- The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War by David S. Cecelski
Inspired in part by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, historians for the past half-century have focused increasingly on African Americans’ contributions to the Union effort during the Civil War. Benjamin Quarles, Dudley Cornish, and James McPherson were among the first of a new generation of scholars to examine the wartime experiences of southern blacks, particularly the tens of thousands of former slaves who joined Union armies. More recently, historians have debated the nature of black agency during the war and the extent to which African Americans were responsible for their own liberation. Barbara Jean Fields and Ira Berlin’s Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867 (New York, 1985), for example, set the standard for what has become known as the “self-liberation” school of historiography.
David Cecelski’s The Fire of Freedom adds to this body of knowledge by exploring the life of Abraham Galloway, a former slave turned radical abolitionist who used his knowledge of the South to operate as a Union spy behind enemy lines during the Civil War. Strongly influenced by Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South From Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA, 2003), the author argues that in New Bern, North Carolina, and other areas of the Union-occupied South, African Americans exhibited a level of organization, militancy, and defiance that challenged not only the institution of slavery but the racist attitudes and widespread discrimination blacks routinely endured at the hands of Federal authorities. Black leaders such as Abraham Galloway were “thoughtful planners and savvy political strategists” who refused to accept the Lincoln Administration’s initial strategy to preserve the Union, [End Page 201] choosing instead to use their influence to try and push the government into a war against slavery (p. xvii). That, according to Cecelski, was the slaves’ Civil War.
Born in 1837 to a slave mother and white father in Smithville, North Carolina, Galloway spent his boyhood years on a plantation along the Cape Fear River and in Wilmington where he eventually became a master brick mason. At age 20 he escaped from slavery and made his way North, first to Philadelphia and then to Kingston, Canada. During his travels he witnessed the activities of organizations such as the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, the Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia, and the Syracuse Fugitive Aid Society. He became acquainted with influential African American abolitionists such as William Still, George Mink, and Jermain Wesley Loguen. He participated directly in the Underground Railroad, acting as a personal guide for fugitive slaves escaping from bondage. He even spent time in Haiti, purportedly working behind the scenes gathering support for a strike against slavery in the U.S. should civil war erupt between the North and the South.
During the Civil War, Galloway operated as a Union spy by gathering intelligence from local slaves and undermining the Confederate war effort at every turn. Yet he was quick to condemn Federal authorities who turned away fugitive slaves, leaving them at the mercy of slave catchers or merciless masters. Charismatic, witty, and short-tempered, Galloway developed a special knack for organizing former slaves in Union-occupied areas of the South, recruiting black soldiers, and pressuring the U.S. Government to expand the conflict into a war for freedom and equality. Following the war, Galloway served as a Republican state senator in the North Carolina legislature where he fought doggedly against white supremacy and the Democratic Party, while encouraging the moderates in his own party not to abandon the freedmen’s efforts to achieve full civil rights.
The Fire of Freedom is divided into thirteen chapters with the first three dedicated to the prewar years and all but the final chapter (which addresses Galloway’s postwar career) devoted to the Civil War. Throughout the book Cecelski effectively demonstrates the lengths to...