February 11, 2012

FREEDOM TRAIN:

Been Workin' on the Railroad (WILLIAM G. THOMAS, 2/10/12, NY Times)

[T]he constant moving and confusion of the railroad boom also made escape easier. In April 1862, with Union forces outside Fredericksburg, Va., Ballton and a small group of men escaped their camp and struck out for the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad. They followed it north toward Fredericksburg, at one point meeting the road master who had hired them. Claiming to be on the job, they made their way along the railroad and then through to the Union lines, where they encountered the Sixth Wisconsin, a unit later made famous for its toughness on the battlefield.

Ballton wasn't the only slave to utilize the lines cut by railroads to escape. The R. F. & P. and the Virginia Central Railroad connected some of the wealthiest slaveholding counties in Virginia. Nearly 80,000 enslaved people lived in the surrounding counties, almost a fifth of Virginia's total slave population. This north-south axis, running from Richmond to Washington, became an avenue of freedom: tens of thousands of blacks used the railroad to guide them north to Union lines.

The Richmond Daily Dispatch reported 36 slaves had run away from the R. F. & P. in April 1862, almost certainly to the Union Army. One of them, "John Henry," who was "owned by Mrs. B.B. Wright," was 26 years old and described as "5 feet 10 inches high, black, [and] slow spoken." Whether he became the John Henry of railroad legend on the C & O cannot be known, but the R. F. & P. was still looking for these former slaves three months later. None had returned or been recaptured.

In August 1862, when the Union forces retreated back up the line toward Washington, black families went with them. Col. W.W. Wright, the engineer and superintendent of the United States Military Railroads, witnessed the evacuation: "The contrabands fairly swarmed about the Fredericksburg and Falmouth stations, and there was a continuous black line of men, women and children moving north along the [rail] road, carrying all their worldly goods on their heads. Every train running to Aquia was crowded with them." According to Wright, well over 10,000 contrabands walked or rode on the tracks north toward freedom in one week. Meanwhile, Confederate railroad operators took back the R. F. & P. The road superintendent immediately took out advertisements in the Richmond Daily Dispatch for the 36 slaves who had run away in April and put up an additional $5 reward for their recapture.

The skilled African-American railroad workers who had moved north with the Union troops proved a boon for the Northern war effort. Some of the earliest photographs we have of African-Americans in the Civil War come from Alexandria in 1861, where black railroad workers assembled at the Orange and Alexandria Railroad shops. They and thousands of others would soon return south, rebuilding sabotaged rail and ensuring the swift movement of troops and supplies.

Turning the Confederate railroads against the Confederacy was not only a military act but also a social and political one. It challenged the South's vision of itself as an advanced modern society marked by railroads and slavery. In the premier industry of the age, slave labor on the South's railroads stood in stark contrast to white labor on the North's, and black railroad workers knew that the Confederate railroads relied on their labor and skill.
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Posted by at February 11, 2012 6:55 AM
  

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