Disunion – The Underground Railroad Emerges

Adam Goodheart has been the most prolific and consistently good contributor to the Disunion blog in the New York Times. His piece yesterday in Disunion certainly is not an exception. In it, he discusses how the Lincoln administration’s contraband policy brought into public view in the North the Underground Railroad–the heretofore secret network of abolitionists and safe houses that had helped slaves to escape from bondage.

Goodheart writes:

Less than three months into the Civil War, it seemed that the Underground Railroad was emerging — if not into broad daylight, at least into the pale summer dusk. . . . “They say that no attempt is made to arrest runaway slaves,” reported the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, adding that the mountains of northwestern Virginia, just across the Pennsylvania border, were full of others awaiting just the right moment to make a dash for free soil. “Many fugitive slaves from Maryland and Virginia have crossed the line and are receiving aid and comfort from Pennsylvanians … of all shades of political belief,” wrote a correspondent for the New-York Tribune on June 1. . . . Similar stories were being reported elsewhere across the North all that spring and summer.

In other words, Goodheart asserts the number of fugitive slaves fleeing into the North increased in the early summer of 1861, as slaves became more confident they would not be arrested and returned to their owners. They generally were not disappointed because of a broad shift in public opinion in North. Adam Goodheart states:

A revolution was taking place within the hearts and minds of many whites, as well. For decades, millions of Northerners had frowned on slavery but still disapproved of abolitionism, which they considered a dangerous and fanatical doctrine that threatened to deprive Southerners of their property and split the Union apart. But as soon as the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, such objections began quickly evaporating. Why worry about abolitionism splitting apart the Union, when the Union had already split? And why defend the “property” of people who were now sworn adversaries in a terrible war?

Of course, there were limits to the change in sentiment in the North about slavery. Goodheart writes, “At the same time that some Northern whites grew more sympathetic to abolitionism, others hated with renewed passion the dogma that they believed had destroyed their nation. And even as some enslaved blacks escaped into a sympathetic North, others found no such welcome.

In my research, I have come across similar feelings during this period of continued passionate hostility in the North toward African Americans. For example, while passing through Lafayette, Indiana, on June 26, 1861, Jason Niles, a Vermonter making his way back north after a long residence in Mississippi, overheard a man talking in a bar that stated, he “was in favor of taking all the fugitive slaves and all the free negroes, to the Southern line, and turning them all over to the South.

Such sentiments help explain why the Fugitive Slave Act continued to be enforced in some cases as late as 1862 even as many white Northerners became more hostile to slavery and amenable to emancipation. In any case, another fine Disunion piece by Adam Goodheart. I highly recommend it.

Source for Jason Niles Quote: http://attala.msghn.org/jasonniles.htm

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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