate are appropriate to white labor; they can live and flourish without African Slavery.”

This letter does much to explain why Kentucky never joined the Confederacy.  Yet, of course, what the author underestimated was the ability of the problems he discussed to affect Kentucky despite its decision to stay in the Union.  What he also got wrong was the stubborn way Kentucky slaveholders clung on to the peculiar institution.  Exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and with no state-based emancipation, slavery held on in Kentucky until the final ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.  However, in February 1861 the New York Times’ Louisville correspondent still managed to see with a fair degree of accuracy how the Civil War would disrupt and ultimately bring down slavery.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1861/02/21/news/louisville-important-practical-admission-kentucky-secessionists-kentucky.html

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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