American Civil War for Kids - The Underground Railroad Illustration

American Civil War for Kids - The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was not underground and it was not a railroad. So what was it? And why is it so famous?

Prior to the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States in 1865, which ended slavery forever, there was a federal law in the United States that said slaves were property. Slaves had no rights. Even during the period in American history when the states were divided into free states and slave states, it did not do a slave any good to reach a free state. By law, a runaway slave had to be returned to its owner. For a long time, slaves had to reach Canada before they were free. But getting to Canada was very difficult. After a while, slaves were freed if they reached Philadelphia, but it was still, although shorter, it was a very dangerous trip because of the slave catchers.

Slave catchers were people who made a business out of catching slaves before they reached freedom. If they were hired by an owner, some charged as much as $3 a day to hunt a runaway slave down. Some charged as much as $15 for returning a runaway slave on top of the money they charged per day. But they were not the only people hunting for fugitive slaves. Federal marshals were required by law to help slave owners recover their property. Federal law imposed strict penalties on anyone who helped a slave escape. The fine was as much as $500. There were also tales of violence.  

Some people broke the law to help runaway slaves. Abolitionists, people who thought slavery was wrong, set up a network of safe houses, places runaway slaves could stop and rest on their way to freedom. These safe houses were called stations, and the people who ran the stations were called "stationmasters". Other people guided runaways from one stop to the next. These guides were called "conductors".  This network that stretched from the deep South all the way north to Canada was called the Underground Railroad. As travel was mostly on foot, it was a long and dangerous walk to freedom. Some very famous people actively worked in the Underground Railroad. Harriet Beecher Stowe ran a station for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. John Brown and Harriet Tubman were both conductors. They were not alone.

Without naming names (for the most part), the abolitionist press wrote many articles about the heroic deeds of the Underground Railroad's conductors and stationmasters, gaining sympathy for the plight of slaves. It was effective propaganda. But in truth, only a very small percentage of people were helped by the Underground Railroad. The South at one point had 4,000,000 slaves. Over many decades, the Underground Railroad is credited with helping some 100,000 slaves on their way to freedom. Although that may be a small percentage of the slave population at the time, it still is a great many people!

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