The Underground Railroad
"The Underground Railroad," Richmond (VA) Dispatch, December 6, 1855, p. 2: 1.
Frustrated over the continued reports of successful Underground Railroad operations in their state, the Virginia legislature debated imposing the death penalty on anyone who assisted with escapes from slavery in late 1855. This newspaper article from the Richmond (VA) Dispatch comments on that development and reprints a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article from the New York Times that allegedly described the scene at one "depot" in New York. Both the clipping from the Times and the original comments from the Dispatch are significant for what they reveal about the role of the Underground Railroad in heightening sectional tensions during the years before the Civil War.
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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD - LEGISLATIVE ACTION.
We have little reason at this time for long excerpts from any journal, however exalted in character; much less from a newspaper which has no motives that are pure, no objects that are elevated, but is actuated chiefly by sectional prejudices of the most malignant character, and personal aims of the most petty kind. Such a paper is the New York Times, and we copy the following article from its editorial columns, because the subject of the underground railroad has been introduced into the Legislature of Virginia, and we wish the members to read the triumphant articles of the Times, at the success of that "institution," that they may be animated in the good work before them, and pass the most stringent laws that is possible to frame for the suppression of a great grievance.-The resolution lately offered by Mr. Douglas of the Senate, proposes the punishment of death for the abduction of slaves, and the confiscation of any property employed in their removal. Any additional severity that is possible to invent, we hope may be adopted. If the Times' article has any effort in this section, it will probably be of a different character from that contemplated by the Times:
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.-Not the least important of all the great railroad enterprises, which are rapidly, but almost imperceptibly, effecting great changes in the condition of the country, and in the social and political relations of the States towards each other, is that mysterious organization called the "Underground Railroad." As its managers publish an annual or quarterly statement of its operations, and its stock not being recognized by the bulls and bears of Wall Street, it is not half so much talked about as many other roads which are not, in truth, of half so much importance.
Who is the President of the Underground Railroad, who its Secretary, and who compose its Board of Managers, what is the value of the stock, or the actual extent of its operations, we do not known, and have no means of learning. We only know that it confines itself solely to the passenger business; that whatever may be thought of its character, it was never doing better than at present, as we are assured, and that its operations must be much more sensibly felt and appreciated in the slave States, which border on free territory, than they can be here.
The silent operations of the "underground road" must, in time, tell with powerful effect in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and Kentucky, and render the "peculiar institution" in those States so unprofitable that it will hardly be worth preserving, for, since this subterranean arrangement for the conveyance, so of that peculiar kind of property, which has the power of walking off with itself was established, stampedes have become more frequent than ever, and the border counties of the slave States are fast losing their laboring population.
We happened, by the nearest accident a short time ago, to drop in upon the depot of a subterranean road, not having any suspicion of the uses to which it was put' and seeing a "lot of likely young negroes" sitting there, who looked as though they had but recently come from a plantation: we inquired who and what they were, and found that they had just arrived by the underground road, and were only stopping a few hours for refreshment. They were a fine, hearty looking lot of them, very black and seemingly well pleased with their prospects. We questioned them as to the manner with which they found their way, and how they come to know there was such an institution as that which had enabled them to escape from bondage' but they were not disposed to be communicative. Some of them were from Virginia, some from Maryland, and one from North Carolina. One of the men, a very intelligent looking mulatto, said that he just been sold for $1300, and not liking his new master, he thought he would try to take care of himself. One of the women was very sad at the thought of the little child she had left behind, and planned a scheme for going to "fetch him."
We are informed that the weekly arrivals by the underground road, at this season of the year, average eight to ten persons, now and then one of the numbers arrived one day a Virginia station, with six black jewels and one at the breast, and it generally happens that when the husband comes first the wife follows after him. The most active season for the operation of the underground road, as we understand, is during the holidays, when the plantation slaves are indulged with more freedom than at other times. Christmas week is the season, too, for hiring slaves for the year, and a change of masters offers favorable opportunities to escape.
If the railroad affords facilities for the escape of slaves, they also afford increased facilities for their pursuit and recovery; so it would be unwise for our Southern brethren to raise any objections to these iron bands which are binding our States more closely together, on the score of the aid they render to their absconding property. The greater part of the passengers by the underground road make directly to Canada, and, while in transitu, stop so short a time in any one place that their owners have bunt slender chances for their recovery.
Citation for this page
Richmond (VA) Dispatch, "The Underground Railroad," December 6, 1855, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008, http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/ugrr/news_dec1855.htm.