Civil War Profiles: Reverse Underground Railroad — Texas style


Unlike in the United States, slavery was banned in Mexico in the 19th century. As a result, Mexico became a haven for the enslaved in this country.


The so-called “Underground Railroad” flourished in the upper-South states, such as Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. Slaves willing to risk life and limb to escape harsh and degrading conditions followed hazardous routes northward, assisted by friendly “conductors” and “station masters,” through these areas to reach the free state of Pennsylvania.

In the deep-South states, such as Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, gaining freedom was more problematic. In Texas, however, slaves learned through the grapevine that they could escape bondage by stealthily moving southward and crossing into Mexico.

A group of abolitionist Texans helped plan and facilitate the movement of slaves to the border. As a result, San Antonio became a stop on the “reverse” Underground Railroad.

An article by Vianna Davila in the April 7, 2003, issue of the San Antonio Express noted that, after hostilities erupted between the states in 1861, the absence of these escaped slaves added to the shortage of labor caused by men going off to war. That led beleaguered slave owners to advertise rewards for return of runaways.

One such ad offered the sizable sum (in those days) of $100 to anyone who could “arrest and deliver” a slave by the name of George who had disappeared from Matagorda, located on the Gulf of Mexico in southeast Texas. It described George’s physical features and mannerisms, and indicated he was believed to be some 40 miles farther south, near Indianola — meaning on a path toward Mexico.

Jerry Thompson, a professor at Texas A&M International University, makes the point that hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves escaped from Texas to Mexico during the antebellum period. That estimate is supported by Ron Tyler, a University of Texas at Austin professor, who collected more than 1,100 ads posting rewards for the return of runaway slaves.

The slaves congregated in Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras on opposite sides of the Rio Grande. The fugitives received assistance from anti-slavery Texas Unionists, ironically known as “The Clan,” spelled with a “C” rather than a “K.”

These would-be saviors employed an elaborate plan to accomplish their goals. As they aided the slaves’ movement southward, they sold them in a new town then helped them run away again.

The clever hoax worked to provide the funds necessary to cover expenses along the way. The practice continued until they ultimately reached the border.

The historical record is unclear about which members of the diverse Texas population were sympathetic to the plight of slaves. San Antonio, the largest city in the state at the time, included Anglos, Hispanics, Germans, Native Americans and other ethnic groups.

Germans as a group, however, were largely opposed to the institution of slavery. Therefore, members of this community disagreed with secessionists, and many young men surreptitiously departed the state to join the Union army during the Civil War.

Mexico also lent a helping hand to escaping slaves. Rosalie Schwartz wrote in “Across the Rio to Freedom” that Mexicans rigged flatboats in the middle of the Rio Grande River and tied them to stakes on the opposite banks, and when slaves arrived at the border, they used the ropes to access the boats. Once aboard, they pulled the ropes to reach the Mexican side, though caution was necessary, since Texans patrolled the area.

The Mexican government refused to sign an agreement that would impede the movement of slaves across the border. Therefore, the reverse Underground Railroad functioned throughout the Civil War years.

Conductors and station masters, such as Harriet Tubman of Maryland and Delawarean Thomas Garrett, are familiar Underground Railroad personalities who directed slaves along the path of freedom into the North. Those sympathetic operators who facilitated the reverse Underground Railroad into Mexico, however, remain largely unheralded.

Thomas J. Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.