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The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway & the Slaves’ Civil War

 David Cecelski, University of North Carolina Press 2013, $30

The Federals captured New Bern, N.C., in March 1862 and stayed until the end of Reconstruction. The city quickly became a refuge for runaway slaves, a recruiting center for United States Colored Troops and the locus for politically active African Americans. Abraham Galloway, a handsome, fearless, illiterate mulatto, was at the center of all these activities.

Galloway was born in the village of Smithville, N.C., to an enslaved mother and a white father who worked as a pilot around the port of Wilmington. In 1857 young Galloway and a friend ran away, eventually making their way to Canada. Then began a remarkable odyssey that David Cecelski has been tracking for more than 20 years.

Cecelski’s writing is both passionate and partisan. He clearly admires men and women like Galloway who, in the face of overwhelming odds and organized hostility, risked everything to gain freedom for themselves. Because Galloway left no personal records, Cecelski is forced to rely on the observations of others and to draw significant historical conclusions, often based on slender threads of evidence. Fortunately, Cecelski rarely claims more than his evidence can support.

Galloway’s activities during the war have remained mostly a mystery. Cecelski has some evidence that he served as a Union spy in the Vicksburg area. But the claim Cecelski makes that Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler sent Galloway into the Point Lookout POW camp to obtain the names of those Confederates who were loyal to the Union and willing to take the oath of allegiance requires a substantial leap of faith and is based solely on his 1870 obituary, published in a newspaper edited by Frederick Douglass.

Galloway’s political activities are better documented. He attended the National Convention of Colored Men of the United States in Syracuse, N.Y., and was the president of the Equal Rights League in New Bern. After the war, Galloway became a leading orator for African-American rights and played a central role in the founding of the Republican Party in North Carolina. He was elected to the state senate in 1868. When he died at 33, his funeral reportedly drew 6,000 mourners.

There are probably courageous African Americans like Abraham Galloway still hidden away in history’s dark corners throughout the old Confederacy. If their stories could somehow be told as eloquently as Cecelski tells Galloway’s, our understanding of the postwar South will be significantly enhanced.


Originally published in the January 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.