Slavery and Strife at the End of the Civil War


This is from the New York Times’s wonderful series in which an historian writes an essay about events or issues relevant on this day 150 years ago.


How Kentucky Became a Confederate State

By Christopher Phillips

May 22, 2015 7:00 am May 22, 2015 7:00 am

In the late winter of 1865, Abraham Lincoln was completing a reconciliation-themed second Inaugural Address, pledging the nation to embrace the end of slavery “that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”

His thoughts were not solely on the last days of the war deep in the Confederacy. Closer to home, a war of another kind seemed ongoing. On Feb. 20, the president wrote to Missouri’s new governor, Thomas C. Fletcher, troubled by persistent violence and distrust among civilians there. “Waiving all else, pledge each to cease harassing others, and to make common cause against whomever persists in making, aiding or encouraging further disturbance.” The president implored. “At such meetings old friendships will cross the memory, and honor and Christian charity will contrive to help.” Less than two months later, Lincoln was dead, at the hands of a Marylander, John Wilkes Booth. Had he lived, he would have learned, painfully, in slaveholding border states that amity would be difficult to find, especially over the end of the peculiar institution there.

Lincoln’s letter to the new Missouri governor was not sent randomly. His was one of two states, along with Maryland, both controlled legislatively by Radicals, to have emancipated slaves by the time of his second inauguration — Maryland by constitutional convention and plebiscite, Missouri by Fletcher’s executive proclamation. Violence erupted, particularly in Missouri. Less than a month before Lincoln’s death, one militia commander there explained the late-war violence. “Slavery dies hard,” he wrote. “I hear its expiring agonies and witness its contortions in death in every quarter of my district.”

Slavery died even harder in the other two border states, Kentucky and Delaware, especially politically. Although polar opposites in terms of slave ownership (Kentucky the largest, Delaware by far the smallest), self-styled Conservative Democrats held political power in both states, and rejected the 13th Amendment. (Kentucky would not ratify it until 1976, second to last, ahead of Mississippi.) In the summer of 1865, the Kentuckian Lizzie Hardin returned home after a two-year exile in Georgia to portents of a lingering war. “Slavery in such a condition that neither masters nor Negroes know whether it exists or not, lawlessness of every shade,” she wrote, “and in the midst of it all, between Southerners and the Union people a hatred, bitter, unrelenting, and that promises to be eternal.”

Postwar violence in the border states was widespread. For Lincoln’s murder, outraged unionists “ought to [argue] that Rebels should have but a short rope,” wrote one. He would “turn mercy into vengeance.” In Wilmington, Del., unionist mobs tormented known dissenters, demanding they display patriotic emblems or face reprisal. In Louisville, Ky., where troops returned from the South to be mustered out, street violence between soldiers and civilians was a daily occurrence.

Now, waves of racial violence, characterized by historian T. J. Stiles as the “war after the war,” tore through the border states in this rehearsal for Southern-style Redemption. Newly paroled former Confederates who did come home joined ranks with current and former guerrillas and even anti-emancipation unionists as “Negro Regulators” or “Ku Klux.” In gangs that often numbered in the hundreds, they used terror to maintain the political and racial status quo, as well as to undermine or impose new political mandates. In Missouri, they threatened entire towns with mass slaughter if all black residents did not leave the state. The counties of southern and western Kentucky, where Klan activity was heaviest in the state, lost on average 17 percent of their black populations. In rural Maryland, freedpeople’s churches, which often served as schools, were particular targets of mobs that often included doctors, lawyers and even magistrates. As one federal officer claimed, “The civil authorities of the lower part of Delaware and the Eastern Shore accord [freedpeople] no rights; their churches are burned, their schools broken up, and their persons and property abused by vicious white men.”

In the former slaveholding centers of these border states, especially, but also in their white belts, such as on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a three-way struggle soon raged between the occupying federal forces — by the summer of 1865, mostly black — who tried to protect freedpeoples’ rights of black citizenship, black residents who now sought to exert those rights and embittered white residents (some of them former unionists and even federal soldiers) who denied them by violence.

In places like Paducah, Ky., the local presence of troops largely suppressed mob attacks on freedpeople. Many white residents thus begged to have federal troops removed, especially because most were black — in Maryland, they soon were sent to Texas. In areas with few or no garrison troops, state authorities maintained restrictive “Black Codes” against freedpeople, including forced labor.

Violence, especially by former guerrillas and returning Confederates, was widespread enough for the Kentucky Legislature to keep its militia mobilized and in service until 1866. In Missouri, Governor Fletcher called out its militia to aid county sheriffs in “break[ing] up lawless bands” and authorized another militia enrollment of more than 117,000 men. Unionists in many communities called for protection, and civil authorities and garrisons arrested large numbers of miscreants. Others took up arms themselves as paramilitary “Union regulators.” For years, many communities witnessed virtual re-enactments of the war, with former rebels — “Southern men,” as they referred to themselves — exchanging shots with former and federal soldiers in pitched battles, complete with military formations.

Opposition to Radical Republican politics of black freedom went far to change the loyalty of many former unionists in these border states. White solidarity, as the historian Aaron Astor has claimed, “overwhelm[ed] any residual bitterness over competing loyalties or wartime atrocities.” In southern Maryland, where as one unionist claimed many whites “do not hesitate to say that we robbed them of their property,” another remarked in the summer of 1865 that “the treatment of loyal men in this section has been similar to that received by the freedmen.”

As early as 1866, the newly formed Weekly Caucasian of Lexington, Mo., blared to disfranchised white voters that they should resist the state’s Radical constitution by fraudulently taking the ironclad oath and registering to vote. Two years later, similar white supremacist tropes blared from the first issue of St. Joseph’s Missouri Vindicator. “We are Caucasian in blood, in birth, and in prejudice.”

Inverting Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum, white border state residents employed postwar politics to achieve thwarted war goals. Ratification of the 13th Amendment and the establishment of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Maryland, Kentucky and portions of Missouri spurred obstructionist political responses in these states. In December 1865, Kentucky’s legislature repealed its four-year-old Expatriation Law, re-enfranchising former Confederates, and by 1866 insurgent Confederates there swept into office at all levels, replacing the Conservative coalition leadership and reconstituting the Democratic Party as a virtual rebel entity. Many former emancipationists quickly switched to the Democrats or stood with them against the later Reconstruction measures. By 1871, the first of six consecutive Confederate sympathizers, secessionists or ex-Confederate officers held the governorship.

The Kentucky pattern was replicated in Delaware and Maryland after Radicals were trounced in the latter state’s 1866 state legislative elections. Only in Missouri did they maintain legislative power. Consequently, of the border states, only it ratified the 14th and 15th Amendments, guaranteeing civil and voting rights to African Americans. But the state would hold out only briefly before a political conversion to Confederate state nearly as complete as Kentucky’s.

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