University Press of Kansas Logo

Lincoln and the Border States

Preserving the Union

William C. Harris

New in Paperback: August 2014
430 pages, 10 photographs, 1 map, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1804-0, $34.95
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-2015-9, $24.95(s)
Ebook ISBN 978-0-7006-2056-2, $24.95



Book cover imageFaced with a divided nation, Abraham Lincoln deemed the loyalty of the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri crucial to the preservation of the Union. But while most scholars contend that these states were secure by the end of 1861, award-winning historian William C. Harris argues that Confederate campaigns and guerrilla activities kept the border region in constant turmoil—and that those states preoccupied Lincoln at every turning point of the war.

This first history of Lincoln’s border-state policies in more than eighty years offers a fresh and comprehensive perspective on how he negotiated, sometimes falteringly, the complex politics attached to such divisive issues as emancipation and suspension of habeas corpus. It provides new insights into the president’s leadership and the daunting problems he faced, as well as a window into federal-state relations, military-civil affairs, and the ongoing struggle for the Union.

A native Kentuckian whose wife’s family included slaveholders in Kentucky, Lincoln identified with the upper South and understood how its people often had torn loyalties. But Harris shows how few problems proved more troublesome for Lincoln than political disputes in the border states involving military interference in civil affairs, and nothing exceeded the difficulties he faced there over his antislavery policies and the enlistment of blacks in the army.

Harris argues that Lincoln’s patient and judicious management of border-state affairs, despite occasional missteps, proved crucial in keeping the border states in the Union, gaining their support for the war effort, and ultimately securing the end of slavery. Describing presidential relations with governors, congressmen, and regional military commanders and his handling of factionalism among Unionists, Harris shows how Lincoln’s careful attention to the border states paved the way for emancipation, an aspect generally overlooked by historians.

In the end, says Harris, it was mainly due to Lincoln’s skillful leadership that the border states were saved for the Union and slavery was abolished in America. His well-researched book treats in rich detail Lincoln’s triumphs and tragedies in dealing with the border region, providing the definitive account of the crucial part these states played in America’s bloodiest war.

“Harris has written a big-picture history of a topic rife with complexity and has done it well. . . . His book makes a strong argument about an important historical issue.”—Journal of American History

“A very fine book, fully worthy of its eminent award [the 2012 Lincoln Prize]. Narrative history writing at its best.”—Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

“Harris has done something new in Lincoln and Civil War studies. . . . His probing work brings the border states back to center stage and demonstrates how and why Lincoln mastered the art of balancing competing interests without yielding on the essential priority—an insightful lesson on leadership that speaks to our own day. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)

“An important and impressive new study. . . . As I finished reading this outstanding study, I was reminded of Frederick Douglass’ ultimate assessment of Lincoln. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,’ Douglass wrote in the last of his autobiographies, ‘but measuring him by the sentiment of his country—a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult—he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.’ Professor Harris has given us a remarkable picture of Lincoln’s leadership in this well-written, exhaustively researched, and handsomely produced volume.”—Charles B. Dew, Civil War Book Review

“In this important new study, Harris examines Lincoln’s sometimes rocky relations with the border states and shows with great precision how Lincoln managed to keep the border states mostly on his side and get slavery abolished therein as well.”—James M. McPherson, author of Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief

“A masterful work that probes one of Lincoln’s most persistent and intractable dilemmas.”—Daniel E. Sutherland, author of A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War

“A definitive study that adds a new level of understanding to a neglected but crucial Civil War subject.”—Harold Holzer, Chairman, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation

WILLIAM C. HARRIS is professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University and recipient of the Lincoln Diploma of Honor. 

Facebook button