Would you go North to join the Union army or South to join the Confederate army?By May 1861, The Civil War had already begun and the country was taking sides. You are a white farmer in Kentucky who...

Would you go North to join the Union army or South to join the Confederate army?

By May 1861, The Civil War had already begun and the country was taking sides. You are a white farmer in Kentucky who has never owned a slave, however Kentucky is a slave state. Would you go North to join the Union Army, or join the Confederate army ranks in your home state? Please be very detailed and specific.

Expert Answers
dbello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think your topic is important for this reason, you do not restrict anyone who posts a response with a time frame. For example, are we the white Kentucky farmer with an 1861 mindset, or are we the Kentucky farmer with a 2009 mindset? This paradox creates an interesting dynamic to which I would like to address both.

Kentucky became the 15th state in 1792 with slavery already embedded in the social fabric of the society. What is interesting and somewhat ironic about the Confederate states was that most Confederate soldiers who fought in the war were NOT slaveowners. So the question becomes 'why' did those men most of whom were not plantation owners but smaller farmers fight for the south? The answer... the war between the north and south was primarily fought over 'individual honor' and 'principle', (the interpretation of Article Six of the United States Constitution and the Tenth Amendment ) At that time in history the south depended upon the north for just about everything. This created a deep rooted resentment which resulted in two very different perspectives about the United States of America. ( there is evidence to support this reality on both sides from many existing primary sources)  It was the never ending struggle between the rights of the federal government and those of the state government. The white Kentucky farmer of 1861 who never owned a slave probably would have fought for the south because it his 'honor' and 'princilpes' dictated that mentality.

Now this is not to say that slavery was not part of that struggle, however it was one of several firery issues between the federal-state relationship between 1789 and 1861. The issue of slavery grew in intensity for many reasons, among them the Abolitionist movement reached more people, the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin added fuel to the fire, and in 1863 President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation shifted the purpose of the war from a federal-state tug of war to the war with a moral purpose.

Okay...the bottomline, slavery was bad, is bad, and must be abolished anywhere it exists on the planet, however this is a post Civil War, American Civil Rights Movement, in short a 20th-21st century perspective. We must remember slavery is an ancient institution but there is no doubt that when the word slavery is spoken today it is American slavery that holds the capacity to define the institution itself....that it in itself speaks volumes.

There is an old saying... 'If hindsight were foresight we would all be geniuses'...unfortunately it just does not work that way.


amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The south fought in the Civil War first and foremost because BIG government wanted to tell the southern states how they would conduct business on many issues...not the least of which was the issue of slavery. Some critics have even gone so far as to suggest that the folks up north were jealous of a lifestyle which seemed much more leisurely and comfortable than their own in a land which was wide open and spacious instead of crowded and polluted.  Since the people who lived in the south did not appreciate being told what to do by a government that was getting too big for its britches (not unlike today, I might add), it would be about protecting the way of life as they knew it then.  Regardless of whether I owned slaves (and my ancestors actually helped settle Kentucky when it was a wilderness and never owned slaves) or not, the obvious choice would be to fight for the south and their rich heritage of agriculture.  To do otherwise would be to subject yourself and others in the south to restrictions and laws about what can and can't be done with regard to farming, importing and exporting goods, and other issue which would drastically change the quality of life in the region. 

That having been said, slavery is wrong and always has been.  Many were treated poorly, but just as many were treated as family, never sold down river or separated from their own family members, took on the family name of their owners, and continued to live and work for wages on the family farms  after the Emancipation Proclamation.  They even inherited the land on which they lived...that's the part of the story that is rarely told since it's not as dramatic as ROOTS.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Why have I never owned a slave? Is it because the idea of owning other human beings violates my conscience and moral code, or is it because I own only a small farm and cannot afford to buy slaves as property? In either circumstance, my first response would be to protect my land, since it no doubt would represent economic survival for my family. If the North were to win the war, what would happen to my farm? How would we live? How could I feed my children? The war might well be a matter of starving or not starving for me. Also, I would think of the hard work I had invested in my farm. Could I just walk away from it to go north, join the army, and come back to fight against my relatives, friends, and neighbors? Not likely. Human nature is to protect what is our own, especially what is most important to us. Even if I disagreed with slavery, if I had to fight, I would fight for my own home, which would mean fighting for the South. However, if fighting for a society that imposed slavery upon others was simply unbearable for me because it violated my own principles, I would sell my livestock, pack my belongings, gather my family, and head west.

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What a fabulous question, allowing such room for different opinions and time-frames!  I would have not been allowed to do either, for I am a woman and, therefore, it would have been unthinkable for me to join.  I most likely would have ended up trying to farm my own land as my husband went off fighting for the doomed South.  I have thought a lot about this subject over the years and have decided that I would have been a member of the "Underground Railroad," carefully shuttling slaves through my Southern home to freedom in the North, . . . while secretly paying my own workers who would have been free to work for us or not.  However, I know myself enough to know that I wouldn't have been a highly "vocal" abolitionist out of fear.  It always saddens me to think of the truth behind that last idea. 

pmiranda2857 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I definitely would go North, joining the Union Army.  Although slavery was a hideous institution, it was practiced throughout most of the world, and accepted as part of the culture and social order of the period.  It is often hard to inject oneself into another time period without leaving behind our modern, advanced mindset.

In other words, I react to the idea of slavery as a 21st century indidivual, an informed and educated person who is revolted by the owning of another human being.

I would definitely go North to offer my assistance in saving the Union, I would have been a follower of President Lincoln. His commitment to saving the country would definitely have inspired me to join up.

linda-allen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would do neither. I'm from Tennessee, which was the last state to leave the Union and the first to rejoin. I'd stay right where I was and try to help people as best as I could. From the little I know of my family history, most of my ancestors were not slave owners. There is one distant relative who was a colonel in the Confederate Army, but his side of the family considered my side of the family as the "black sheep." Even though my relatives would have fought for the South, my heart would be freeing the slaves and ensuring their human rights. So I'd find some way to work "underground."

M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

My first reaction would be to join the Union for the obvious reasons: They had more weapons, were more prepared, had a much stronger leadership, more soldiers, and they had industry on their side.

Yet, being the lover of the underdog that I am, I would have ended up in the Confederacy, just to touch on my own feelings of the staunch loyalty to that which is inevitably fading away, yet, in order to give my last "yeehaw" and give it my 100% heading on towards the obstacle course.

actraiser | Student

In 1861, as a white Kentucky farmer who never owned a slave, I'd have fought for the Confederacy. 

My choice in this is based solely on states’ rights.

Southern financial institutions were paying the debts of failing northern banks.  Southern banks paid higher interest rates on loans made with northern banks.  A high tariff for importing and exporting goods was instituted, primarily aimed at southern states that were dependant on imported goods, and as such were penalized for this need.  Due to the population imbalance of that time and the resulting loss of political influence of southern states, I’d have felt helpless knowing my state would not be properly represented and that my government was indifferent to the needs of the southern states.


epollock | Student

I would fight for the North. They are better equipped, more prepared, and have better leadership. If I have never owned a slave, there would be no reason for me to fight for the South, except for the liberty of a free state. But that is what got the country into the problem in the first place, a divided union between slave and free.

billybobberkey | Student

My anwser would have to be to go join the Union. If I was a white male farmer that never owned slaves, why would I go fight for the confederates when they have the poor farmers go to battle instead of other, more wealthy people?

Plus, the Union has a great president and better suited for a war. The Confederacy doesn't.

krishna-agrawala | Student

This decision appears very simple and straight forward to people living in the year 2009. But what is so clear today was definitely a very tough decision in the year 1861.

My decision then definitely would have depended heavily on my upbringing then. In a hypothetical question like this I just cannot assume what my upbringing would have been. All I can say is that if in that period I had parents like the ones I had in this life, I would have most probably joined, irrespective of to which state I belonged, the North for two reasons. To oppose slavery and to protect the integrity of my country.

mmb | Student

If I was a white male famer who lived in Kentucky I would have joined the Confederate Army. Though I have never owned a slave, if I were to join the Union my name in Kentucky would be disgraced. I would recieve hate from friends, disant family members, etc; It could also affect my family, if I had a family. In addition, I would have, to some extent, pride in where I live and my way of life, so by me joining the Confederate army it would exhibit the sense of pride for both the south and my state. Plus, if I didn't own a slave it wouldn't matter one way or another which side one, so I'd probably take the side that would cause me to recieve less backlash