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The Underground Railroad

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Crossing the River on Horseback in the Night

Crossing the River on Horseback in the Night is contained in William Still's The Underground Railroad, the venerable anthology of fugitive slave escapes. The free-born child of former slaves, Still was an active member of various Philadelphia abolitionist and civil rights groups when he published The Underground Railroad in 1872. Various accounts of assisting escaping slaves had already been published, but Still's book represented the first definitive account of "vigilance committees," so-called for their extrajudicial defiance of fugitive slave laws. Additionally, the stories and statistics included in The Underground Railroad were in large part gleaned from Still's own work with hundreds (if not more) of runaway slaves he had assisted in Philadelphia. Crossing the River on Horseback in the Night accompanied one such story, that of Robert Brown, who escaped from Martinsburg, Virginia, by crossing the Potomac River with his horse during a raging Christmas night storm. Brown was forced to abandon his horse and walked, freezing, to Harrisburg, eventually making it safely to Philadelphia on New Year's Eve 1857.

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