Underground Railroad and Civil War History

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Story of the Underground Railroad

Of the thousands of slaves who fled the plantations each year, most never made it to freedom.

The Underground Railroad was neither "underground" nor a "railroad," but was a loose network of aid and assistance to fugitives from bondage. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand enslaved persons may have escaped in the years between the American Revolution and the American Civil War.
The Underground Railroad refers to the effort--sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized--to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery. Historic places along the Underground Railroad are testament of African American capabilities. The network provided an opportunity for sympathetic white Americans to play a role in resisting slavery, and brought together, however uneasily at times, men and women of both races to begin to set aside assumptions about the other race and to work together on issues of mutual concern. At the most dramatic level, the Underground Railroad provided stories of guided escapes from the South, rescues of arrested fugitives in the North, complex communication systems, and individual acts of bravery and suffering in the quest for freedom for all.
African Americans fled slavery in the South for a variety of reasons. Brutal physical punishment, psychological abuse, and endless hours of hard labor without compensation drove many slaves to risk their lives to escape plantation life. The death of a master usually meant that slaves would be sold as part of the estate, and family relationships would be broken. While some slaves headed north with relatives of friends, most traveled alone, supported by the kindness of other African Americans or abolitionist whites that they met on their journey. Only a small number of slaves traveled by the organized network of routes, "conductors" and "stations" that came to be known as the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad Map
The Underground Railroad Map.jpg
The Underground Railroad Map

African American men and women of all ages left the plantation and headed North for freedom. But most runaway slaves were young men who could withstand the hardships of fugitive life. To escape the deep South and make it North to New York, Massachusetts or Canada meant a journey of hundreds of miles -- usually on foot. Escaped slaves faced a life of hardship, with little food, infrequent access to shelter or medical care, and the constant threat of local sheriffs, slave catchers or civilian lynch mobs.
Plantation owners whose slaves ran away frequently placed runway slave advertisements in local newspapers. Such ads often included a person's physical description, likely location or destination, and information about temperament -- at least as perceived by the plantation owner. While rewards varied, they could run as high as $1,000 -- a not unreasonable price considering the lifetimes of free labor a Southern planter could hope to extract from a slave and his or her children.
Not all runaway slaves fled to the North. Many fugitives sought refuge in cities such as Atlanta, Charleston or Richmond, where they could blend easily into existing African American populations -- often with the assistance of other fugitives or free blacks. Some runaways established freedmen's encampments in rugged rural areas where they could remain hidden from "slave catchers or local legal authorities." Such groups often supported themselves by stealing food and supplies from nearby plantations.
For slaves who lived in the Border States of Maryland, Kentucky and Virginia, the journey to freedom could be short and less terrorizing. The long, unguarded border of Pennsylvania, for example, represented an ideal opportunity for slaves in cities such as Baltimore. Slaves who lived with access to fresh and saltwater ports often stowed away or hired on as hands on Northbound vessels. Once they reached a free port, the fugitives jumped ship to freedom.

The passage of the second Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made escape from bondage more difficult. Under the provisions of the act, slaves who escaped to free states or federal territories could be forcibly returned to their masters. Anyone who aided a fugitive slave -- and federal marshals who failed to enforce the law -- faced severe punishment. Slaves taken to court for breaking the fugitive slave law could not testify on their "own behalf," and were not allowed the right to a jury trial.

In the North, Hicksite Quakers and other abolitionists provided some of the most organized support for the Underground Railroad. Particularly in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, a night's lodging, a place to hide from slave catchers, a meal, and covert transportation by wagon, boat or horseback proved welcome to slaves fleeing the South.
Of the thousands of slaves who fled the plantations each year, most never made it to freedom. Many returned to the plantation after a few days or weeks--tired, hungry and unable to survive as wanted fugitives. Others were returned in chains after their capture by lawmen or professional slave catchers. The punishments these slaves faced upon their return varied from verbal abuse to beatings, sale to another master, and even death.

A law to gradually phase out slavery in Upper Canada, which is now Ontario, was passed in 1791. The British Empire, of which Canada was a part, abolished slavery throughout its territories in 1833. Underground Railroad activity flourished in cities such as Rochester and Buffalo which were near the borders of Upper Canada. For those who endured the long journey and all its hardships, Canada was the Promised Land.

Sources: PBS and National Park Service

Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts. Description: A "conductor" based in Philadelphia, Still (1821–1902) helped guide fugitive slaves to safety in the years before the Civil War. He also created this unforgettable history, a collection of carefully preserved letters, newspaper articles, and firsthand accounts about refugees' hardships, narrow escapes, and deadly struggles. Over 50 illustrations. "Highly recommended."

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Recommended Reading: The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History (Dover African-American Books). Description: This pioneering work was the first documented survey of a system that helped fugitive slaves escape from areas in the antebellum South to regions as far north as Canada. Comprising fifty years of research, the text includes interviews and excerpts from diaries, letters, biographies, memoirs, speeches, and other firsthand accounts.


Recommended Reading: Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement. Publishers Weekly: Though the Underground Railroad is one of the touchstones of American collective memory, there's been no comprehensive, accessible history of the secret movement that delivered more than 100,000 runaway slaves to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Journalist Bordewich (Killing the White Man's Indian) fills this gap with a clear, utterly compelling survey of the Railroad from its earliest days in Revolution-era America through the Civil War and the extension of the vote to African Americans in 1870. Using an impressive array of archival and contemporary sources (letters, autobiographies, tax records and slave narratives, as well as new scholarship), Bordewich reveals the Railroad to be much more complicated--and much more remarkable--than is usually understood. Continued below…

As a progressive movement that integrated people across races and was underwritten by secular political theories but carried out by fervently religious citizens in the midst of a national spiritual awakening, the clandestine network was among the most fascinatingly diverse groups ever to unite behind a common American cause. What makes Bordewich's work transcend the confines of detached social history is his emphasis on the real lives and stories of the Railroad's participants. Religious extremists, left-wing radicals and virulent racists all emerge as fully realized characters, flawed but determined people doing what they believed was right, and every chapter has at least one moment--a detail, a vignette, a description--that will transport readers to the world Bordewich describes. The men and women of this remarkable account will remain with readers for a long time to come.


Recommended Reading: Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory. Publishers Weekly: Myth and metaphor, the Underground Railroad was also real in the lives of escaping slaves, in the activities (legal and illegal) of black and white people, free and slave, who aided and abetted them and in the structures in which they found refuge. Bountifully illustrated with 78 color and 174 black-and-white photos and other images, this collection also comprises highly, readable essays by 15 distinguished historians. The first section, "Slavery and Abolition," lays a historical foundation with cogent accounts of slavery in the colonial years and in the 19th century and of the antislavery movement. Continued below…

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Civil War, William Still and Harriet Tubman are all carefully treated. Short-term stay escapes and long-term fugitive communities within slave territory, escape by water, escape into Northern free black communities, escape to South Florida and escape to Western Canada are all freshly covered, as are "current uses of the Underground Railroad in modern thought, tourism, and public history." Eddie S. Glaude Jr. discusses the African-American appropriation of the Exodus story, with the U.S. being Egypt rather than the Promised Land. …A coherently arranged collection with two thought-provoking essays exploring the role of history and memory and probing the current attention to the Underground Railroad that "says much about who we are as well as who we say we want to be."


Recommended Viewing: Underground Railroad (History Channel) (150 minutes). Description: The Underground Railroad, "the first civil rights movement," was no mere act of civil disobedience. The secret network of guides, pilots, and safe-house keepers (the Railroad's "conductors") was built by runaway slaves who, over the decades, communicated their experiences through songs and secret gestures, and were supported by abolitionists (many of them former slaves) who risked their own freedom to help free the enslaved. The "passengers" risked their lives. Continued below…

A wealth of photos, documents, and commentary by modern historians provides the broad lines of history, but it comes alive in the individual stories of conductors and passengers, among them abolitionist and historian William Still, called the "Father of the Underground Railroad," and Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a cargo crate. They (and many others) take their place beside Harriet Tubman ("the Moses of her people") and Frederick Douglass as courageous heroes in America's first integrated social movement. The DVD also features the Biography episode on Frederick Douglass, the complete text of the Emancipation Proclamation, a biographical essay on Harriet Tubman, and other historical background pieces.


Recommended Viewing: Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad. Description: Race to Freedom is worth watching as an introduction to the Underground Railroad. Some of the characters intertwined in the story are actual historical figures who played roles in the Underground Railroad. … I used this movie in my U.S. History class as we were discussing Slavery, the Underground Railroad and the events leading up to the Civil War. It gives a great depiction of what slaves endured and their struggles to evade that yoke called “slavery.” …Very interesting and engaging for students. Highly Recommended.


Recommended Viewing: Roots (Four-Disc 30th Anniversary Edition) (DVD) (573 minutes). Description: Based on Alex Haley's best-selling novel about his African ancestors, Roots followed several generations in the lives of a slave family. The saga began with Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton), a West African youth captured by slave raiders and shipped to America in the 1700s. The family's saga is depicted up until the Civil War where Kunte Kinte's grandson gained emancipation. Roots made its greatest impression on the ratings and widespread popularity it garnered. On average, 130 million - almost half the country at the time - saw all or part of the series. Interesting fact: Alex Haley was also the founding father of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Affairs Office.

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