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The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War by David S. Cecelski (review)

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 90-92 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0005

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In 1863, William Wells Brown, the famous black writer, activist, and abolitionist who escaped slavery, published The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. This collection sketches the lives of notable black men "who, by their own genius, capacity, and intellectual development, have surmounted the many obstacles which slavery and prejudice have thrown in their way" to rise "to positions of honor and influence" (5-6, emphasis added). David Cecelski's biography of Abraham Galloway, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War, fits properly within Brown's work.

Cecelski describes Galloway as an "extraordinary individual" whose "meteoric life" reflected the turbulent mid-nineteenth century (xx, 218). Galloway was born (1837) into slavery in North Carolina. His pride and strong distaste for servitude seemed to prophesy his escape north in 1857. Over the next few years, Galloway lived in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, while the nation edged closer toward disunion. When the contentious political climate reached the dew point in 1861, he moved back south, waging his own war on slavery.

Cecelski argues that there is much more to Galloway's life than the riveting story of a courageous spy and illiterate—nonetheless brilliant—orator. Galloway, he writes, "embodied and gave voice to a revolutionary generation" of southern black activists (xx). At the vanguard of freedom, Galloway functions in Cecelski's allegory as the protagonist fighting against slavery, exemplifying slaves' role in the war and Reconstruction.

Cecelski breaks from the dominant though weakening historiographical tropes resigning freedpeople to either victimhood or jingoism. He suggests that Galloway and his freed compatriots worked tirelessly and at extreme hazard to make emancipation and political equality part of the national agenda. Placing his work in the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction, Cecelski identifies slaves' agency in making abolition Union policy and acting to forge their own future. Instead of docile slaves, these were "people charting their own political course," neither reliant on Union commanders for organization nor indebted to northern black leaders for guidance in their struggle for civil liberties (xvii).

Cecelski develops the idea that the Civil War, in fact, comprised numerous civil wars. Brought together for a common goal, the war for the Union and the struggle for freedom were melded. As he writes, "President Lincoln's first priority, reunification of the North and South, and the slaves' first priority, freedom, diverged, but both demanded the destruction of the Confederate States of America" (81). Showing how freedpeople joined the Union fight, Cecelski corroborates Du Bois's claim that slaves helped bring down the Confederacy. Stephanie McCurry's recent Confederate Reckoning acknowledged slaves' power in the Confederacy, employing the notion of social contract, a bedrock principle of American republicanism; by the virtue of the racism upon which the Confederacy was built, she argues the Confederates' reactionary project could not invite blacks to fight for Confederate independence. Relying on similar logic to understand the freedpeople's motivation and the Union's policy, Cecelski shows how the Union co-opted the slaves' determination to be free, while at the same time, slaves understood their lives and loyalty as an offering for citizenship and civil rights.

In the last portion, Cecelski shows Appomattox to be but the end of a chapter in the Civil War. Union forces settled the battle over sovereignty within the Union, yet the fight for local power intensified. Cecelski chronicles Galloway's political activism in North Carolina, a struggle for suffrage and civil liberties for all Americans. This useful insight provides a dynamic glimpse into the politics after slavery, but Cecelski passes over an opportunity to probe more deeply into divisive polemics and diverse political philosophies among freedpeople. Freedpeople in Wilmington, North Carolina, for instance, feared that Galloway's demands for political equality and criticism of some whites' recalcitrance would damage their chances of getting jobs, credit, and the patronage of whites. Cecelski does not, however, develop the compulsions beneath the desire for stability rather than radical reform, nor does he detail the evolving rifts among blacks, which continued after the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Indeed, this may have opened another can of worms. However, the exploration into the polemics of freedom may...

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