Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kentucky, Land of Lincoln

Ask people which state they associate with Abraham Lincoln, and most will answer Illinois. After all, "Land of Lincoln," the official Illinois state motto, is found on signs across the state, not to mention on every license plate.

In fact, Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin (now LaRue) County, Kentucky. Still, he only lived in Kentucky until the age of seven, moving to Indiana and later Illinois, where he began his political career and lived most his life. But his birth state of Kentucky was to play a crucial, if under appreciated, role in the defining event of Lincoln's later life: the Civil War.

Kentucky was a "border state" at the time of the war. Its unique geographical position meant it was neither fully in the north nor south. Once the western frontier, by the time of Lincoln's presidency, it was "midwestern," wedged between the disputed states of Missouri on the west and Virginia to the east.

It was clear to Lincoln that Kentucky had strategic importance. In September 1861, just months into the war, he wrote "to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game." Further, he reportedly said that he hoped to have God on his side, but he had to have Kentucky!

Kentucky declared itself neutral. But in response to a Confederate occupation of Columbus, the legislature passed a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Confederate forces, and eventually backed General Ulysses S. Grant and his Union troops stationed in Paducah.

Southern supporters reacted by forming their own government in Confederate occupied Bowling Green, and Kentucky was recognized by the Confederacy as the 13th member state, receiving a star on the Confederate battle flag. Kentucky was then in the unique position of having representatives in both Congresses and troops in both Union and Confederate regiments. However, by early 1862, following Grant's campaign along the Tennessee border, Union forces dominated the state. Thereafter, Kentucky's Confederate government had little power or impact.

Perhaps most importantly, Lincoln's shrewd politics, including ongoing negotiations with state leaders, guaranteed that Kentucky would remain loyal to the Union throughout the war. Early northern control of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers proved crucial, and meant the south had no hope of victory in the Western Theater of the war.

It is an interesting twist of fate that Kentucky produced not only Lincoln, but also Jefferson Davis, believed to be born in 1808 in Christian (now Todd) County, Kentucky. Davis, who was to become the president of the Confederate States of America, is also most often associated with a different state: Mississippi.

Travelers will find the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, Kentucky. Next year, the site will host the "kick-off" event for the 200th anniversary celebration of Lincoln's life. Jefferson Davis' birthplace is also memorialized at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview, Kentucky, about 100 miles from the Lincoln site.

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