Border States During the Civil War

Engraved print of Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.
Library of Congress

"Border states" was the term applied to a set of states which fell along the border between North and South during the Civil War. They were distinctive not merely for their geographical placement, but also because they had remained loyal to the Union even though enslavement was legal within their borders.

Another characteristic of a border state would be that a considerable anti-enslavement element was present within the state which meant that, while the economy of the state would not have been heavily tied to the institution, the population of the state could present thorny political problems for the Lincoln administration.

The border states are generally considered to have been Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. By some reckonings, Virginia was considered to have been a border state although it did eventually secede from the Union to become part of the Confederacy. However, part of Virginia split away during the war to become the new state of West Virginia, which could then be considered a fifth border state.

Political Difficulties and the Border States

The border states posed particular political problems for President Abraham Lincoln as he tried to guide the nation during the Civil War. He often felt the need to move with caution on the issue of enslavement, so as not to offend the citizens of the border states and that tended to annoy Lincoln's own supporters in the North.

The situation greatly feared by Lincoln, of course, was that being too aggressive in dealing with the issue might lead the pro-enslavement elements in the border states to rebel and join the Confederacy, which could be disastrous.

If the border states joined the other states that allowed enslavement in rebelling against the Union, it would have given the rebel army more manpower as well as more industrial capacity. Furthermore, if the state of Maryland joined the Confederacy, the national capital, Washington, D.C., would be put in the untenable position of being surrounded by states in armed rebellion to the government.

Lincoln’s political skills managed to keep the border states within the Union, but he was often criticized for actions he took that some in the North interpreted as appeasement of border state enslavers. In the summer of 1862, for instance, he was condemned by many in the North for telling a group of African American visitors to the White House about a plan to send free Black people to colonies in Africa. When prodded by Horace Greeley, the legendary editor of the New York Tribune, to move faster to free enslaved people in 1862, Lincoln responded with a famous and deeply controversial letter.

The most prominent example of Lincoln paying heed to the particular circumstances of the border states would be in the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that enslaved people in states in rebellion would be freed. It's notable that the enslaved people in the border states, and thereby part of the Union, were not set free by the proclamation. The ostensible reason for Lincoln excluding the enslaved people in the border states from the Emancipation Proclamation was that the proclamation was a wartime executive action and thus only applied to the states that allowed enslavement in rebellion—but it also avoided the issue of freeing enslaved people in border states which could, perhaps, have led some of the states to rebel and join the Confederacy.

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McNamara, Robert. "Border States During the Civil War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Border States During the Civil War. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Border States During the Civil War." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).