Lincoln, Abraham

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri – Kansas City

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Biographical Information:

In the last decade before the Civil War, three presidents—Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan—tried to pacify Southern extremists to prevent secession and open warfare. They all failed, and history judges them harshly for that failure. But it was the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 that tipped the balance and sent the nation into war. Even before Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, while Buchanan was still president, seven states seceded from the Union, Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederate States of America and cadets from the Citadel fired on the Star of the West as it entered Charleston Harbor, preventing it from resupplying Fort Sumter. Momentum toward violence continued to grow, and a little over a month after Lincoln’s inauguration, Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter, marking the official beginning of the Civil War. Believing strongly that secession was unconstitutional and determined to hold the Union together, Lincoln chose to fight. He believed the rebellion would be limited in scope and quieted in short order. No one on either side foresaw the disaster ahead.

Slavery was the leading issue and the ordinances of secession from the newly formed Confederate states document that the South saw the protection and expansion of slavery as the locus of its rebellion. Lincoln, on the other hand, at first avoided attributing an abolitionist agenda to the North’s response. Preservation of the Union was his focus, and to accomplish this he sidestepped discussion of federally imposed emancipation. Lincoln claimed that the authority to outlaw involuntary servitude and emancipate the slaves rested with the states, not with the federal government. Thus, he tried to convince the slaveholding border states that remained loyal to the Union, including Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, and Delaware, to set the example for their Southern kinsmen by voluntarily emancipating their slaves. “If they will take hold and do this, the war will cease,” he wrote.

Lincoln developed a plan for reparations whereby “the federal government should offer to buy freedom for the slaves.”

To ease the financial impact of emancipation, Lincoln developed a plan for reparations whereby “the federal government should offer to buy freedom for the slaves.” Lincoln argued that slavery was a “disease of the entire nation” and that Northerners “should be ready and eager to share largely the pecuniary losses to which the South would be subjected if emancipation should occur. . . .” In Lincoln’s view, the North was as culpable in maintaining the institution as the South: “Every portion of our territory in some form or other has contributed to the growth and the increase of slavery . . . . It is wrong, a great evil indeed, but the South is no more responsible for the wrong done to the African race than is the North.” Lincoln’s pleas fell on deaf ears, though, and the Congress was unwilling to consider legislation to fund the plan. Additionally, the border states were reluctant to accept Lincoln’s offer of compensated emancipation, while self-liberated slaves were pouring across their borders from neighboring slave states.

Delaware was particularly essential in Lincoln’s plan for state-sanctioned compensated emancipation because it had fewer than 1,000 slaves, making it easier to implement and setting an example for the other states. He drafted legislation hoping to have it introduced before the Delaware legislature but the bill was defeated. Only the District of Columbia eventually initiated compensated emancipation as part of a bill signed in April 1862. The bill freed the slaves in the district, and the federal government paid compensation of about $300 per person.

There were other reasons Lincoln viewed the border states as important in his political and military strategy. Maryland was the access corridor to Washington, D.C., which needed protection; Kentucky controlled the access to the Ohio River; and Missouri protected the Mississippi and Missouri River transits. Keeping each of these states in the Union was a constant challenge: none more so than Missouri. The internal conflicts in Missouri that were rooted in the prewar violence of the “Bleeding Kansas” era created an atmosphere of hatred and revenge that constantly threatened to push Missouri into the Confederacy. Like his predecessors, Lincoln tried throughout his presidency to resolve the internal strife in Missouri that weakened it as a military ally and drained off federal resources desperately needed elsewhere.

As Lincoln laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign, he visited the troubled Kansas Territory in December 1859 and perfected a speech about slavery that he would later deliver to wide acclaim at the Cooper Union in New York City. Learn more.

Violence between slaveholders and non-slaveholders erupted along the Missouri-Kansas border with enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, seven years before the attack on Fort Sumter. To quell the bloodshed in Kansas and adjoining territories, President Buchanan dispatched federal troops to Kansas Territory. Cross-border raids continued even after Kansas entered the Union as a free state in January 1861. The outbreak of war fewer than 45 days later further complicated the political landscape as combatants wrapped themselves in the flags of the Union or the Confederacy to justify continued violence.

Missourians were divided on the issue of secession. Missouri’s governor, Claiborne Jackson, a Southern sympathizer, refused to respond to Lincoln’s call for soldiers to put down the Southern rebellion. He personally favored secession, but short of that led the state legislature to vote for armed neutrality, mirroring the Kentucky model. Armed neutrality meant that no Union or Confederate forces could enter Missouri or transit its borders, nor would Missouri allow its militia to be commandeered into the federal army. To enforce the neutrality and protect Missouri citizens, Jackson raised a state militia, the Missouri State Guard (MSG), under the leadership of General Sterling Price. He then demanded the federal arsenal in St. Louis be turned over to the state militia. When Union General William S. Harney refused the governor’s demands, Jackson turned to Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy to supply arms for the MSG. Price and his men surrounded the St. Louis arsenal, an encampment they called “Camp Jackson,” but later claimed that this apparent act of aggression was for defensive purposes only.

Meanwhile Lincoln gave Francis Blair Jr., a civilian, permission to form the Unionist Home Guard. Blair was authorized to raise troops to meet Missouri’s quota and counter Jackson’s militia so as to secure the state for the Union. General Harney initially refused to muster the recruits from his paramilitary unit into the regular army, which so angered Blair that he convinced Lincoln to recall Harney. Harney, on learning of his recall, traveled to Washington and convinced Lincoln and his advisers to reinstate him. But Blair, thinking Harney too conciliatory toward Confederate sympathizers, again lobbied for Harney’s removal, and eventually Lincoln agreed to replace him with Nathaniel Lyon. Lyon, who had a reputation for rashness, immediately began to take draconian steps to protect the Union from those he categorized as traitors. In this complex rubric of “frequently uncertain and ephemeral . . . definitions of loyalty,” citizens of Missouri found themselves encompassed in a “dominion system” of military occupation, according to historian Christopher Phillips.

Both Lyon and his Unionist Home Guard and Price with his Missouri State Guard claimed to be protecting the interests of Missouri: one appointed by the President, the other by the governor. The generals took sides in a power struggle between the federal government and the government of Missouri. Should Missouri answer the call for troops despite its claim to neutrality? If neutral, did the United States federal government have the right to interfere with the internal workings of the state and station Union troops from other states within its borders? Finally, how could the citizens of neutral Missouri be protected from guerrilla attacks from within its borders and from without? General Price’s failure to protect Unionists from attacks by secessionists heightened the tension within the state. Lincoln’s vacillation between Harney and Lyon added to the tension.

Photograph of President Lincoln’s handwritten draft of the final Emancipation Proclamation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Lincoln was new to the presidency and to leadership. He was easily influenced by whoever approached him with a compelling argument and as easily dissuaded by equally persuasive counterarguments. At the time he was seen, even by his supporters, as adrift. In Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, David Von Drehle describes how Congress, upon convening after the war had already begun, “saw only confusion, corruption, failure and delay,” as well as a huge price tag of $50 million a month to sustain the war. The decisiveness Lincoln displayed in organizing the Union response to the assault on Fort Sumter evaporated. Von Drehle describes how Lincoln “was forced to reveal . . . just how little he actually knew about the plans and operations of the Union armies,” before a Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, held December 31, 1861, The situation in Missouri, despite Lincoln’s claim in December 1861 that “Missouri is comparatively quiet,” was also far from resolved. Lincoln’s apparent failure of leadership during the early days of Missouri’s internal struggles only underscored the cabinet’s and Congress’s perception of him as vacillating and weak, allowing factions in Missouri to become so polarized that it would take decades to resolve the resentments.

Clearly, the first year of Lincoln’s presidency was a difficult year, but he learned from his mistakes and grew in his leadership abilities. He educated himself in military tactics and rid himself of feckless generals. Additional realignments would be necessary, but Grant and Sherman were beginning to emerge as the effective military leaders the Union needed. At the end of the year, General William Rosecrans won a decisive Union victory at Murfreesboro, which gave the Union a strong foothold in Tennessee. According to historian David Von Drehele, by January, 1862 “Lincoln was well on his way to solving the managerial riddles posed by the Union’s overnight armies, and he had established his clear leadership over his administration, his party and the government” and replaced his indecision with “painstaking moderation” (373). Despite his leadership gaffes in the beginning, Lincoln managed to hold the border states for the Union. True to his word, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 he exempted the border states from its provisions. On November 1, 1864, shortly before Congress passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865, Maryland finally outlawed slavery. In Missouri, Governor Thomas Fletcher eliminated slavery by executive order on January 11, 1865 - after Congress passed the amendment but before it was enacted. On December 6, 1865, slavery became illegal in all states. Interestingly, Delaware did not ratify the amendment until 1901 and Kentucky withheld ratification until 1976. Fortunately, these later votes were not necessary because the 13th Amendment had already been ratified December 6, 1865.

Long after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the Civil War, and the 13th Amendment ended slavery in the United States, guerilla warfare continued in Missouri. For years, the bitterness and violence that began with the Kansas-Nebraska Act continued as renegades like the Youngers and the James brothers kept the engrained grievances alive and created new ones. To the very end, Lincoln tried to help reconcile the Missouri factions. For example, in February 1865 he suggested, to the new Missouri governor Thomas Fletcher that he call local meetings at which citizens would agree to set aside their differences and look to the future. The naïveté of the recommendation suggests that Lincoln, even at this late date, did not fully comprehend the deep-rooted hostility and vengeful spirit that permeated the Missouri psyche. It would be a generation before the old grudges would even begin to be forgotten. Some argue that despite all logic they linger still, simmering just below the surface.


Suggested Reading: 

Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.

Harris, William C. Lincoln and the Border States: Preserving the Union. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011. Including quotes from Recollected words of Abraham Lincoln / compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1996.

Monks, William. A History of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas; being an Account of the Early Settlements, the Civil War, the Ku-Klux and Times of Peace. John F. Bradbury Jr. and Lou Wehmer, eds. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2003.

Phillips, Christopher. "'A question of Power Not one of Law': Federal Occupation and the Politics of Loyalty on the Western Border Slave States during the American Civil War." Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border. Ed. Jonathan Earle and Diane Mutti Burke. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2013.

Von Drehle, David. Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2012.

Cite this page: 
Keating, Deborah. "Lincoln, Abraham" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 20, 2019 at


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