Border states confront the secession issue

Date Published: 
June 6, 2014

Following the 1860 presidential election in which Abraham Lincoln was the victor, seven deep-South slave states seceded from the Union in protest — soon to be followed by four more from the mid-South. Yet, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri — Southern states bordering on the North and where the institution of slavery was also well-entrenched — chose to retain their allegiance to the Union.

In “Divided Loyalties: The Border States of the Upper South,” Jack T. Hutchinson discusses the reasons these latter four states refused to join their Southern sisters in rebellion, despite finding the Republican Party platform unpalatable and having scant fondness for Lincoln. Hutchinson added a fifth state that was formed when the mountaineers of Western Virginia reacted negatively to the Richmond Convention’s decision to secede.

The author cites the arrival of large numbers of immigrants in cities including Wilmington, Del., and Baltimore, Md., that “had no ties to the early Tidewater slave-owning way of life.” Kentucky, following the example of its late, great statesman Henry Clay, sought compromise. Missouri also experienced a substantial influx of immigrants — especially Germans — who lacked commitment to slave ownership.

The institution of slavery was nearly extinct in Delaware by 1860, with less than 2 percent of the population under bondage. Though it voted in the presidential election for the secession candidate John C. Breckinridge, the proud “First State” could not bring itself to leave the Union.

Harold Hancock points out in his political history that pro-South Gov. William Burton was in a quandary, believing that “the citizens of this State are opposed to … coerc[ing] the seceded States” back into the Union. He wisely decided against calling for a secession convention, given strong Unionist leanings within the state.

Maryland also voted for Breckinridge, and Baltimore was the scene of violence following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. Local residents clashed with Union troops marching through the city, leading to civilian and military deaths and injuries.

When pro-Union Gov. Thomas Hicks called the Southern sympathizing legislature into session, the Maryland General Assembly took no action toward secession. Daniel Carroll Toomey implies in “The Civil War in Maryland” that Maryland would have been another star in the Confederate flag, if it had not been “kept in the Union … by Northern troops.”

Even though Breckinridge — one of its own citizens — was on the presidential ballot, Kentucky gave its largest vote to former Sen. John Bell of Tennessee, who had “championed compromise and a peaceable way of saving the Union and avoiding a war.” In this way, Kentucky was signaling its preference for resolution of North-South discord.

Missouri spoke at the polls in 1860 by giving a plurality to the Northern Democratic candidate Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who sought to resolve the main point of contention among the states by allowing the territories to vote on the issue of whether to join the Union as a slave or free state.

Although Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson favored secession, the legislature called a convention that decided against his wishes. An outbreak of violence occurred in St. Louis as Southern sympathizers clashed with Union-oriented troops.

In “Civil War in St. Louis,” William C. Winter describes gunfire and rocks emanating from a crowd and return fire from the troops. As in Baltimore, there were casualties on both sides of the confrontation.

After Virginia voted to leave the Union in April 1861, delegates from the northwestern counties held a series of conventions in Wheeling, repudiated secession and organized their own pro-Union state.

As noted in Stan B. Cohen’s West Virginia guide, the U.S. Congress eventually admitted it as a state on June 20, 1863. The paradox was that, while the Lincoln administration was attempting to bring seceded states back into the Union, it was encouraging a partial secession from one of those same states.

“Divided Loyalties” author Hutchinson concluded that “deep and abiding love for the Union” and “growing industrial economies” helped to keep Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri, as well as the embryonic West Virginia, loyal to the flag. Another factor, he believed, was “the diminishing influence of the institution of slavery.”

Nonetheless, the politically-charged atmosphere over slavery had not completely dissipated, as seen in post-war reaction to the passing of the 13th Amendment that abolished the institution in the United States. While Maryland, Missouri and West Virginia joined in ratification of the amendment in 1865, Delaware withheld approval until 36 years later, in 1901. Kentucky delayed even longer, not consenting until 1976.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective,” available at Bethany Beach Books or from his website at Contact him at