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THE U.S.A. SECTION: Conductor on the Underground Railroad

Conductor on the Underground Railroad
By JOHN MASSEY DAVIS

The Underground Railroad operated without trains or rails; it did have conductors, stationmasters, and horse-drawn wagons with secret compartments. Before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, numerous groups who were bitter foes of slavery formed networks of like-minded citizens to transport runaway slaves to Northern states and even to Canada. Much of the sentiment against slavery arose from reading Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that appeared in weekly installments in local papers and later in book form. Operating the "railroad" was dangerous work because slaves were considered property, and citizens caught hiding or transporting such "property" could be prosecuted or more likely beaten by bounty hunters1 seeking rewards for returning slaves to their masters.

A little town in Indiana - formerly known as New Garden, but later as Fountain City, located on Highway 27 near Richmond - became the "Grand Central Station" for the Underground Railroad and through which more than 3,000 slaves were sent northward. The residents of Fountain City were mostly Quakers and Wesleyan Methodists who strongly opposed the brutality and oppression of slavery.

Levi Coffin, considered by many to be the president of the Underground Railroad, converted his home into a way station1a for slaves on their way from Southern states to Michigan and Canada. (Today, the Levi Coffin House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) Coffin built secret rooms within his house to hide the escapees. On occasion Coffin and his family would house slaves for days and even weeks at a time. When the Coffin House became overcrowded, my great-great-uncle William E Davis hid them in his home. My great-grandfather Martin Davis was William's younger brother; Martin was 9 years old at the start of the Civil War, and William was 23.

William F. Davis was also a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. That is, he transported slaves from Fountain City to the next station in a horse-drawn wagon that had a hidden compartment. On one occasion Davis took a wagonload of slaves - men and women - from the Coffin House to the Negro seminary near Spartanburg, Ind., where they were later transported to the next station. The seminary had been established by anti-slavery Quakers and others for the schooling of blacks who sought an education and was rated one of the finest in the Midwest. The proceeds2 from the sale of the seminary years later were placed in a fund that provided money for the education of young African-Americans.

The price of valor3
Davis enlisted in the 57th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, which was mustered into service Nov. 18,1861, at Richmond. The regiment was assigned to the 6th Division of the Army of the Ohio, which was organized at Bardstown, Ky., and reported to Gen. Don Carlos Buell. Later the regiment was assigned to the Army of the Cumberland under Gen. William S. Rosecrans; following the Battle of Chickamauga it was attached to Gen. William T. Sherman's army and marched with him to Atlanta.

In the battle at Kennesaw Mountain at Marietta, Ga., a gunshot tore away a large piece of Davis' forearm. He was sent home to recover, but the wound did not heal properly and he lost much of the use of his right arm. He was mustered out of the service with an honorable medical discharge on Feb. 25, 1865. Davis returned to Fountain City and married his childhood sweetheart "Hettie." They had five children: three sons and two daughters. When he died on Nov. 3,1925, he was listed as the last of the "conductors" of the Underground Railroad.
605 words
From: The History Channel Magazine, Sep./Oct. 2008

Annotations:
1. bounty hunter - Kopfgeldjäger
1a. way station - Zwischenstation
2. proceeds - Erlöß
3. valor - Mut, Tapferkeit

Assignments:
1. Explain in your own words how the Underground Railroad functioned.
2. Why did Fountain City become the most important station on The U.R.?
3. What was the job of a 'conductor' on the U.R.?
4. Why did W.F. davis join the Indian Volunteers and alter the Unionist army? What was the price he paid for his courage?
5. With the abolition of slavery , the era of Reconstruction began. How do you think did blacks cope with their new situation?



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