Author Archives: Forbes

Rebels on the Border by Dr. Aaron Astor

‘Rebels on the Border’ Cover, from Target Bookstore

In the summer of 1848, dozens of enslaved Kentuckians set out on the dangerous path to freedom.  According to Aaron Astoer, “The largest plot in the Bluegrass…involved [reportedly] seventy-five slaves who had escaped Fayette and Bourbon countries with the help of a white abolitionist at Danville’s Centre College and numerous free blacks.” 1  The freedom seekers had armed themselves and had been traveling in the direction of the Ohio River before being recaptured in the city of Cynthiana.  Astor only uses the term ‘stampede’ in his 2012 book Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri twice, and does not use it to refer to such organized group escapes.  The author mentions that locals of Lexington were particularly flabbergasted by this event, as “most of the participating slaves were ‘trusted house servants of Lexington’s most socially prominent families.’”2

In the beginning of Astor’s narrative, he describes some other antebellum examples of enslaved people rebelling against slaveholders.  “One large slave ‘conspiracy’ in the western border states occurred not in the Bluegrass but in western Kentucky’s Hopkinsville, where a foiled Christmas insurrection in 1856 spurred panic and ‘excitement’ throughout the entire state,” Astor writes, noting that even rumors of this sort of activity were terrifying to the slaveholders, who were extremely averse to the suggestion that their power over the people they had enslaved could be challenged.3

Enslaved Persons’ Rebellion, from ThoughtCo

Even though the journey out of bondage was perilous and sometimes unsuccessful, it was also an obvious reclamation of power by the freedom seekers.  Astor acknowledges that “[o]ther than outright insurrection, running away was the slave’s gravest political act of resistance.  It directly usurped the master’s authority…”4  White enslavers experienced a growing anxiety over the threat of enslaved people running away or arming themselves en masse, especially as the tensions which led to the Civil War heightened.  It got to the point that untrue rumors of rebellion circulated amongst the townspeople routinely: “The appearance of slave conspiracies during seminal events…underscores the latent political power vested in the ‘apolitical’ slave population.” 5  Astor notes that even though many of the feared insurgent plots seemed to have been conjured up entirely in the minds of slaveholders, the enslaved were able to observe their enslavers’ panic and use it against them.  Enslaved people’s different forms of rebellion shattered the wishful illusion that this system was morally neutral and could continue without consequences.

During wartime, Astor notes the examples of stampedes behind Union lines, and how the “rush of slaves off the farms of Little Dixie and the Bluegrass stunned white conservatives and Union military officials alike.  Sporadic violence against enlistees hardly stemmed the tide of black men –and often black women as well– who stampeded into the army of liberation.”6  Astor refers to black people as ‘stampeding’ into the army twice in his book.  Fighting in the Civil War for the right of all enslaved people to be freed was the ultimate revolution in which freedom seekers could have taken part, and the use of the word “stampede” to describe their fervor for enlistment is apt.



[1] Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 67-68.

[2] Astor, 68.

[3] Astor, 68.

[4] Astor, 69.

[5] Astor, 70.

[6] Astor, 144.

Images of America: Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad by Richard Cooper and Eric Jackson (2014)

Published in 2014, Images of America: Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad by Richard Cooper and Eric R. Jackson contains dozens of portraits of prominent abolitionists and photographs of locations which were useful to freedom-seekers.  The book offers a useful chronological image map of historical events through the Civil War era.  There are several profiles of more well-known figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison.  In addition, Images of America also highlights more obscure abolitionists, such as Reverend John G. Fee (who was “eventually disowned” by his family for harboring “radical antislavery opinions”), James Birney (a Princeton alumnus who “founded the abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist in 1836”), and Anna Donaldson (who worked against slavery alongside her sons).1

The term “stampede” does not appear in this book.  Instead, Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad describes various types of escapes and the support systems which aided them.  According to the authors, for example, “The city’s emerging steamboat industry granted employment opportunities for African Americans and provided a way to transport black Americans escaping from the South to the North without detection.”2   

The authors note that some freedom-seekers “travel(ed) at night or hid(–) aboard sailing vessels as well as in safe-houses…  Those who were lucky enough to escape concealed themselves, used various disguises, obtained free papers, and traveled the back roads to gain their freedom”, and “On foot, runaways seldom traveled more than 10 to 15 miles per night.  Another way…was through the use of various creeks and small streams that fed into a larger waterway, especially in the northern Kentucky and southwest Ohio regions.”3

Co-author Richard Cooper provides several primary-source photographs of monuments or buildings connected to the Underground Railroad or Civil War, or which concern individual Black people and their accomplishments.  His images of the Black Brigade Monument (which honors an all-Black “military unit organized during the Civil War to protect the city from being attacked by the Confederates”), Father Wallace Shelton’s gravesite in Union Baptist Cemetery (“which contains the remains of…a number of African American Civil War veterans” and “is the oldest Baptist African American cemetery in the city”), and a statue of James Bradley (who was “the first African American student at Oberlin College”) are originals.4


[1] Cooper and Jackson, Images of America: Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad, (Arcadia Publishing in, 2014), 46; 50; 59.

[2] Cooper and Jackson, 36.

[3] Cooper and Jackson, 76; 77.

[4] Cooper and Jackson, 47; 173; 192.

Dr. Darrel E. Bigham – On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (2006)

A photograph portrait of Dr. Darrel E. Bigham, the author of 'On Jordan's Banks'

Dr. Darrel E. Bigham, from

An enslaved mother made the urgent decision to escape after she learned of her owner’s plans to sell several of her eight children.  Because she was trusted to sell vegetables in the local market, she was able to hide her possessions in a wagon underneath a layer of produce.  Then, she drove the cart to a spot south of Covington, Kentucky, on the Ohio River.  Her husband and children met her there, and began their clandestine operation to cross the river into freedom officially underway.  This was a success story: “She and her family eventually reached Canada,” Darrel E. Bigham writes in his 2006 book On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley.  While his book does not use the term ‘stampede’, it does include accounts of families, individual freedom seekers, and organized groups of people escaping.  In addition, Bigham writes of enslaved people rebelling against slaveholders in a variety of ways.

Bigham writes, “[Slaves] who could not look forward to emancipation expressed opposition in many ways, mostly nonviolent – ranging from humor and music to work slowdowns or temporarily running away.”1   Even though many enslaved people knew that they would not be able to escape in the immediate future, they still purposefully rebelled against the slaveholders.  One case involved an enslaved man who strangled his overseer “with his own suspenders.”2  Because the enslavers knew they were outnumbered, they often relied on intimidation to make their enslaved people believe that rebelling was not worth the danger they would be in afterward.  “[O]wners took slaves to hangings, hoping to make an impression on them,”3 Bigham recounts.  Clearly, enslaved people’s defiance made an impact.

Enslaved man running away from two pursuers

Enslaved Man Escaping, from NYPL Public Domain Archive.

Interestingly, Bigham counters an assertion that this sort of pushback was “[enslaved people’s] most successful resistance.”4  He continues, “The error is not in celebrating their counterculture, but rather in failing to appreciate that only running away allowed blacks to ‘outplay whites in the divide-and-conquer’ game.”5  Even better, this form of mobile rebellion did not scare slaveholders in a way which caused them to retaliate violently against the slaves who had stayed.  This leads into Bigham’s discussion of escapes.  He writes that Black people took initiative in organizing their escapes, and emphasizes “that the Underground Railroad depended heavily on black agents” who were sometimes newly-free people who had taken similar routes out of slaveholding territory.6  Bigham includes several references to individual Black people escaping from their bondage with the help of abolitionists.  For example, he relays the story repeated by “[t]he great-niece of a slave named Lewis Barnett” about her great-uncle, who “escaped with twelve others traveling through New Albany”, where they were hidden by a Black family for two days before being unfortunately recaptured.7

Brick church building with a clocktower

The Second Baptist Church, New Albany, VA, from Darrel Bigham.

Bigham includes a significant amount of geographical and cultural information about the Underground Railroad’s operations, and he makes a point to mention names and provides short accounts of both white and free black people who helped the runaways in their escapes.  At the end of his book, Bigham includes pictures of primary sources, some of which are newspapers about anti-Black initiatives, an autographed autobiography of a Black reverend, and two nineteenth-century schools for African Americans.   Those last photos are from the author’s collection.  In fact, Bigham personally provides several pictures of important buildings like schools or churches which used to serve as stops on the Underground Railroad.


[1] Darrel Bigham, On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 22.

[2] Bigham, 22.

[3] Bigham, 22.

[4] Bigham, 22.

[5] Bigham, 22.

[6] Bigham, 24.

[7] Bigham, 47.