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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Journal of Negro History
Vol. 1 No. 4 (Oct. 1916), pp377‑391

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p377 The Defeat of the Secessionists in Kentucky in 1861

The treatment of the Border States in the crisis of 1861 has received from historians the same attention as Saxony, the objective point between Prussia and Austria in the Seven Years War. Directing special attention to Kentucky requires some explanation. The possession of this commonwealth was for several reasons more important than that of some other border States. The transportation facilities afforded by the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers furnished the key to carrying out the plan to divide the South. The possession of the State by the Confederates was of strategic importance for the invasion of the North too for the reason that the Ordinance of 1787 had been so interpreted as to fix the boundary of Kentucky on the north side of the Ohio River. It was, moreover, the native State of Abraham Lincoln and it was important to have that commonwealth support this untrained backwoodsman whom most statesmen considered incapable of administering the affairs of the nation.

In the beginning, the situation was not the least encouraging to the Unionists. The Breckenridge Democrats had carried the State in 1859 on a platform favoring Southern rights. Their chief spokesman had become such a defender of their faith that in 1860 he was chosen to lead the radically proslavery party which had come to the point of so doubting the orthodoxy of their Northern adherents as to deem it advisable to separate from them. Unalterably in favor of the rights of the slave States, the leaders of this persuasion had expressed themselves in terms that could not be misunderstood.1 One of their spokesmen Humphrey Marshall contended that slavery is not a creature of municipal law. He believed that the institution followed the flag. p378He wanted Union but only with that equality which involved the recognition of the right of property in slaves everywhere.2 Speaking in the House of Representatives on January 30, 1861, John W. Stephenson, another of this faction, said on the same topic: "Equality underlaid the whole Federal structure, and protection to persons and property within the Federal jurisdiction, was the price of allegiance of the States to such General Government, as delegated and prescribed in the constitution. Wherever the American banner floated upon the seas or land, all beneath it was entitled to the protection of the flag."3

On this question, their leader John C. Breckenridge, "a believer in the old Democratic creed and a supporter of the South and her institutions,"4 took the same, if not higher ground. Referring to the Dred Scott decision in a speech delivered in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1859, Breckenridge said: "After this decision we had arrived at a point where we might reasonably expect tranquillity and peace. The equality of rights and property of all the states in the common Territory, having been stamped by the seal of judicial authority, all good citizens might well acquiesce."5 When the Southern States seceded because of the threatened infringement of these rights, the President of the United States, according to Breckenridge, had no right to enlist men and no right to blockade the Southern ports, in short, no right to wage war on these commonwealths. Lincoln had thus overthrown constitutional government. If he was trying to preserve the Union, he must do it in a constitutional way. Breckenridge wanted the Union but contended that it would be no good without the Constitution.6 To sum up, as Southern Democrats they had helped to disrupt the Charleston Convention, and developing into a strict Southern rights p379party, they had through bolting made possible the election of Abraham Lincoln. They then finally joined the States' rights party, which, boldly declaring the election of Lincoln a just cause for the dissolution of the Union, undertook to secede.7

With such radical leaders in control it might seem strange that, in a State formed from an aristocratic commonwealth like Virginia and extending into the fertile region of the Mississippi, these protagonists of States' rights did not turn Kentucky over to the Confederacy. Exactly what part did the rich slaveholders play during this crisis when the State was called upon to decide the question between the North and South? What was the position of such influential men as James B. Clay, George B. Hodge, Cerro Gordo Williams, T. P. Porter, Roger W. Hansom, and S. B. Buckner?8

Other representative citizens, however, had been equally outspoken in favor of the Union. Voicing the sentiment of the Union party, which on the eighth of January met in Louisville to take steps to support the Federal Government, Bell said: "Let us offer everything we can to avert the torrent of evil, but let us always stand ready to support our rights in the Union: the State is deeply and devotedly attached to the Union."9 Garrett Davis inquired: "Will you preserve the Union or rush into the vortex of revolution under the name of secession?"10 J. T. Boyle said in the same convention that there could be no benefit or advantage, no civil or political rights, no interest of any kind whatever, secured by government in the Southern Confederacy which the people did not then enjoy in the "blessed Union formed by our fathers." In his opinion, it was the duty of Kentuckians "to stand by the Star Spangled Banner and cling to the Union."11 Some of the most influential p380newspapers were fearlessly advocating the Union cause. Among others were the Frankfort Daily Commonwealth, the Louisville Courier and the Democrat.

Exactly what support these leaders of the differing factions would obtain was determined by forces for centuries at work in that State. Southerners who thought that, because Kentucky was a slave State it should go with the South, had failed to take these causes into consideration. In the first place, not every slaveholder was an ardent proslavery agitator. There were masters who like Henry Clay considered slavery an evil and hoped to see it abolished, but while the majority of their fellow countrymen held on to it they did so too. Many Kentuckians, moreover, were like that restless class of Westerners who, dissatisfied with the society based on slavery, had taken up land beyond the mountains, where the poor man could toil up from poverty.12 Kentucky was the first section west of the Allegheny mountains settled by these daring adventurers because they were there cut off from the North by the French and from the South by the Spanish, and in Kentucky, a section hemmed in by these foreign possessions, the settlers were less liable to be disturbed. And even when the barrier of foreign claims had been removed, the movement of population from the East to the West took place along lines leading to the States later organized in the West rather than into Kentucky. The people of Kentucky, therefore, were not radically changed in a day by the influx of population. On the contrary, many of them, especially the mountaineers, have not changed since the days of Boone and Henderson. Some of them having left the uplands of the colonies because they were handicapped by slavery, were naturally opposed to the bold claims of that institution in 1861. They, like the Westerners, learned to look to the General Government for the establishment of commonwealths, the building of forts, and the maintenance of troops,13 and, therefore, adhered to it when it was threatened with destruction.

p381 Another cause, moreover, was equally as potential. In Kentucky as in some other Southern States, there had grown up a considerable number of prosperous country towns, where resided lawyers, merchants, bankers, teachers, and mechanics, who had little property interest in slavery, who felt their own "intellectual superiority to the country squires and their fox-hunting, horse-racing, quarrelsome sons, and who consequently asserted social independence of them and social equality with them."14 They were hostile to the aristocratic masters, whom they generally denounced as "oligarchs," "slavocrats," "Lords of the Lash," and "Terror Engenders."15 This mercantile and professional class, inspired by such men as Hinton Rowan Helper, contemplated the removal of the Negroes and the bringing of white laborers into the South.16

In view of this cleavage, it was difficult in the beginning of the struggle to characterize the situation. There were unconditional Secessionists and unconditional Union men. Judging from the condition then obtaining, no one could tell exactly which way the State would go. "Sympathy, blood, and the community of social feeling growing out of slavery," says one, "inclined her to the South; her political faith which Clay more than any other man had inspired her with and which Crittenden now loyally represented held her fast to the Union."17 Many of the people, though believing in States' rights, did not think that the grievances of the South were such as to justify secession. At the same time they opposed "coercion," and since a reconstructed Union was impossible they would have solved the difficulty by peaceful separation. Writing to Gen. McClellan June 8, 1861, Garrett Davis said: "The sympathy for the South and the inclination to secession among our people is much stronger in the southwestern corner of the state than it is in any other part, and as you proceed toward the upper p382section of the Ohio and our Virginia line, it gradually becomes weaker until it is almost wholly lost. . . . I doubt not that two thirds of our people are unconditionally for the Union. The timid are for it and they shrink from convulsion and civil war, while all the bold, the reckless, and the bankrupt are for secession."18 This categorical distinction, however, is hardly right. There were Kentuckians of representative families on both sides in all parts of the State except in the extreme West.19 A careful study of the facts, however, leads one to the conclusion that even in the beginning there were more Unionists than Secessionists. The Unionists, unhappily, were not organized while the Secessionists were led by the State officials, chief among whom was Governor Magoffin.

When the Southern States began to secede Governor Magoffin called a special session of the State legislature, thinking that he could have a secession convention called. He said in part: "I therefore submit to your consideration the propriety of providing for the election of delegates to a convention to be assembled at an early day to which shall be referred for full and final determination the future of the Federal and interstate relations of Kentucky." He further said: "Kentucky will not be an indifferent observer of the force policy. The seceding States have not in their haste and inconsiderate action our approval, but their cause is our right and they have our sympathies. The people of Kentucky will never stand by with folded arms while those States are struggling for their constitutional rights and resisting oppression and being subjugated to an anti-slavery government."20 He believed that the idea of coercion, when applied to great political communities, is revolting to a free people, contrary to the spirit of our institutions, and if successful would endanger the liberties of the people.21 But the legislature did not provide for such a convention. p383On the eleventh of February this body adjourned. It reassembled on the twentieth of March and remained in session until the fourth of April, but still these important matters were not decided. Pursuant to another call of the Governor, it reassembled on the 6th of May and sat until the twenty-fourth of May when it adjourned. On the second of September the legislature elected in August came in, but still the important question as to what should be done hung in the balance. At first there came up the resolutions introduced by George W. Ewing on the twenty-first of January, expressing regret that certain States had furnished men and money for the coercion of the seceded States, and requesting the Governor of Kentucky to notify such States that should attempts be made to coerce these commonwealths, Kentucky would join the South.22 This resolution passed the House but did not pass the whole legislature as so many have said. A resolution for calling a convention to amend the Constitution of the United States was passed.23 Several distinguished men of Kentucky sat in this convention which was in session from the fourth to the twenty-second of February without accomplishing anything.

The majority of Kentuckians were then neutral. There were two classes of neutrals, however. This was easily possible since neutrality meant one thing to one man and a different thing to another. Each faction looked forward to the adoption of this policy as a victory over the other. The Unionists accepted it as the best policy, not knowing that, taking such a position, they would aid the Confederacy. Even John J. Crittenden had this idea. He said: "If Kentucky and the other border States should assume this attitude, war between the two sections of the country would be averted and the Confederate states after a few years' trial of their experiment would return voluntarily to the Union."24

p384 Neutrality was considered a necessity for another reason; namely, the expected short duration of the war. No one believed at first that the war would last long. Even Lincoln thought that it would be over in ninety days. Some, therefore, felt that Kentucky would be foolish to cause blood to be shed on her soil when the war could easily be kept out of the State three months. This sentiment, however, must not be misunderstood as evincing a lack of interest in the Union, for in the address declaring for neutrality these same leaders said that the dismemberment of the Union was no remedy for existing evils but an aggravation of them all.25 To many Unionists neutrality meant going slowly in the right direction. It was in keeping with Lincoln's plan not to go so rapidly toward "coercion" in Kentucky as he had in the other border States.

How then did the neutral policy work out? On the twenty-ninth of January R. T. Jacob introduced in the lower house of the legislature a resolution declaring that the proper position of Kentucky was that of a mediator between the sections, and that as an umpire she would remain firm and impartial in that day of trial to their "beloved country that by counsel and mediation she might aid in restoring peace and harmony and brotherly love." Giving the reasons for adopting such a policy Jacob said:

"This leading sentiment of mediation was indorsed by the Union men of both Houses of the Legislature. . . . Some may say, why did not the Kentucky Legislature go for coercion? For two reasons: First, some States, it is true had seceded from the Union, but war had not actually commenced: second, the men at that time who would have undertaken to force coercion upon the Legislature would have been in the hopeless minority and would have immediately given a majority to the secessionists. It would have ended in total destruction to the cause of the Union in the State. Those resolutions were for two purposes. In good faith they were intended to compromise all difference between the States, and if possible to restore peace between sections. If that failed, they were intended to hold, if possible, our meagre majority until the people could act and we had no doubt that when they did speak it would be in unmistakable tones for the preservation of the Union."26

No action was taken on these resolutions, but on the eleventh of February there was passed a joint measure, p385entitled "Resolutions Declaring action by the Legislature on political affairs unnecessary and inexpedient at this time."27 These resolutions mentioned the great danger which environed the Union, asked the Confederates to stay the work of secession and protested against coercion. The last resolution favored the calling of a convention to amend the Constitution of the United States. Significant too for the Unionists were the last words: "It is unnecessary and inexpedient for the Legislature to take any further action on the subject at the present time, and as an evidence of the sincerity and good faith of our propositions for an adjustment and our expression of devotion to the Union and the desire for its preservation Kentucky awaits with great solicitude the responses from her sister States."28

Neutrality, however, became the accepted policy of so many that it proved to be dangerous. The Union State Committee, in drawing up on the eighteenth of April a resolution to please all, seemingly pledged the State to join the South. These resolutions were severely criticised by the Unionists, especially that part which says: "What the future destiny of Kentucky may be we cannot with certainty foresee. But if the enterprise announced in the proclamation of the President should at any time hereafter assume the aspect of a war for overrunning and subjugation of the seceding States, then Kentucky ought to take her stand for the South."29 Many thought that this obligated Kentucky to go with the South. Unionists of other States considered it a victory for the Confederacy. This committee, however, stipulated this proposition to satisfy those sympathizers with the South, who believed all the bad reports concerning the functionaries of the Federal Government, circulated by the leaders of the Confederacy. Hence, they said in this proposition not that Kentucky would go with the South, but if at any time thereafter the President's proclamation should assume the aspect of war, it would do so. p386They evidently did not believe that it had or would assume such an aspect. They were also trying to pacify those who misunderstood the issues of "subjugation" and "coercion."30 The relation of the States to the Union was yet a problem to many a statesman. Many thought that the colonists when in a state of nature came together and agreed to a compact, giving up some of their sovereignty and retaining the other, and, therefore, had the right to withdraw at pleasure, carrying a part of the national property with them. Such thinkers contended too that the Union had no right to "coerce" a seceded State. Calhoun had said that because the union was a compact it could be broken; on the other hand, Jackson had said that because it was a compact it could not be broken. Now it was difficult for Kentuckians to decide who was right. That the committee had no intention of going with the Confederacy may be seen from the following declaration: "Seditious leaders in the midst of us now appeal to her (Kentucky) to furnish troops to uphold those combinations against the government of the Union. Will she comply with this appeal? Ought she to comply with it? We answer, no."31

While these things were going on, the great question of Fort Sumter was before the people. When the fort was finally bombarded and Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand troops Gov. Magoffin politely refused to comply. His reply was: "I say emphatically Kentucky will furnish no troops for the wicked purpose of subduing her sister Southern States."32 He had already been much moved by the large vote given the delegates to the Border States Convention, indicating such a growth of Union sentiment that he called the legislature together, hoping to win the day for secession by changing the policy of the State from mediation to armed neutrality, resisting all forces, were Confederate or Federal, which might bring war into the State. The body met on the sixteenth of May, passed a resolution p387of mediatorial neutrality and approved the Governor's refusal to furnish troops under the existing circumstances.33 This, however, did not mean that the legislature was in sympathy with the efforts of the Governor to support the Southern cause. Writing to Gen. Scott, John J. Crittenden explained it thus:

"The position of Kentucky and the relation she occupies toward the government of the Union is not, I fear, understood at Washington. It ought to be well understood. Very important consequences may depend upon it and upon her proper treatment. Unfortunately for us our Governor does not sympathize with Kentucky in respect to secession. His opinions and feelings incline him strongly to the side of the South. His answer to the requisition for troops was in terms hasty and unbecoming and does not correspond with the usual and gentlemanly courtesy. But while she regretted the language of his answer, Kentucky acquiesced in his declining to furnish the troops called for, and she did so not because she loved the Union less but she feared that if she had parted with those troops and sent them to serve in your ranks, she would have been overwhelmed by secessionists at home, and severed from the Union. And it was to preserve substantially and ultimately our connection with the Union that induced us to acquiesce in the partial infraction of it by our Governor's refusal of the troops required. This was the most prevailing and general motive. To this may be added the strong indisposition of our people to a civil war with the South, and the apprehended consequences of a civil war within our state and among our people. . . . I think Kentucky's excuse a good one and that under all the circumstances of a complicated case she is rendering better service in her present position than she could by becoming an active party in the contest."34

The fact is that secession had little chance in Kentucky after public opinion found expression. Neutrality early became the order of the day. The elections of 1861 were significant in that they gave the people a chance to express their will. It should be borne in mind that the legislature of 1859 was elected when the question of union or disunion was not before the people. Now in 1861 they had to elect members to the Border State Convention, a new legislature, and congressmen to represent Kentucky at the special session called by President Lincoln. In all these elections, Unionists won. Some historians like Smith and Shaler35 p388seem to think that the State had pledged itself to remain unconditionally neutral, that these elections had no particular bearing on the situation and that if a "sovereignty convention" had been called, secession would have won. These writers do not seem to see that the people of Kentucky, although nominally neutral, desired to remain with the Union. Doubtless a better statement is that, although the election of 1861 showed that a large majority of the people were in favor of the Union, the Union leaders did not show so in the early part of the year and neutrality was adopted not as an end but as a means that triumph over the enemies of the Union might finally be assured.36 We easily see now that there was not much danger of secession, but the Unionists could not see it so well at that time. Smith and Shaler doubtless exaggerate the situation, for what danger of secession could there have been when the people had elected the Union candidates for the Border State Convention to be convened at Frankfort on May 27, when they sent nine Unionists out of the ten congressmen to represent them in the special session of Congress, and when on the 5th of the following August, after the battle of Bull Run, they elected to the State Legislature 103 Unionists out of 141 members.37 The calling of a convention then would have made little difference, if the people had chosen a majority of Unionists to represent p389them in other bodies. How can one conclude then that they would have elected seceders to represent them in a "sovereignty convention"? Hodge states that the sympathizer with the Confederacy did not contest to any considerable extent the elections of August, 1861, and consequently the supporters of Federal Government were in the ascendancy in the next legislature. He seems to indicate that the Unionists used fraud, but the records show that the Secessionists, regarding it as a lost cause, in many cases withdrew their candidates. Evidently these elections showed not only that secession was impossible but that neutrality could not last.38

After this sentiment began to change. Men boldly took decisive positions. The unwieldy neutrality party then divided into three parts: those who went to the Confederate lines to aid the Southern cause; those who openly declared themselves in favor of the Union; and those sympathizers with the South, who although in favor of the seceding States, seeing that their cause was hopeless, advocated peaceful separation and finally, when that failed, a compromise peace between the two sections.39 The Union party, though unalterably opposed to the abolitionists and not primarily attached to the Union because of antagonism to slavery, gradually acquiesced in the policy of the Federal Government with respect to that institution. This party first reached the position that Negroes taken from the Confederates could with propriety be disposed of as contraband of war and many of its adherents grew more favorable to the policy of general emancipation.

It was soon evident that war could not long be kept out of the State. As early as April, 1861, troops for service in the Confederacy were organized in Kentucky. This movement was somewhat accelerated by an act of the legislature providing that the arms supplied to the troops should not be used against either section and that the State companies as p390well as the Home Guards should take the same oath as the officers requiring fidelity to the Constitution.40 At this point many Kentuckians of proslavery tendencies were forced out of their natural position and driven into the Confederate ranks. Among these was S. B. Buckner, who went South to command about ten thousand secessionists, recruited under the leadership of Colonels Roger W. Hanson, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lloyd Tilghman, and W. D. Lannon at Camp Boone.41

The Governor refused to furnish Lincoln troops but he was in touch with the Confederacy, doing all he could to equip soldiers for its service,42 though not exactly openly, as that would have been sufficient excuse for the Unionists who desired to help the Union. The Unionists who saw all of this going on desired to arm and organize their forces but they were handicapped in that the commander of the State guard was a Secessionist and care had been taken to hold the military forces for the South. In consequence of this difficulty Lincoln was secretly appealed to for arms, which were shipped to cities on the Ohio River for secret distribution among the Unionists of Kentucky as the opportunity would permit.43 The Secessionists had referred to these guns as the first so‑called violation of neutrality. The Unionists defended themselves on the ground that since the Governor and his whole machine were about in the ranks of the Confederates they were justified in doing almost anything to defend the State. Shaler says that the action on both sides was almost simultaneous and that the actual infringement of the neutrality proclamation issued by the Governor was due to the action of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Polk and Zollicoffer and the simultaneous invasion of the State some hundreds of miles apart shows that the rupture of the neutrality of Kentucky was deliberately planned by the Confederate authorities.44

p391 The invasion by Polk in September produced great excitement. The legislature was then in session and passed a resolution that the invaders be expelled, and that the Governor call out the military force of the State and place the same under the command of Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden. The resolutions were vetoed by the Governor but passed by a vote of two thirds.45 The desired proclamation was issued and soon sufficient men to form forty regiments answered the call.46 Making further response to the invasion of the State by the Confederates, the legislature ordered that the United States flag be raised over the capitol at Frankfort, and by a resolution which "affirmed" distinctly, though not directly, the doctrine of States' rights placed Kentucky in political and military association with the North.47

Wm. T. McKinney


The Author's Notes:

1 See Debates in Congress.

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2 Marshall, Speech in Washington on the Nomination of Breckenridge and Lane, p3.

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3 Speech of John Stephenson on the state of the Union in the House of Representatives, January 30, 1861.

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4 Bartlett, "Presidential Candidates in 1860," pp344‑345.

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5 Speech of Hon. J. C. Breckenridge delivered at Ashland, Kentucky, p9.

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6 Speech of J. C. Breckenridge on Executive Usurpation, July 16, 1861.

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7 "The Frankfort Commonwealth," August 21, 1861.

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8 These were some of the most intellectual and aristocratic men of the State. Collins exaggerates, however, when he says that few leading men opposed secession. See Collins, "History of Kentucky," I, 82.

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9 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 36.

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10 Ibid., 36.

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11 Ibid., 37.

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12 Hart, "Slavery and Abolition," 65, 178, 234; Turner, "Rise of the New West," 77.

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13 Report of the American Historical Association, 1893, pp219‑221.

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14 Burgess, "Civil War and the Constitution," I, 30.

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15 Ibid.

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16 McMaster, "History of the United States," VIII, 426‑427.

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17 Rhodes, "History of the United States," III, 391.

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18 Rhodes, "History of the United States," VII, 392.

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19 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 158‑179.

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20 House Journal, 1861, Governor's Message, p10.

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21 Ibid., 11.

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22 House Journal, 1861, Governor's Message, p12.

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23 Ibid., 14.

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24 Letter of John J. Crittenden to Gen. McClellan.

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25 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 42.

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26 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," p45.

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27 House Journal, 1861, p33.

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28 Ibid., 34.

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29 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 57.

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30 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 58‑62.

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31 Ibid., 58.

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32 House Journal, 1861, p6.

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33 Ibid., 94.

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34 Nicolay and Hay, "Life of Lincoln," IV, 233.

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35 Smith, "History of Kentucky," 610; Shaler, "History of Kentucky," 243.

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36 Smith says in describing the period of 1861: "It were well nigh certain that if a sovereignty convention could have been called at any time before the formation of the Union sentiment and policy into action and life, the state would have been carried off into the act of secession as Virginia and Tennessee were by the sense of sympathy and kinship toward the South." Shaler thinks the same. He says: "There is reason to believe that this course (neutrality) was the only one that could have kept Kentucky from secession. If what had been unhappily named a Sovereignty Convention had been called in 1861; if the state had been compelled by the decision of a body of men who were acting under the control of no constitutional enunciation, the sense of sympathy and kinship with the Southern states, such as would easily grow up under popular oratory in a mob, would probably have precipitated action." Speed, however, is doubtless right in saying all this is mere assertion and that there was no danger of secession after the people had a chance to transfer their will to the government. Shaler, "Kentucky," p240; Smith, "History of Kentucky," p610.

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37 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 93‑98.

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38 Collins, "History of Kentucky," I, 243.

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39 The Frankfort Commonwealth, July 19; Aug. 19, 21, 23; Nov. 10, 20, 23; and Dec. 11, 1861; The Yeoman Weekly, May 10; June 21, 22; July 8, 1861; Daily Louisville Democrat, Sept. 7 and Oct. 8, 1861.

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40 House Journal, 1861, 240.

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41 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 192.

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42 War Records, Serial 108, p37; Serial 127, p234; Serial 110, pp44‑64, and Serial 110, p71.

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43 Nicolay and Hay, "Life of Lincoln," IV, 237.

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44 Shaler, "History of Kentucky," 261.

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45 House Journal, 1861, p122.

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46 Speed, "The Union Cause in Kentucky," 300 et seq. See despatches and letters given in same.

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47 Rhodes, "History of the United States," III, 392.


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