The American Civil War, The Underground Railroad

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The Underground Railroad was perhaps the most dramatic protest action against slavery in United States history. The operations of clandestine escape networks began in the 1500s, and was later connected with organized abolitionist activity of the 1800s. Neither "underground" nor a "railroad," this informal system arose as a loosely constructed network of escape routes that originated in the South, intertwined throughout the North and eventually ended in Canada. Escape routes were not just restricted to the North, but also extended into western territories, Mexico and the Caribbean. From 1830 to 1865, the Underground Railroad reached its peak as abolitionists and sympathizers who condemned human bondage aided large numbers of bondsmen to freedom. They not only called for slavery destruction, but also acted to assist its victims.

Although the Underground Railroad is linked with abolitionism of the antebellum period, it stands out primarily for its amorphous nature and mysterious character. Unlike other organized activities of the abolition movement that primarily denounced human bondage, the Underground Railroad secretly resisted slavery by abetting runaways to freedom. It confronted human bondage without any direct demands or intended violence; yet, its efforts played a prominent role in the destruction of the institution of slavery. The work of the underground was so effective that its action intimidated slaveowners. Most regarded the underground as "organized theft" and a threat to their livelihood.

The most intriguing feature of the Underground Railroad was its lack of formal organization. Its existence often relied on concerted efforts of cooperating individuals of various ethnic and religious groups who helped bondsmen escape from slavery. To add to its mysterious doing, accounts are scarce for individuals who actually participated in its activities. Usually agents hid or destroyed their personal journals to protect themselves and the runaways. Only recently researchers have learned of the work rendered by courageous agents such as David Ruggles, Calvin Fairbank, Josiah Henson, and Erastus Hussey. The identity of others who also contributed to this effort will never be fully recognized. Though scholars estimate that Underground Railroad conductors assisted thousands of refugees, the total number of runaways whom they aided to freedom will never be known simply because of the movement's secrecy. Conductors usually did not attempt to record these figures, and those who did only calculated the number of runaways whom they personally helped. Moreover, these estimations should consider that some runaways never took part in the underground system and, therefore, used other creative methods to attain liberty. The shortage of evidence indicated that scholars probably will never fully learn the real significance of the Underground Railroad. Indeed, the few journals that have survived over the years suggest that the true heroes of the underground were not the abolitionists or sympathizers, but those runaway bondsmen who were willing to risk their lives to gain freedom.


Taken from the Underground Railroad Special Resource Study by the National Park Service in September 1995.

World History Project