In the first half of the 19th cent., Kentucky was primarily a state of small farms rather than large plantations and was not adaptable to extensive use of slave labor. Slavery thus declined after 1830, and for 17 years, beginning in 1833, the importation of slaves into the state was forbidden. In 1850, however, the legislature repealed this restriction, and Kentucky, where slave trading had begun to develop quietly in the 1840s, was converted into a huge slave market for the lower South.
Antislavery agitation had begun in the state in the late 18th cent. within the churches, and abolitionists such as James G. Birney and Cassius M. Clay labored vigorously in Kentucky for emancipation before the Civil War. Soon Kentucky, like other border states, was torn by conflict over the slavery issue. In addition to the radical antislavery element and the aggressive proslavery faction, there was also in the state a conciliatory group.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Kentucky attempted to remain neutral. Gov. Beriah Magoffin refused to sanction President Lincoln’s call for volunteers, but his warnings to both the Union and the Confederacy not to invade were ignored. Confederate forces invaded and occupied part of S Kentucky, including Columbus and Bowling Green. The state legislature voted (Sept., 1861) to oust the Confederates and Ulysses S. Grant crossed the Ohio and took Paducah, thus securing the state was secured for the Union. After battles in Mill Springs, Richmond, and Perryville in 1862, there was no major fighting in the state, although the Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan occasionally led raids into Kentucky, and guerrilla warfare was constant.
For Kentucky it was truly a civil war as neighbors, friends, and even families became bitterly divided in their loyalties. Over 30,000 Kentuckians fought for the Confederacy, while about 64,000 served in the Union ranks. After the war many in the state opposed federal Reconstruction policies, and Kentucky refused to ratify the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.