A discussion on another thread (on quilts) got me thinking about what I consider one of the least understood, most mythologized aspects of antebellum America, the Underground Railroad.
I have harbored a suspicion for a long time that the Underground Railroad is the American equivalent of the French Resistance. That is, I believe that it was a very small organization which, once the fighting was all done and the results clear, "grew" exponentially in the popular mind.
A perfect example-- Try to think of a pre-1860 house north of the Mason-Dixon Line (and some south of it, I am sure) that DOESN'T claim that the root cellar/closet/storeroom was a hiding place for escaped slaves. My particular favorite in this realm is the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk, Connecticut. My tour guide proudly told us that the closet in the front hall was used for hiding escaped slaves. Date of the construction for the house? Begun in 1864, completed 1868.
If even a fair portion of these sites were truly used for helping fugitive slaves then I suppose the south would have been stripped of enslaved laborers long before hostilities were commenced.
I think the Underground Railroad loomed so large in our national conciousness because of residual guilt. Just as most Frenchmen did not actively oppose the Nazis during the occupation, most Americans did not actively assist in the flight of slaves in antebellum America.
This being my thought, can anyone recommend a good resource for me to consult to get some concrete numbers on the Underground Railroad? I am a bit gun-shy, as my hometown historical society undertook a study of local involvement in the Underground Railroad that ended up being a heady mix of lore, guesswork and wishful thinking.