Civil War Profiles: Pardons sought for Underground Railroad conductors

Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States of America specifically states: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” The intention was to insure that slaves that escaped to another state would, by law, be returned to their masters.

In 1850, 62 years after the constitution went into effect, Congress reinforced that concept by passing the Fugitive Slave Act, which penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave and made them liable for a fine of $1,000.

In the face of these regulations, anyone defying the law by aiding runaway slaves was subject to arrest. In the mid-19th century in Delaware, three men, in particular, risked their personal freedom to insure that escaped slaves were not captured and returned to bondage: Thomas Garrett, John Hunn and Samuel Burris.

The Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs’ February 2015 online newsletter reports that efforts are under way to encourage Gov. Jack Markell to pardon these men posthumously for “crimes” that led to their arrest (

Garrett, in particular, is credited with guiding more than 2,700 slaves to freedom. In 1848, he and fellow abolitionist Hunn were tried and convicted in the New Castle Courthouse by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for aiding the Hawkins family, slaves in Maryland, to escape. The involvement of the chief justice signifies how serious a crime the slave-holding community viewed Garrett’s and Hunn’s actions.

Although both men avoided jail time, the court levied considerable fines that brought them close to bankruptcy. In his departing comments to the court, however, Garrett blatantly avowed his commitment to continue conducting runaway slaves to freedom. This Quaker gentleman’s actual words were, “I say to thee and to all in this court room, that if anyone knows a fugitive who wants shelter … send him to Thomas Garrett and he will befriend him.”

The other member of this trio was Samuel Burris, a free African-American born in 1808 in Willow Grove, Del. He decided to move with his family to a safer locale in Philadelphia, because he believed living in a slave state was too dangerous.

Nonetheless, beginning in 1845, Burris partnered with John Hunn, who lived in Kent County, in working the Underground Railroad system by traveling south to help slaves escape from Delaware and Maryland. This was particularly courageous on Burris’s part, because he knew, if he were ever caught, the mandatory punishment for a free black man was to be sold into slavery for a period of seven years.

In June 1847, Burris’s worst nightmare occurred when he was caught aiding a slave woman escape from the Dover area. Jailed for 14 months, he eventually was put on trial, convicted and auctioned into slavery. As fortune would have it, an abolitionist friend who posed as a slave-buyer bought Burris and set him free.

A descendant of Thomas Garrett by the name of Robert E. Seeley was motivated to seek pardons for the three convicted Underground Railroad conductors after reading about a similar situation that occurred in Illinois. The Associated Press reported that Gov. Pat Quinn “granted New Year’s Eve clemency to 102 people, including three abolitionists convicted of ‘crimes’ for hiding and helping escaping slaves.”

Seeley requested that Markell pardon all three of these men whose transgressions constituted risking their own safety and livelihood to help others gain their freedom. According to an Associated Press report, Markell’s chief legal counsel, Andy Lippstone, said the idea could potentially right a historical wrong.

However, the governor can grant a pardon only upon recommendation by the Board of Pardons. Lippstone indicated Markell’s office will work with the board to examine the feasibility of such a pardon. The concept has considerable support from leading Delaware figures, which will enhance its potential for success.

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of recently released “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Contact him at, or visit his website at