William Townsend uses Abraham Lincoln’s diaries and letters along with newspaper articles to help showcase the development of Lincoln’s views slavery. Specifically, Townsend captures Lincoln’s response to key moments like the running away of slaves in Kentucky. 

 Townsend’s book is a treasure trove of primary sources. However, the term “slave stampede” is absent from the book. In its place, Townsend includes about three instances of group escapes. Townsend details the punishment of preacher Calvin Fairbank and teacher Delia Ann Webster for assisting three freedom seekers in 1844. The successful escape resulted in the arrest of Fairbank who was tortured and placed in solitary confinement while Webster was placed in a “debtors room.” Israel, the black driver who transported them was whipped fifty times. [1] airbank pleaded guilty in 1845 and was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment. In 1849, however, Governor John Crittenden pardoned him. However he was caught again in 1851 “stealing slaves” in Louisville and sentenced to another 15 years.  He eventually was released in 1864. [2]

Although Townsend does not use the term stampede, he does cover mass escapes which contemporaries labeled ‘stampedes,’ such as the 1848 Lexington Stampede. On August 5th, 1848 in Fayette County, Kentucky, an estimated seventy-five slaves attempted to escape from their masters. The slaves were armed and led by a white operative named Patrick Doyle. According to William M. Pratt, a pastor at the First Baptist Church in Lexington, “there has been a great disturbance in the country on account of some 60 or 70 negroes running off in a gang & hundreds have been in pursuit, nearly all taken.” The men in pursuit met at the Fayette courthouse to discuss ways of “detection and punishment of abolitionists and others in enticing slaves from their owners.” [3] The Fairbank case had left a staunch residual opposition to runaway slaves and those aiding them. According to the Observer, abolitionists under “the false pretext of philanthropy, and with unexampled audacity” were “perpetrating their foul practice in our midst.” The solution according to the paper was to make “a more severe example . . . of these wretches.” The paper called on local residents to “be on alert to detect and bring them to punishment.” Most of the freedom seekers were caught a couple of days later. The freedom seekers who survived the confrontation were either killed or “sent down the river.” [4]

Shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation, Judge George Robertson met with a union officer to bring back his runaway slave who was being harbored by the army. The officer refused. Furious, Judge Roberson sent a letter to President Lincoln, whom he knew, and when he didn’t receive the answer he wanted, he sued the officer in a Kentucky court for  “harboring a slave and aiding” in the escape of a fugitive.  [5] Townsend suggests that the Union officer (Utley) may have harbored many fugitive slaves. According to Townsend, this dispute encapsulated a wider problem in Kentucky which was the conflict between the state’s pro-slavery constitution and the Union’s evolving antislavery wartime policies. 

[1] Joe William Trotter Jr., River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. (1st ed. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), xiv

[2]  Trotter, River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. 26

[3] Trotter, 37

[4] Trotter, 45

[5] Trotter, 45

[6] Trotter, 46

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