How the Kentucky Raid Led to the Civil War

Civil War | October 26, 2018

- Slavery: Contraband of war. Runaway slaves before Federal officers. Undated photo of illustration depicts Union soldiers standing and seated and ex-slaves talking to them. (Getty Images)

When you ask anyone to tell you what caused the Civil War, they will probably tell you that the war was fought over slavery. For historians, however, the true causes of the fighting was much more complex. They can, however, point to a few specific events as contributing greatly to the start of the Civil War. One of those events occurred in the tiny Michigan town of Vandalia in 1847. An event that occurred there, which has since become known as the Kentucky Raid, had a snowball effect which led to the start of the Civil War. 

Southern Slaves Escaped Along the Underground Railroad

Vandalia is located along one of the routes of the Underground Railroad, a term for the network of safe houses that led runaway slaves from the plantations of the South to freedom in Canada. Many slaves traveling along this route, however, decided to settle in Vandalia and the surrounding area instead of continuing on to Canada. The flat, fertile farmland and welcoming Quaker neighbors invited them to stay. 

Slave Owners Wanted to Recover Their “Property”

The slave owners were eager to find and return the runaway slaves, who they viewed as their lost “property”. When word got back to planters in Kentucky that many slaves were settling near Vandalia, they made plans to travel to Michigan and recover their slaves. The thirteen slave catchers from Kentucky arrived in Vandalia in August 1847 and scouted the area. They split into several smaller parties and spread out to capture the runaway slaves living at various farms. 

The Quakers Fought Back

As soon as the Kentucky Raid began, the Quaker farmers spread the word around the community. Soon, a crowd of more than 300 free blacks, town residents and Quakers, normally a non-confrontational and peace-loving sect, banded together to prevent their new neighbors from being taken by the slave catchers. In fact, it was the Quakers who are credited with keeping tempers down on both sides of the conflict. 

The Slave Catchers Agreed to Take the Case to Court

The Kentucky slave catchers truly believed that they had the right to reclaim their runaway slaves. But they were vastly outnumbered. They agreed to present their case before the judge in the nearby county seat in Cassopolis. The judge and abolitionist named Ebenezer McIlvain turned the tables on the Kentucky raiders. He told the slave catchers that the Quakers and free blacks were pressing charges against them for the raid. McIlvain ordered the slave catchers to be held in jail until they could provide the court with documents to prove the ownership of the runaway slaves. 

The Slaves had Time to Escape to Canada

What the judge was really doing was buying time. He knew the raiders would need a few days for the paperwork to be sent from Kentucky. This gave the runaway slaves that time they needed to pack up their belongings and continue along the Underground Railroad to Canada. By the time the slave catchers were released and the court permitted them to round up the runaway slaves, there were no runaway slaves left in the area. 

The Kentucky Raid Angered Southern Slave Owners

Southern slave owners were furious that the Kentucky Raid failed to bring back runaway slaves…and even more furious that the Cassopolis court was able to use the law to stall the slave catchers. They lobbied for Congress to pass a stricter law to protect the runaway slaves that they viewed as their “property”. They also wanted harsher penalties for people who harbored and helped freedom-seeking slaves. In 1885, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. This law made it permissible for slave catchers to capture runaway slaves who were on free soil…living in Northern states that outlawed slavery. Northerners were fearful that this gave slave owners too much power in non-slave states and that they would now be required to enforce slavery laws. They feared that the next step would be legalizing slavery in all U.S. states. 

Debate Over the Passage of the Fugitive Slave Law Directly Caused the Civil War

It was the growing concern and debate over the encroachment of slavery as an institution into non-slavery states that was the final straw for Northerners and Southerners. At an ideological impasse, war broke out. 

Tags: the kentucky raid, civil war, slavery

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.