Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Underground Railroad

The underground railroad was a system of safe houses that stretched from the south all the way to Canada. The purpose of the safe houses was to hide and protect runaway slaves trying to reach freedom in the north. It is estimated that over 100,000 slaves escaped through the underground railroad, though many more tried.
The underground railroad began sometime in the late 1700s. George Washington, who owned about three hundred slaves on his Mount Vernon plantation complained in 1786 about an organization of Quakers helping some of his slaves escape.

This system of safe houses was nicknamed the "Underground Railroad" in 1831, after the newly emerging steam railroads in the country. People who worked on the underground railroad even used railroad terminology like naming safe houses “stations” or “depots” and called the individuals who guided escaped slaves “conductors.” People on the underground railroad often used code words such as “drinking gourd” for the Big Dipper star constellation and the “Promised land” for Canada, where slavery was illegal and there were no laws allowing slave owners to travel into the country and catch escaped slaves.
Harriet Tubman

The Fugitive Slave Act, originally passed in 1793, allowed slave hunters and owners to travel north and enter free states in order to catch escaped slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made the act of hiding or assisting runaway slaves punishable by six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Slaves traveling on the underground railroad would travel 10 to 20 miles between stations, often under the cover of night, hiding in barns, forests and swamps along the way. Messages would be sent to the next stationmaster to alert them that the slaves were coming.

The most common form of transportation on the underground railroad was walking. Slaves walked thousands of miles from the south to the north, often all the way to Canada. They also traveled by horseback, wagon, train or boat. Slaves used directional clues to guide them north such as following the north star and and looking for moss on the north side of trees.

Stationmasters, religious groups, abolitionist organizations and sympathizers often donated money to the escaped slaves to help purchase boat or train tickets and to buy better clothing that would help hide the fact that they were slaves.
The Levi Coffin house is a famous safe house on the Underground Railroad
Some of the most famous conductors were abolitionist John Fairfield, who rescued many slaves from his family's Virginia plantation, Levi Coffin, a Quaker abolitionist from Indiana who rescued more than 3000 slaves and Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave herself who returned to the south 19 time and helped 300 slaves escape to the north.

Not all of the stationmasters and people who assisted runway slaves were white. Many were free black citizens, Native American tribes living along the escape route or Spanish soldiers stationed at Spanish-controlled forts in parts of the deep south like Florida.

Many slaves never even attempted to escape. The conditions along the underground railroad were harsh and physically exhausting. Slaves often only decided to escape when they were about to be sold or split up from their families. Of the slaves that did escape, the majority of them were men. Men were often bigger and stronger and had an easier time coping with these harsh conditions. Female slaves often had children which made it harder to move quickly and elderly slaves simply could not keep up on the escape route.

A poster offering a reward for a runaway slave
Escaped slaves were often chased and hunted down by slave catchers with horses, guns and bloodhounds that would follow the slave's scent and track them. The punishment for running away was often beatings, imprisonment and being sold off to another, usually crueler, slave owner.

When slaves reached a safe house they were given food and clothing. They were then hidden in basements, closets, barns, under floorboards or in specially built secret passageways and hiding spots in houses or buildings. Many of these buildings and houses still exist today with these secret hiding places still intact.

When Congress freed the slaves by passing and ratified the 13th amendment in 1865 the underground railroad activities ceased.

The Underground Railroad: National United Railroad Freedom Center

The Underground Railroad: PBS

Aboard the Underground Railroad: National Park Service

Monday, July 18, 2011

Who Were the Buffalo Soldiers?

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Regiment
Buffalo soldiers are often confused with the African-American soldiers who fought during the Civil War. Although over 180,000 black soldiers fought in black regiments during the war, the term “Buffalo soldiers” only refers to the black regiments established after the war had ended.

In 1866, Congress authorized six regiments of black soldiers, each staffed by 1,000 soldiers. The majority of these recruits had already served in black regiments during the Civil War or were freed slaves. These regiments consisted of four infantry regiments and two cavalry regiments. These regiment's initial duties were to help rebuild the country after the Civil War and patrol the western frontier. Troop reductions in 1869 reduced the number of infantry regiments to two.

The nickname was originally given specifically to black cavalry soldiers on the Great Plains but was eventually given to all of the black regiment soldiers at the time. The nickname Buffalo soldiers was given to the soldiers by Native Americans who thought the soldier's hair resembled that of a buffalo's mane. It is also believed that the nickname came from the fact that the soldiers often wore long coats made of buffalo skins during harsh winters on the Plains. The soldiers saw the buffalo as a brave and fierce animal, so they accepted the nickname.

Buffalo soldiers were paid $13 a month, which was less than white soldiers were paid, but more than most black citizens earned each month in civilian jobs. The soldier's duties in the west involved protecting settlers, building forts and roads and mapping the western landscape as the country developed further west. The soldiers were often illiterate. Part of the duties of each regiment's chaplain was to teach the soldiers to read and write and give them a basic education.

Between the years 1866 and 1869, the four infantry regiments served in the west, while the 10th cavalry unit was stationed in Kansas and the 9th cavalry in Texas. In 1867, the 10th cavalry was sent to the Indian territory, in what is now modern day Oklahoma, to keep the peace in the area and to protect the Five Civilized Tribes. These were five tribes, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole and Choctaw, considered civilized by settlers because they easily adopted the settler's new ways.

Part of the soldier's duties in the Indian territory included watching over the Native Americans on the reservation, maintaining law and removing “boomers” from the two million acres of unassigned land within the territory. Boomers were illegal trespassers who tried to colonize the unassigned Indian land. These boomers were often a mix of white settlers and Native Americans without tribal land but many black settlers also tried to colonize the area, which made it equally difficult for the Buffalo soldiers to turn them away.

In 1870, after the infantry regiments were reduced to two, known as the 24th and 25th regiments, they were transferred to Texas where they protected settlers and maintained law and order for 10 years. The 24th regiment was then transferred to the Indian territory and also to the Texas panhandle where they stayed until they were sent to Arizona in 1888.

The 9th cavalry then transferred from Texas to New Mexico where they fought Native Americans in the Apache war from 1875 to 1881. In 1881 the army sent the 9th cavalry to Indian territory to control the thousands of boomers still trying to colonize the area. After serving in Oklahoma, the 10th cavalry regiment spent many years in Texas in the early 1880s but occasionally helped control boomers in the Indian territory until the regiment was transferred to Arizona in the late 1800s.

The Buffalo soldiers regiments were also some of the first troops to fight in the Spanish American War in Cuba after an American battleship exploded in Havana Harbor in February of 1898. The soldiers helped Theodore Roosevelt's volunteer army, the “Rough Riders,” to storm San Juan Hill and continued to fight during the entire seven month war.

The soldiers went on to fight in the Philippines at the turn of the century and WWI but only one of the many black units in the army actually saw combat during WWI because many soldiers were assigned to supportive duties in supply units. Many Buffalo soldiers did see combat in WWII, though, as well as in the Korean war before the army desegregated its troops in the 1950s and black soldiers were allowed to join white units.
Buffalo Soldier in the 9th Cavalry in 1890
Buffalo Soldier from the 25th Infantry Regiment
Buffalo Soldiers in the Spanish American War

National Park Service: Buffalo Soldiers

Oklahoma Historical Society: Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldiers: Forgotten American History Page

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Causes of the Civil War

Although many people believe slavery was the one and only cause of the Civil War, it was actually more complicated than that. The causes of the Civil War started many years before and were often connected to each other. Here is a look at the main causes of the Civil War.

Unfair Taxation

The north and south had vastly different economies. The north made money from factories and manufacturing while the south relied on agriculture for its main income. Since the country was first settled, the U.S. imported most of its goods from Europe. Eventually, the north was able to produce more and more of the goods the U.S. needed. Northern politicians forced the south to buy goods from the north by passing federal laws that placed high taxes on goods imported from Europe. This angered many southerners.

States' Rights

These taxes sparked a debate about state's rights. Southerns saw these import taxes as unfair and believed that each individual state had the right to nullify any federal law the government passed. Southerns also believed each state had the ability to leave the union and become an independent country. This was known as secession. Northerners opposed secession and stronger state's rights because they felt it threatened the strength of the country.


The north and south had very different opinions about slavery. Most northerners opposed slavery, actively participated in the abolitionist movement and helped runaway slaves escape from the south. Southerns felt that northerners were trying to control their way of life in the south and felt the government wasn't working hard enough to protect them and their right to own slaves. Southern agriculture relied very heavily on the use of slaves and southerns felt if their right to own slaves was taken away they would be financially ruined.

Expansion Into the West

As the country expanded westward, more states were added to the union. The land in these states did not support agriculture so they often became “free” states. Southerners felt if the number of “free” states continued to grow they would weaken the power and influence that slave states had in the union.

The Election of 1860

When Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln, a northerner who was well known for his opposition to slavery, won the election in 1860 it triggered the secession of numerous southern states and eventually led to the start of the Civil War a year later. The first state to secede was South Carolina in December of 1860 followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. Several attempts were made to reunite the states with the union but they proved to be unsuccessful.


Kentucky Education Television: Causes of the Civil War

The Columbia Encyclopedia: Causes of the Civil War

Civil War Facts

The chance of surviving a wound in the Civil War was 7 to 1. In comparison, the chance of surviving a wound in the Korean war was 50 to 1.

Of the 364,000 Union soldiers who died during the war, a third of them died from wounds sustained during the war while two-thirds died of disease.

The population of the U.S. in 1860 was 31,442,321 people. Northerners made up 23,000,000 of this number and Southerns made up 9,000,000 while slaves made up the remaining 3,500,000.

During the Civil War, 15 percent of the wounded died. During WWI, 8 percent of the wounded died. During WWII, 4 percent of the wounded died and during the Korean war 2 percent of the wounded died.

The most common diseases afflicting soldiers during the Civil War were dysentery, malaria, typhoid fever and arthritis.

Many of the doctors treating soldiers during the Civil War never went to medical school. Their medical experience often consisted of apprenticeships for medical practitioners.

During the battle of Gettysburg, many of the wounded were picked up and brought to the hospital within 12 hours of the end of the battle. During the battle of Bull Run, many of the wounded were not picked up until three of four days after the end of the battle.

The majority of wounds suffered during the Civil War, about 80 percent, were in the soldiers extremities such as hands, arms, feet and legs.

Over 3 million men fought in the Civil War.

About 2 percent of the U.S. population died in the Civil War – about 600,000 people.

Bounties were often given to new recruits as an incentive to sign up for the war. Some states, such as New York, offered as much as $677 dollars. As a result, “bounty jumping” became a problem. Many recruits would sign up, desert the army and then sign up elsewhere.

African-American men made up only 1 percent of the population in the North yet 10 percent of the Union army. Among all the African-American men eligible to enlist, 85 percent of them did so.


PBS: Fact Sheet

19th Alabama Infantry Regiment: Pertinent Facts About the Civil War

The Roles of Women in the Civil War

Women did more during the Civil War than just sit at home waiting for their husbands, brothers and sons to come home. Some helped out behind the scenes and sometimes on the battlefields. Some of these women became famous for their efforts, while others intentionally tried to keep their work secret. Women's wartime efforts often broke from the traditional role of housewives and mothers.


Women served as spies for both the Confederate and Union armies. Some of these spies gathered information by flirting with male soldiers in bars and eavesdropping as they discussed important war information. These women often transported supplies, weapons and documents under their large hoop skirts. One spy, Emeline Pigott from North Carolina entertained Union soldiers, who were occupying her town as they advanced South, with parties and dinners in her home and then passed along important information about the Union army's daily plans to the Confederate army, according to the National Women's History Museum web site. She passed along this information by leaving notes and letters in nearby hiding spots or passing through enemy lines and hand-delivering them. The Union army eventually caught onto her and she was arrested and jailed.


About 2,000 to 5,000 women served as nurses on both sides of the Civil War. These jobs were grim because the women saw up close the horrifying injuries, deaths and disease that affected both sides of the army. These nurses cleaned and bandaged wounds, fed soldiers, handed out medications and helped doctors during operations and medical procedures. One famous nurse at the time was Clara Barton. Barton worked as a clerk in the U.S. patent office when the Civil War began. She started showing up at nearby battlefields with medical supplies to help nurse the wounded which earned her the nickname the “Angel of the Battlefield.” She later went on to found the American Red Cross in 1881 at the age of 60, according to the Red Cross website.

War Relief Workers

War relief efforts consisted of sewing circles or meetings where women made clothing and gathered hospital supplies, food, bedding and delivered them to local military encampments and hospitals. Women also organized fundraisers and charity events to help raise money such as the Sanitary Fair in Chicago in 1863. Donated items were often auctioned off at these fairs, which were held around the country, and the proceeds were used to purchase medical supplies and equipment.

Secret Soldiers

Hundreds of women served as secret soldiers for the Confederate and Union armies. Although it was forbidden for women to serve in the military at the time, these women wore male disguises, used masculine names and were often only discovered by accident when being treated for injuries. One such female soldier was Mary Owens, who served under the alias of John Evans for 18 months and was discovered after receiving an arm injury. She was sent home to Pennsylvania after her real identity was discovered.


"Stealing Secrets: How A Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, And Altered the Course of the Civil War"; H. Donald Winkler

"They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers In The Civil War"; Dee Ann Blanton

"Women In The Civil War"; Mary Elizabeth Massey