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Civil War Border States: Definition & Significance

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Instructor: Freda Bradley

Freda holds a Master's Degree in History and teaches a variety of college history courses.

While most people think of the American Civil War being fought primarily between the Southern and Northern states, Border States were also involved. Learn about the definition of Border States during the Civil War, their significance, and which states were classified as a Border State. Updated: 11/04/2021

Border States

The American Civil War is often viewed entirely as the North versus the South, but sandwiched in between these two battling areas were the Border States. The Border States included Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and, by mid-war, West Virginia.

However, the criteria for being a Border State was not simply geographic. They also had a unique cultural identity. Slaveholding was legal in the Border States, and like the South, they didn't support Lincoln in the 1860 election. However, his win was not an impetus for secession here because the Border States also held on to a firm belief in a strong federal union.

The Border States were vital to the success of the Union. They contained significant deposits of mineral resources and were major agricultural areas producing both livestock and grain. Additionally, these states contained transportation and communication lines that were vital to the war.

President Lincoln actively worked to maintain the best relationship with these areas to ensure he never lost these resources. However, their cultural ideologies created some significant dividing lines that had to be carefully balanced, including their ideas on slavery.

Lincoln unsuccessfully tried to convince the Border States to be the leaders in voluntary and gradual emancipation in the first years of the war. He pointed out that being the leaders meant they could have time to acclimate their economies to the loss of the slave labor. He offered them financial compensation for the loss of their slaves. Nothing worked. This failure to gain emancipation in the Border States was one of the major reasons he felt it necessary to draft the Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition to the slavery issue, Lincoln had to delicately balance the military force in all the Border States. The most horrific guerrilla warfare occurred here and, although the Union fought to control it, this was an area where brother turned against brother, family against family. It was not an easy task to ensure both state sovereignty in war and the safety of citizens by using military action. Each state had a unique set of problems, and Lincoln tried to address them both individually and to the benefit of the Union as a whole.

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  • 0:04 Border States
  • 2:20 Delaware and Maryland
  • 2:57 Kentucky
  • 3:58 Missouri
  • 4:44 West Virginia
  • 5:33 Lesson Summary
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Delaware and Maryland

Geographically, Delaware and Maryland were the most northern Border States. Although Delaware is often discounted, slaveholding was legal here. However, the number of slaves, and thus their effect on the economy, was comparatively minimal. Retaining their loyalty to the Union also meant keeping substantial water access and port cities. The National Road and a major railroad ran through Maryland. Maryland also surrounded Washington, D.C. To lose Maryland would mean having to evacuate the Federal capitol, and that would have deeply affected foreign policy as well as upset the regular flow of political business in wartime.

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