Excerpt: The Fire of Freedom, by David S. Cecelski

The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves' Civil War, by David S. Cecelski[This article is crossposted at UNCPressCivilWar150.com.]

Abraham H. Galloway (1837-70) was a fiery young slave rebel, radical abolitionist, and Union spy who rose out of bondage to become one of the most significant and stirring black leaders in the South during the Civil War. Throughout his brief, mercurial life, Galloway fought against slavery and injustice. In The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War, David S. Cecelski creates a riveting portrait that illuminates Galloway’s life and deepens our insight into the Civil War and Reconstruction as experienced by African Americans in the South.

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Following is an excerpt from The Fire of Freedom (pp. 83-85) in which Cecelski describes how Abraham Galloway’s oratory skills helped him connect with former slaves and gain popularity.

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When Edward Kinsley boarded the Union steamer Dudley Buck for his voyage home, he must have been both exhilarated and relieved. His mission to aid the recruitment of black soldiers in New Bern had seemed bound to fail until he met Abraham Galloway and his compatriots and agreed to their conditions. Almost instantly, his work in New Bern blossomed. Only a few days before he left for Boston, Kinsley had watched in awe as fugitive slaves marched into New Bern by torchlight with Galloway at their head, claiming a complicated freedom in ramshackle camps where they hoped to build a new world.

Before the Dudley Buck could hoist its anchor, however, Kinsley got another powerful message from that half-born world. Just as the steamer prepared to depart, Kinsley heard a clamor from the wharf, where a black woman argued loudly with the guards. When he went to investigate, he found Mariah Hargett, not long ago the slave of the state’s provisional Union governor, imploring the soldiers to take her to Kinsley. He waved the men aside and stepped forth to meet her, and she handed him a parcel wrapped in an old Harper’s Weekly. When he pulled back the tattered paper, Kinsley had to take care not to let the contents spill all over the deck: it was a pile of small coins—three-cent pieces, half-dimes, and precious silver dimes. They had taken up a collection to buy a flag for the new African American regiment, originally named the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers. Later renamed the 35th Regiment, United States Colored Troops, the 1st North Carolina was the first of three regiments that eventually made up the African Brigade.

One of the former slave women had written the solicitation for donations. It said, in part, “It is for our good and the good of our Daughters that our husbands and Sons do in List to fight our Battles and gain our [Liberties].” Concerned about the women’s poverty, Kinsley at first refused their gift and insisted that the U.S. government would gladly supply the soldiers with a regimental flag. Dismayed, Hargett did not give up. She insisted that he personally make the arrangements for purchasing the flag with their funds and beseeched him to find a flag as fine looking as those flown by the other Union regiments stationed in New Bern. “We want it as handsome as the flags of the 44th, 45th and 55th,” Kinsley later remembered her telling him.[1]

Once Galloway had thrown his support behind the African Brigade, black men rushed to Union army recruitment meetings in droves. James Rumley, the Confederate loyalist in Beaufort, griped in his diary how “the black traitors are gathering in considerable numbers” to join the army. Rumley described the “horror, or the fiery indignation that burns in [the Rebels’] bosoms . . . when they think of their husbands and brothers and sons who may fall at the hands of the black savages.”[2] That summer and fall Galloway did nothing to allay such Confederate hostility. Behind the scenes, Brigadier General Wild wrote, the former spy began to act as a “special and confidential recruiting agent” and as a “recruiting emissary,” devoting himself to opening doors for Wild’s recruiters in local slave communities and freedpeople’s camps.[3] In public, on the other hand, he brazenly articulated a race pride and a political rationale for armed struggle that unnerved die-hard Rebels such as Rumley. At black political rallies held during the Federal occupation, Galloway argued that the former slaves would fight harder and better than white Union soldiers. At one point, he was quoted as saying that although McClellan “failed to take Richmond with 200,000 white soldiers, Butler would soon take it with twenty thousand negroes.”[4]

More fervently, Galloway contended that the honorable service of the black regiments would compel a victorious Union to grant the former slaves both freedom and political equality. In his vision, black men in blue would win the rights to vote, to serve on juries, to be represented in court by black attorneys, and to run for elected office, all issues around which no political consensus had yet been reached in the North. Galloway’s linkage of military service and political equality reflected a growing accord among African American leaders. “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket,” Frederick Douglass had said, “and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”[5] Galloway shared Douglass’s conviction. During a speech at a rally celebrating the first anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Galloway told Beaufort’s freedmen and freedwomen, as James Rumley remembered his words, “that their race would have not only their personal freedom, but political equality, and if this should be refused them at the ballot box[,] they would have it at the cartridge box!”[6]

While his oratory shocked Confederate loyalists, Galloway got a very different reception from the former slaves. He spoke repeatedly in front of African American audiences in the summer of 1863, and he made a deep impression on those men and women who had so recently lived in slavery. In years to come, he would gain a wider reputation as a moving, eloquent speaker and a fierce debater. But at no time of his life was he a more effective orator than in those first months of freedom on the North Carolina coast. The prodigal ex-slave was always at his best among other former slaves. Impetuous and unafraid, he astonished them with his defiance, but he also amused and beguiled them. One sympathetic critic, a journalist, later bemoaned that Galloway’s orations often rambled, shifting in a seemingly unsystematic way from one story or subject to the next, until he found his rhetorical way forward. That manner of speaking frustrated the journalist, who considered Galloway a brilliant but uneducated thinker, but not the crowds of black southerners who gathered to hear him. Eventually, Galloway gathered his thoughts and moved toward a crescendo that usually railed against the injustices of the South and often the North as well, while reinforcing the former slaves’ faith in their own powers to reshape their world.[7]

The cadence of his voice and the manner of his speaking were familiar to those African American men and women. No black leader from the North reached them as well. They had grown up in a slave culture that relied not on the written word to convey ideas, but on songs, stories, and sermons. They understood a man who used the same devices to articulate his ideas and express his beliefs. Whether he addressed them from a church pulpit or on courthouse steps, Galloway captured their hearts and stirred their imaginations. Judging by the enthusiastic reception they gave his speeches, they loved how deeply he understood the brevity and hardness of a slave’s life yet still stood there before them, laughing and defiant.

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From The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War, by David S. Cecelski. Copyright © 2012 by David S. Cecelski.

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  1. [1] Reminiscences, chap. 2, pp. 10–12, Edward W. Kinsley Papers, W. E. B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Kinsley may have misremembered one part of what Mariah Hargett told him; the 55th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, did not arrive in New Bern until later that summer. However, Hargett may have heard about the 55th’s flag from Union soldiers who had recently come from Boston. A more contemporary but secondhand account of this incident, also apparently originating with Kinsley, appeared in Douglass’ Monthly, Aug. 1863. That account refers to “Marian Haight” and identifies her as a cook.
  2. [2] James Rumley diary, 30 May, 1, 18 June 1863, Levi W. Pigott Collection, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh (NCSA).
  3. [3] Wild to Kinsley, 30 Nov. 1863, Edward W. Kinsley Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, N.C.
  4. [4] Rumley diary, 1 Jan. 1864, Pigott Collection, NCSA; Proceedings of the National Convention of the Colored Citizens of the United States, 1864, reprinted in A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, ed. Herbert Aptheker (New York: Citadel Press, 1951), 1:511–13.
  5. [5] Aptheker, Documentary History, 1:522–23.
  6. [6] Rumley diary, 1 Jan. 1864, Pigott Collection, NCSA.
  7. [7] Raleigh Weekly Standard, 7 Sept. 1870.