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I heard the death toll in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War exceeded that of the actual soldiers that died in the armies. Is this true? What are the statistics?

Brent Weathers

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Dear Mr. Weathers,

I don’t know from whence you “heard” that Underground Railroad casualties exceeded those of the Civil War, but given the fact that there were approximately 3,500,000 slaves in the south (and 400,000 in northern states) at the start of the war, and statistics on slaves who escaped vary from 10,000 to 40,000 to 100,000, it is extremely hard to believe that “casualties” could possibly have approached, let alone exceeded the roughly 600,000 slain on both sides in the course of the war. Statistics of any sort for the Underground Railroad are clouded by the passing in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act, which gave owners the right to reclaim their “lost property” even if they were discovered in a northern state, leaving an escaped slave  no recourse toward truly feeling free short of following the north star a little farther, to Canada. Such records that participants in the Underground Railroad may have kept were frequently burned to cover their tracks (what they were doing was illegal), leaving vast statistical holes in posterity’s knowledge of their activities.

Some statistics may give a clue. Harriet Tubman, herself an escaped slave whose notoriety earned her a $40,000 reward on her head, returned south 19 times to help a reputed total of 300 slaves escape to freedom. Among the many ways she achieved that success was to carry a shotgun with which she threatened to shoot any “passenger” who lost heart and even thought of turning back. Nobody did—and she did not lose a single person in the course of her activities.

It should be noted, however, that there was also a very active “reverse railroad” of slave catchers spiriting recaptured slaves—and all too often freedmen kidnapped in the north and taken south just for the profit of selling them—south again. This process could be brutal, but seldom fatal, since a “quality” working slave was worth the equivalent of $40,000 in current tender. Profit was the slave catcher’s chief motive, and there was no profit in a dead slave.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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