From Fugitive Slaves to Free Americans, 1855 to 1864

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From Fugitive Slaves to Free Americans, 1855 to 1864

This lesson fits into curriculum about the antebellum and Civil War period, especially with regard to the role of African Americans in the abolition of slavery. The story begins with the United States Congress in 1850 reaching a compromise concerning the new territories gained from the war with Mexico. The Compromise of 1850 added a new Fugitive Slave Act that required both federal and state authorities to search and to return any runaway slaves who successfully reached the North and gained their freedom. The law sparked a great controversy in the North and was met with resistance throughout the Northern cities of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

William Still, a prominent Philadelphia businessman kept a journal of all the runaway slaves he met through the Underground Railroad. The journal gives a physical description of each person, their slave and freed name, where in the South they came from, and an account of how they were treated as slaves. Still kept his journals at great risk to himself and to those individuals he interviewed over the years. In 1863, Still, fugitive slaves, and slaves within the Confederate States of America (CSA) were in less danger due to President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln exercised his executive power in liberating those enslaved in the CSA.

The Emancipation Proclamation allowed Northern and recently freed Southern blacks to join the military and take up the Union cause. The number of black soldiers greatly increased after 1863. Black soldiers were segregated in separate units; they received less in pay, and were initially held back from the fighting. Lt. Nathaniel H. Edgerton, a white officer, expressed his appreciation of the bravery of the African American soldiers and their right to equal pay with white soldiers in an 1864 letter. Through an examination of these three documents students will read and understand the sacrifice and progress made by and for blacks and all Americans in the mid-nineteenth century.



Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?
How has social disagreement and collaboration been beneficial to American society?


  • Students will be able to explain the changing political, legal, and social status of Black Americans from 1855 to 1864.
  • Students will be able to appreciate the descriptions and accounts of William Still and his risk in keeping a detailed journal of fugitive slaves.
  • Students will be able to assess the controversy and significance surrounding President Lincoln's decision to to emancipate the slaves in the Confederate States of America.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

Primary sources

Journal C of Station No. 2 of the Underground Railroad, Agent William Still (excerpt), June 2-29, 1855

Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

Lieutenant N. H. Edgerton to Thomas H. Webster, Chairman of the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Troops, June 27, 1864


  1. Introduce and provide background information on the subject of slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Review all terms, names, and events that appear in the documents.
  2. Have the students take notes on the author, year, title, and possible audience for each document.
  3. Assign the readings either as homework or in class.
  4. Listed below are a few questions that maybe used as review of reading comprehension, student based discussions, or incorporated into an essay.
  • Have students use either an online map or use the one provided in the text to chart the course of the escaped slaves in William Still's journal. Discuss the possible dangers and consequences of using the Underground Railroad.
  • Have students create a timeline from 1855 to 1865, highlighting the hardships and advancements of the Black Community in the North and South of the United States.
  • Discuss the language President Lincoln used in the Emancipation Proclamation. Why is the document so specific to the states and areas in rebellion?
  • Explain Lt. Edgerton's opinion about the abilities of African American soldiers and the United States Congress. In what ways did the black soldiers at the Battle of St. Petersburg, Va. (June 15), illustrate their bravery?


The unit and lesson plan complement Preserving American Freedom, which presenting and preserving fifty of the treasured documents within the vast catalog of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The documents read online will contain annotations that define and explain many key terms, figures, and organizations.

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