November 20, 1861: US Civil War, Not so Civil, Kentucky Sort of Secedes!

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A Brief History

On November 20, 1861, certain representatives of some Kentucky counties calling themselves the Confederate Government of Kentucky seceded from the Union of the United States of America. In honor of this action, a star on the Confederate States of America flag represented the Confederate State of Kentucky.

Digging Deeper

Well, well, well! Not so fast! The actual legitimate government of Kentucky had no such ideas about seceding from the Union and officially Kentucky, although a slave state, did not secede and join the Confederacy. Obviously sentiments in this “border” state were divided, and officially the State considered itself “neutral.” Needless to say, Kentuckians fought on both sides during the War Between the States.

Kentucky was not the only state with divided feelings about slavery and or secession. Maryland was a slave state that chose to stay in the Union, though undoubtedly many slave holders there thought otherwise. Likewise for Delaware. Missouri, like Kentucky, was a bit more divided and although officially not a secessionist state, a great many Missourians joined the Confederate Army anyway. Another 4 states were not all that eager to secede, and only did so after the battle of Fort Sumter (Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina and Virginia). Those 4 states are also sometimes referred to as “border states.” The State of West Virginia was formed when a majority of people in Northwest Virginia adamantly did not want to secede along with the rest of the state.

Western Tennessee was largely Union oriented at the start of the war, and in Louisiana 17 parishes voted to stay in the Union, while in another 3 parishes secessionists won by less than 30 votes each! It seems the protective sugar tariff provided by the Federal Government was near and dear to sugar planters. In other (North Central) hilly parts of the state where cotton was not grown, sentiments to remain in the Union also prevailed.

In virtually all States there were some that supported the Confederacy and some that supported the Union, and many of these people fought for the side their own state fought against. Quite literally it was a war in which brother fought brother in many cases. In other cases, men that thought differently than their state government deferred to the State and fought out of loyalty to the State rather than loyalty to the issues involved in secession.

Today, even in areas that were clearly Unionist in sentiment, people in the South (that would be “White” people) are often quite proud of their “Confederate” heritage, even though their ancestors may have been Unionists and even fought for the Union! In recent years heroes of the South (Confederacy) and symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag (“Stars and Bars”) have been under attack and labeled as symbols of racism, although many White Southerners adamantly and sincerely deny attaching racist sentiment to these heroes and symbols. After all, it was mostly rich people that owned slaves, not the majority of Whites in the South, so perhaps they have a point.

By the time this author was born, there were no living veterans of the US Civil War, although there were people still living that were alive during the conflict , including a few that had actually been slaves (the last known former slave died in 1971). Having shared the country with former slaves makes the Civil War seem not quite as distant to me and others my age (60) or older. The recent angry divisions in American society (Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter and the contentious election of 2016) indicate the wounds of the Civil War have not yet completely healed. Question for students (and subscribers): Will these wounds ever heal? How can we heal these great divides between Americans? Please share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bishop, Randy.  Kentucky’s Civil War Battlefields: A Guide to Their History and Preservation.  Pelican Publishing, 2012.

Craig, Berry.  Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War.  The History Press, 2010.

Dollar, Kent, Larry Whiteaker, et al.  Border Wars: The Civil War in Tennessee and Kentucky.  The Kent State University Press, 2015.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.