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  • The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War by David S. Cecelski
  • Watson Jennison (bio)
The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War. By David S. Cecelski. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. 352. Cloth, $30.00.)

By almost any measure, Abraham Galloway lived an extraordinary life. Though born a slave, he went on to become a well-known abolitionist, master spy, and prominent politician, accomplishing all of these feats before his thirtieth birthday. Yet Galloway has received relatively scant scholarly attention. In this engaging biography, David S. Cecelski corrects [End Page 469] this historical oversight, offering a compelling portrait of Galloway’s short, eventful life while providing a lens with which to view the Civil War and emancipation from the perspective of the enslaved.

Galloway was born in 1837 in eastern North Carolina to an enslaved woman and a white man from a prominent family, who acknowledged his paternity and looked out for Galloway although he was not his owner. As a young man, Galloway apprenticed as a brick mason and later found work in Wilmington, where his owner permitted him to hire his time. Galloway enjoyed a degree of autonomy that few slaves shared. It was not enough, however. At twenty, he stowed away on board a ship bound for Philadelphia. From there, he traveled the Underground Railroad until he reached Kingston, Ontario, and freedom. Once beyond the reach of American law and the possibility of being captured and returned to bondage, Galloway joined the struggle against slavery. In this role, he traveled across Canada West and the northern United States and as far away as Haiti, speaking and organizing on behalf of the abolitionist movement.

Galloway welcomed the outbreak of the Civil War as an opportunity to destroy slavery. Soon after the conflict began, he returned to the South to offer his services to the Union. Galloway served as a spy in Virginia, part of a ring of former slaves who reported on troop movements behind enemy lines and helped lead fugitive slaves to freedom. He gained many admirers for his efforts among Union officers, including General Benjamin Butler. When Butler was reassigned to Louisiana in 1862, Galloway accompanied him there, initiating similar covert operations in the Mississippi River valley. In the campaign to take Vicksburg, Galloway was captured. Somehow he managed to escape and made his way back to eastern North Carolina. Once there, he continued his efforts to secure the freedom of the region’s remaining slaves, often working behind Confederate lines. Additionally, he began organizing the newly freed black men and women into a political force. As black men came to play an increasingly important military role in the Union’s conflict with the Confederacy, he argued that their efforts merited full citizenship rights, including the right to vote. Galloway’s exploits as well as his political activism made him a leader among the region’s black population. Galloway represented their interests at the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse and in various other venues in the North, including a meeting with President Lincoln. In the fall of 1864, he returned home to eastern North Carolina to establish the Equal Rights League, an organization dedicated to promoting black political equality and voting rights.

After the war, Galloway continued his organizational efforts among the freedmen and -women, but he encountered resistance not only from [End Page 470] whites, but also from black leaders who believed that demands for voting rights were premature. The intraracial tensions came to the fore at the freedmen’s first statewide convention when delegates rejected Galloway’s insistence that they include an appeal for black suffrage rights in the group’s open letter to Governor William Holden. Despite this setback, Galloway’s influence grew. When they obtained the right to vote in 1867, Galloway’s fellow black eastern North Carolinians elected him as a delegate to the state constitutional convention, where he played a prominent role in the deliberations. Galloway won further plaudits when he was elected to the state senate. As a legislator, he championed his black constituents’ causes, but he also advocated for policies to help poor...


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pp. 469-472
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