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The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway & the Slave's Civil War - David Cecelski

INTRO – Winston Churchill is believed the source for the observation that “History is written by the victors.” The life… and subsequent disappearance from history… of a North Carolina-born slave and abolitionist illustrates the truth behind that remark. George Olsen has more.

David Cecelski is a historian of some note in the state. A Craven County native who has taught at Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and ECU, he’s the author or editor of several books examining the history of the eastern region of the state, including works on the 1898 Wilmington race riots and maritime culture during the slave era. He is someone well-versed in the history of this region, which made his initial discovery of the subject of his latest book a surprise.

“I have really devoted my life as a historian to tell the stories of eastern North Carolina and while doing research for other books, in old diaries and military records, plantation records, I kept coming across this mysterious figure Abraham Galloway who I had never heard of, going behind enemy lines to rescue his mother from slavery during the war and dozens of other stories that made him seem like this larger than life, very exciting individual but I had no idea who he was.”

Galloway may be known to some degree in the state as one of the first African-Americans in the state legislature… he was one of three elected in 1868. But in Cecelski’s opinion… and as laid out in his new book “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway & the Slaves’ Civil War”… Galloway was much more than just a political first in North Carolina history.  

“Only in time after I did more and more research did I come to understand that Galloway was really a national figure and probably the most important African-American figure in the South during the Civil War, but that was actually late in my research as I followed him to a now famous meeting with Abraham Lincoln and touring the north as a spokesman for African-American politics during the war.”

Galloway went from slave to elected Representative in a relatively short time… a slave in 1857, a state Senator in 1868… made possible by the leap Galloway took when he made the decision to escape his servitude. David Cecelski reads from “The Fire of Freedom.”

Reads from page 13  

Galloway made the decision to leave despite having… for a slave… a relatively good life. A brick mason, he could choose his jobs as long as most of the money went to his owner, and this afforded him some bit of freedom that slaves working in a field did not enjoy. But still he left… perhaps a product of an oddity in the South at the time. His father was a white waterman John Galloway who, unlike most births involving free white men and enslaved black women, actually acknowledged his son with the slave Hester Hankins.

“He said “this is my son” and Abraham said later his father did everything he could to look after him. There were limits because he wasn’t his owner but all his life Abraham Galloway spoke well of his father and acknowledged himself, he acknowledged both sides of his heritage, and I believe that later as Abraham Galloway becomes a… such a important political figure Abraham went out of his way to bring together blacks and whites into political coalitions and I think that was partially because of his family roots.”

John Galloway was known as charismatic, courageous and quick-tempered which were probably descriptors also used to describe his son Abraham, who, after escaping from the South, returned to the South to work as a spy for the Union Army. But Cecelski says as fervently as Galloway fought to destroy the Confederacy, he often fought the Union army for its treatment of slaves as it moved through the South. 

“The second thing that Galloway saw while in Mississippi, it’s complicated story but the Union army promised between 1000-1200 slaves their freedom if they would help dig a canal around Vicksburg. That did not work from an engineering view and the Union army retreated and left those slaves there, so you can imagine their fate. They’ve now been connected to helping the Union and you can imagine how slave holders in Mississippi would treat those slave men and women. These were not things that a man like Abraham Galloway would quickly forgive or forget and he didn’t.”

The typical discussion of the Civil War centers around momentous battles between North and South, but David Cecelski says lost in the retelling of the war is another side to the conflict that experiences like the one Abraham Galloway experienced in Vicksburg informed.

“As I did the research for the book I really began to see… there’s the North and the South, the Union and the Confederacy, but then there’s them, and I really began to see the African-Americans of the South as a third force, always determined to destroy the Confederacy but also wary of the Union in many ways and with their own agenda oriented toward slave liberation.”

It was perhaps what Galloway saw in service to the Union that brought him to an interesting insight on how liberation may be found… not necessarily through social equality… but through the ballot box. David Cecelski reads from “The Fire of Freedom” about an address Galloway gives in 1864 at what is now St. Peter AME Zion Church in New Bern.

Reads from page 127 “At Andrew Chapel… his political rights now.”

“I should say that Galloway was notorious for not giving ground on sidewalks, for not conceding any indignity, he showed no such patience and never did, but when it came to his political thinking this was one of the few times or one of the most striking times where we see Galloway looking beyond the current moment and looking to the distant future where he says we can accept some indignities now for this future vision of equality and political rights. He said if we can vote these other things will work themselves out but first we have to have voting rights, and that was not at all a universal opinion among African-American leaders in the South or North at that time, but for Galloway, if we can vote, everything else will follow.”

The ballot box got Galloway into the state Senate in 1868 but in terms of “everything else will follow” Galloway did not live long enough to shepherd that forward. He died suddenly in 1870 at the age of 33… a time when some of what blacks had won at the ballot box started to retrench and give way to Jim Crow in the South. When Galloway died, it was reported that his funeral was the largest the state had seen up to that time. But soon Galloway was an ignored figure in state history, washed out by a historical narrative that Galloway’s radical abolitionism did not fit neatly into.

“He was a brilliant individual who I consider one of the most important African-American figures in American history, but for 125 years I’m sure that no school child uttered his name. Immediately after the war he wasn’t forgotten but in coming years the South and the North to some degree created this almost mythical image of the Civil War. I guess we could call it the Gone with the Wind version. It’s hard to imagine Abraham Galloway who wore two pistols at his hip, punched out Union Naval officers, went behind enemy lines to rescue his mother and would stop at nothing in the struggle for freedom, it’s hard to imagine Abraham Galloway in Gone with the Wind.”

David Cecelski is the author of “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway & the Slave’s Civil War” published by UNC Press. I’m George Olsen.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.