The New-York Historical Society is presenting an audio tour exploring the Underground Railroad during the time of the Civil War, highlighting how issues of slavery and freedom influenced national politics and the actions of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), commander of the Union armies, and of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), commander of the Confederate forces. The Run for Your Life audio tour adds a layer of interpretation to the current exhibition Grant and Lee in War and Peace and can be accessed when you visit the gallery and at nyhistory.org or on iTunesU.
Over the past five years, the New-York Historical Society has showcased documents, art and artifacts relating to the abolitionist movement and network known as the “Underground Railroad” by publishing the papers of the African Free School in print and on the Web and through the exhibitions on Alexander Hamilton; Slavery in New York; New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War; and French Founding Father: Lafayette’s Return to Washington’s America.
This year, the N-YHS takes the story of the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad through the Civil War, focusing significant attention on its role in the turbulent 1850’s through the time that the resources of the Underground Railroad were drawn on to assist four million freed people to participate in a new, unified democracy.
These activities, including the Run For Your Life audio tour, are developed with grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program.
The tour is comprised of seven thematic stops:
When Grant and Lee attended West Point, no men of color were allowed to enlist in the US Army, however by the close of the Civil War over 180,000 African Americans had fought for the Union – many of them recently escaped from slavery. The larger saga of escaping slaves and relentless political struggle show how the African American quest for freedom held the country accountable to the principles so forcefully stated in the Declaration of Independence.
Black Seminoles Flee South
As enslaved people in Georgia and Florida sought sanctuary with the Seminole tribe, the U.S. government became more and more determined to conquer (in three different wars) the various Seminole groups who received these fugitives. Some bands became known as Black Seminoles because of the massive influx of African Americans and subsequent intermarriage.
John Brown: Escapes and Revolt
Abolitionist John Brown not only fought pro-slavery militias in Kansas in the mid-1850s, he led a band of fugitive slaves openly through the territories up to Canada, trying to prove that the Fugitive Slave Law was blatantly defied by antislavery citizens. Fulfilling the nightmare that haunted the South, he then tried to spark a general slave uprising, after capturing arms at Harper’s Ferry. When Brown was sentenced to death he gave a farewell address in which he linked his Underground Railroad expedition to Canada with his attempted insurrection.
Lee at Arlington – Wesley Norris
Right before the Civil War, Lee inherited a large number of slaves at the Arlington estate through his wealthy wife. By the terms of her father’s will, the Arlington slaves were to be freed upon his death. Lee’s slowness in doing this, and his policy of breaking up families by hiring people out to distant plantations angered Mary Custis Lee’s slaves. Some fled, since they considered themselves already free. One such fugitive slave ended up living as a freedman on the very Arlington estate where he used to work.
Grant and the Davis Plantation
The story of Isaiah Montgomery is a startling window into the chaotic period of the war when the newly freed and the newly fleeing joined together to improvise new lives. From the beginning of the war thousands of enslaved people liberated themselves and fled to Union lines, as Federal forces secured pockets of Southern territory. Grant settled them in contraband camps or arranged for their protection on plantations of their former owners seized as punishment for supporting the Confederacy. The most notable of these were the properties of Jefferson and Joseph Davis in the Mississippi River, where the former slaves took control and successfully planted cotton and ran their own schools. Benjamin and Isaiah Montgomery, slaves only two years before, turned a profit of $160,000 in 1865 on the plantation of their former owners.
Lincoln, McClellan and Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, the leading black statesman, condemned Lincoln’s policy of returning fugitive slaves and refusing to allow them to enlist in Union forces: “We are striking the guilty rebels with our soft white hand, when we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man, which we keep chained behind us. We have been catching slaves, instead of arming them… Slavery has been, and is yet the shield and helmet of this accursed rebellion.” Soon, however, Lincoln declared that slave labor was supporting the Rebel war effort. Then some of his more openly abolitionist generals, such as Benjamin Butler, could treat the escaping people as “legitimate contraband of war” seized from the enemy to prevent aid to the Rebel cause. The flight of thousands of slaves is called by some the Last Chapter of the Underground Railroad, as African American southerners added their efforts to the Union side, and subtracted their labor from the rebels.
About the New-York Historical Society
Established in 1804, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) comprises New York’s oldest museum and a nationally renowned research library. N-YHS collects, preserves and interprets American history and art; its mission is to make these collections accessible to the broadest public and increase understanding of American history through exhibitions, public programs, and research that reveal the dynamism of history and its impact on the world today. N-YHS holdings cover four centuries of American history and comprise one of the world’s greatest collections of historical artifacts, American art, and other materials documenting the history of the United States as seen through the prism of New York City and State.