The Underground Railroad: The Railroad’s Role in the Civil War

Dale Henry, president of the Gammon House, talks about Revered John Scurry during a recent visit to the Gammon House. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

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Dale Henry, president of the Gammon House, talks about Revered John Scurry during a recent visit to the Gammon House. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Part V

From May 3 to June 28, 1908, the Springfield Daily News and Press Republic published a series of letters by the Rev. J.R. Scurry, a local conductor on the Underground Railroad. This final installment of this series that started during Black History Month opens with Scurry answering questions from readers who have followed his series, chews one of them out thoroughly. He then moves on to his opinions on the legacy of the Underground Railroad.

Note: The text includes words now considered to be dated in referring to African Americans. We have preserved them, in most cases, to be consistent with the usage in J.R. Scurry’s time and his writing voice.

By the Rev. J.R. Scurry

“Why, Scurry, I’ve known you all the days of my manhood and I never knew anything about this Underground Railroad business you are writing about. This is all news to me.”

“Yes, John,” I told my friend, “that’s why I’m telling it now. I couldn’t tell you then. It wouldn’t have done.”

John and I were well up in our pranks in our younger days, but John knew nothing of the Underground Railroad. The need to keep such secrets is why it was such a mystery to the white man as to how the negro traveled all over the entire South, over hills and vales, through forests and jungles,, through swamps and canebrakes, sleeping with the alligators and eating with the snakes.

“Yes, Joh, you were too hot-headed for that kind of business.”

In those times, I generally associated with white boys like John. I found it an opportunity to learn many things I could not get by being all the time with my colored companions.

And one word to the young colored ‘Landscape” in men’s clothes who asked me another question: “Why don’t you write something up-to-date? That stuff’s a back number.”

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J.R. Scurry

J.R. Scurry

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J.R. Scurry

This piece of “Landscape” belongs to one of our first families whose father and mother belong to one of our churches and who have given him a good education. Yes, I can write something up to date.

“Three years ago, as I sat in the rostrum having been invited to assist in church services, I looked into the faces of over 100 young men of your age and older as they marched into the chapel one by one, sometimes a negro between two white men sometimes vice-versa.

As I sat and looked, this thought came to me: “Yes, there’s in Ohio one place that the negro is on equality with the white man.”

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Yes, young ‘Landscape,’ I can write a present history that might be sought so eagerly to be read.

In my time schools were not free as you have them, and books found. Young ‘Landscape,’ you had more years in school than I had months.

When I left school, I went to William Houck’s brick yard and not to be a look-out to a high-tone crap game. So, if it be necessary to write something up to date, it will be for the better class and not you, for plain to say I’ve slept away more good sense and manners in one night than you will add to society in the elevation of our race in your lifetime. Yet, it’s “never too late to mend,” providing you haven’t torn too big a slit in the garment of your life.

To steer you in the right direction, here’s two more ‘back numbers’ to think about.

Sold in a market down in New Orleans

In 1856, 14 slaves, the property of Widow Marshall, Boone County, Ky., succeeded in crossing the Ohio River in a sleigh. On reaching Cincinnati’s shores, they were seen trying to reach Levi Coffin’s place of refuge.

They were compelled to change their course and were finally secreted by a Baptist preacher by the name of Shelton. Word was forwarded along the lines and everything was in readiness. Just as they were about to make their exit from their place of concealment, the U.S. marshal and his deputies charged in upon them and they were all taken in custody. They had been betrayed by one of our own race, Joe Kite, who lived in Cincinnati at the time.

Every effort was made that could be made to save them, but all were returned to their mistress. (But some of them would return.) So, we had the pleasure in about two months, of helping four of these fugitives. They stated that the rest had been sent to slave market in New Orleans.

So, about the Underground Railroad

Did the Underground Railroad cause the Civil War? Yes? How? Why it became a regular secret corporation as early as 1847, standing out boldly in defiance of Southern powers. So forceable was its workings that in 1850 its power was put to its wits end as to what must we do to hold the Negro.

“I see it all,” says one of the great law makers.... The white man of the North made such a kick, instead of catching the black man why he allied himself with the black man.

He took stock in the road and helped to make it a winner. So that in the nine years previous to the war, the exodus became so great from the South to Canada that they found it necessary to call on the government to reconsider the Missouri Compromise and let them go into the territories. To this Congress said “No. We’ll bust up this so-called Union and take the possession of these lands if it cost a little fighting on the side.”

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During all of this political harangue, the Underground Railroad was doing a land-office business. Slaves were leaving by the hundred.

Even after the war began, the Underground Railroad continued to push its business up until Uncle Sam stopped us and said we need you to help (as soldiers to win the war). We didn’t stop even then, for we well remembered the General (Andrew) Jackson’s promise at New Orleans (during the Creek War of 1813-14). After promising two regiments of black soldiers their freedom, as soon as New Orleans surrendered, he told the black boys to go back and be good boys and he would see their masters about it.

My people also remembered the night – that awful night, Nov. 13, 1813 – when the stars fell (during a historic meteor shower) and every white man that owned a negro set him free. Next morning, the white man took it all back. So, the black didn’t take hold (in the Civil War) until after the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect.

Some bright people think the present only makes history. So, they say, why write of the things past. “Let the dead past bury the dead.” I write these things to brighten the minds of those that may have forgotten and to tell to those that have been born since of the many difficulties we had to overcome that they might enjoy the privileges they now have within their reach.

Part I: Sunday, Feb. 7 - The Underground Railroad: The escape

Part II: Sunday, Feb. 14 - The Underground Railroad: The dangers of cherry bounce

Part III: Sunday, Feb. 21 - The Underground Railroad: What Dred Scott wrought

Part IV: Sunday, Feb. 28 - The Underground Railroad: A historic cast of characters

Part V: Today, March 7 - The Underground Railroad: The Railroad’s Role in the Civil War

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