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Abraham Galloway is the Black figure from the Civil War you should know about

Portrait of Abraham Galloway
William Still's Underground Railroad, 1872
Engraved portrait of Abraham Galloway from William Still's Underground Railroad, published 1872.

He has been compared to James Bond and Malcolm X, though his name has largely been left out of the history books.

Abraham Galloway was an African American who escaped enslavement in North Carolina, became a Union spy during the Civil War and recruited Black soldiers to fight with the North. That's the short version. The fuller picture would include his work as a revolutionary and being one of the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina Senate.

David Cecelski, author of The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War, calls him a "swashbuckling figure who wouldn't take sass from Northern or Southern or Black or white, Union or Confederate."

When Cecelski was doing research for another book about maritime slavery, he kept coming across Galloway's name. "And the stories were sort of so different than what I had been taught about slavery or the Civil War, or the role of African Americans in the Civil War," he says.

Actor Mike Wiley as Abraham Galloway
Jai Bradford and Trevon Carr / Mike Wiley Productions
Mike Wiley Productions
Actor Mike Wiley as Abraham Galloway in The Fire of Freedom, written by Howard Craft and based on David Cecelski's book of the same name.

"Galloway is like the supersecret agent who travels from North Carolina to the Mississippi River Valley," the now-deceased historian Hari Jones told me when I interviewed him for a story on Civil War movies. "[He] gets captured by the Confederates, escapes, takes on two, three men at one time. He's that kind of a guy, but he's almost unbelievable because he's been left out of the narrative for so long."

Galloway was a man with swagger who openly carried a pistol in his belt. "He was a very attractive, very charismatic, you know, fly type of individual," says poet and playwright Howard Craft. "And he comes strapped all the time," marvels actor Mike Wiley. Craft wrote a one-man performance based on Cecelski's book, starring Wiley.

Galloway was born 185 years ago, on Feb. 8, 1837, in a small fishing village on the Cape Fear River. He and his mother were enslaved; Abraham worked as a brick mason. At age 20, he escaped to Philadelphia and then Canada by hiding in the hold of a ship carrying barrels of turpentine, tar and rosin. He traveled to Haiti to join revolutionaries planning an attack on the American South that never materialized.

Cecelski says that by the time Galloway was back in the U.S., his reputation as a cunning, determined abolitionist was known to Union leaders in the North. They were looking for African Americans whom they could recruit as spies. "They realize that they're about to send a lot of their young men into the South, and they don't have the kind of intelligence-gathering capacity that they want and need," Cecelski explains.

Map of the Cape Fear River
R.F. Barnes and Norris Peters Co. / Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division
Map of the Cape Fear River, from C.S.A. Engineer Surveys. Galloway was born in a small fishing village along the river, and his knowledge of the area and his network of local contacts became important resources for the Union Army.

He says Galloway became one of the Union's most trusted spies.

When the Union planned to invade the North Carolina coast, Galloway was the perfect insider to scout the coastline for the best landings.

In his book, Cecelski writes: "Without a topographical engineer at hand, Galloway had to rely on local sailors and pilots for insights about the navigability of inlets, the twists and turns of channels, and details of winds, tides, and currents. For all that information, his most reliable source was slave watermen like those around whom he'd grown up in Smithville and Wilmington."

Galloway may have worked for the Union Army, but he didn't trust it. He'd seen racism within its ranks firsthand. In Vicksburg, Miss., he was attached to a Union regiment that tried to dig a strategic canal across a bend in the Mississippi River. When Union soldiers began to get sick and die from disease and exhaustion, they enlisted African Americans from nearby plantations. Cecelski says the soldiers promised them protection in exchange for their labor. Many of them also fell ill and died. The ditch was never completed, and the Union Army withdrew, leaving the African Americans behind.

In his book, Cecelski quotes from the letter of a soldier who wrote that the African Americans were left "to the tender mercies of any one who chose to arrest them." Cecelski writes, "Their prospects must have made Galloway cringe. Arrest, he had to know, was the least of their worries." Confederates who caught African Americans aiding the North were often sold back into enslavement or killed.

Still, for all of his mistrust, Galloway helped recruit thousands of Black soldiers to fight with the North. In Craft's play, Galloway says, "A slave will not be free without much killing. There was no story in history or in Scripture where an enslaved people talk their way out of bondage."

"You're talking about someone who was definitely from the Malcolm X school of self-defense," says the playwright. He believes Galloway has been left out of the history books because they're mostly written by white people. "To borrow a cheesy phrase from the hack-and-slash movie Braveheart," Craft says, " 'History is written by those who hang heroes from trees.' " He notes that a lot of people don't know about the contributions of African Americans during the Civil War, including that they made up 10% of the Union Army.

Like Galloway, Craft grew up in North Carolina. He says ever since he learned about this radical Union spy from his home state, he has been a fan.

"Heroes like that give you strength, especially in a moment where everything is being challenged," says Craft. "History is being called 'critical race theory,' so they don't have to teach, you know, basic American history." Craft adds, "Nothing we're facing is, you know, analogous to what our ancestors have gone through, what Galloway went through."

Abraham Galloway didn't stop fighting for human rights once the Civil War ended. In 1868, he became one of the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina Senate. He advocated for women's suffrage and railed against the widespread use of the N-word.

Galloway died unexpectedly of an illness at age 33. His obituary in The Christian Recorder called him "bold, brave, defiant and a patriot." Some 6,000 people gathered in downtown Wilmington, N.C., for his funeral.

NPR has compiled a list of stories, performances and other content that chronicle the Black American experience for Black History Month. See the whole collection here.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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