Border States

Lincoln Needed Deft Political Skills to Handle the Border States

Engraved print of Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.
Engraved print of Lincoln reading a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to the 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 slavery was legal within their borders.

Another characteristic of a border state would be that a considerable anti-slavery element was present within the state.

And that meant that while the economy of the state would not have been heavily tied to the institution of slavery, 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 slavery, 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 of slavery might lead the pro-slavery elements in the border states to rebel and join the Confederacy. That could be disastrous.

If the border states joined the other slaves states in rebelling against the Union, it would have given the rebel army more manpower as well as more industrial capacity. And 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 did 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 slave owners. 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 blacks to colonies in Africa.

And when prodded by Horace Greeley, the legendary editor of the New York Tribune, to move faster to free slaves 1862, Lincoln responded with a famous and 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 slaves in states in rebellion would be freed. It's notable that the slaves in the border states, and thereby part of the Union, were not set free by the proclamation.

The ostensible reason for Lincoln excluding the slaves in the border states from the Emancipation Proclamation was that the proclamation was a wartime executive action, and thus only applied to the slave states in rebellion. But it also avoided the issue of freeing slaves in border states which could, perhaps, have led some of the states to rebel and join the Confederacy.