Civil War Profiles — Thomas Garrett goes on trial as UGRR stationmaster

Date Published: 
Oct. 6, 2017

Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, slavery was prevalent throughout the American South, including the state of Delaware. Slavery in the First State, however, had gradually declined over several decades prior to the Civil War in 1861.


The reduction in slave ownership occurred primarily for economic, rather than political, reasons. Delaware farmers found the land unfavorable for cotton and tobacco, and therefore planted corn and wheat, which did not require slaves to harvest.

Delaware also served as an important route on the Underground Railroad (UGRR). This was a method by which escaping slaves from the Southern states followed “conductors” along a route of “stations” until reaching the promised land of Northern, non-slave territory.

Thomas Garrett, a Quaker from Upper Darby, Pa., having resettled in Wilmington’s Quaker Hill section in the 1830s, was destined to become one of the foremost UGRR stationmasters who housed and guided escaped slaves to freedom. In his youth, Garrett had lived through the experience of his parents’ black servants being kidnapped. That made him realize the depravity of slavery, when free blacks could be condemned to a life in bondage.

According to “Delaware During the War Between the States” by Thomas J. Reed, et. al., slaves usually came to Garrett’s house at 221 Shipley Street in Wilmington after stopping at the home of John Hunn in Middletown or the Friends’ Meeting House in Odessa. Garrett, under constant suspicion for his activities, was eventually arrested in 1848 and put on trial in New Castle.

The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act had made helping slaves escape a federal offense. It required citizens of any state in the U.S., whether slave-owning or free, to capture escaped slaves and return them to their owners.

As a result, Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Calvert County, Md., native and slaveholder, decided to try the case himself, against Garrett in New Castle Courthouse. Taney would later preside over the infamous Dred Scott decision that declared that blacks could not become citizens of this country and that black slaves could be transported to any U.S. state or territory.

The jury in the case comprised slave owners from South and Central Delaware, insuring a guilty verdict for Garrett. Although Taney did not hand down a jail sentence, he leveled a fine for Garrett’s activities that stripped him of his wealth.

Undaunted by his criminal conviction, Garrett announced to Taney his intention to continue working on behalf of oppressed slaves. His words were simple and direct, “Thou has left me without a dollar. … I say to thee and to all this court room, that if anyone knows a fugitive who wants shelter … send him to Thomas Garrett and he will befriend him.”

Garrett continued his work following the Civil War, aiding minority groups. When Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870 that gave African-Americans the right to vote, his supporters carried him on their shoulders through the streets of Wilmington, hailing him as “our Moses.” Over the years, Garrett had sheltered an estimated 2,700 runaways.

Another person considered a “Moses” to the black population, Harriet Tubman, became one of the primary conductors who shepherded slaves along the Maryland-Delaware UGRR route that culminated at the welcoming station of Garrett’s Wilmington home. A statue of both the conductor and the station master, located at the downtown Wilmington Riverwalk overlooking the Christina River, memorializes Tubman and Garrett assisting freedom-seekers.

Upon his death on Jan. 25, 1871, a fitting tribute to his life’s work occurred when freed blacks carried Thomas Garrett’s casket to the Quaker Meeting House on West 4th Street in Wilmington, where he was interred. Historic markers honoring him are located near his Pennsylvania and Delaware homes.

For more on this subject, see http://delawarepublic.org/post/history-matters-thomas-garretts-trial-184... and www.russpickett.com/history/garrbio.htm.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War.” Signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books and at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.