Abraham Galloway: the most important Civil War leader you’ve probably never heard of

Mildred Europa Taylor March 21, 2022
Engraved portrait of Abraham Galloway from William Still's The Underground Railroad, published in 1872. (William Still's 'The Underground Railroad,' 1872)

He was born into slavery but became one of the most influential men in North Carolina. “When he did speaking tours in the North, he didn’t introduce Frederick Douglass as the main speaker of the night. Frederick Douglass introduced him as the main speaker of the night,” historian Dr. David Cecelski said recently of war hero and statesman Abraham Galloway.

However today, Frederick Douglass is well known in the study of American history while only a few have heard about Galloway. An African American who escaped slavery in North Carolina, Galloway became a Union spy during the Civil War and recruited Black soldiers to enlist in the Union army. He fought for the working class and eventually became one of the first African Americans elected to serve in the North Carolina General Assembly. But history books — even those in North Carolina — forgot about this influential Black man until recently.

Compared to James Bond and Malcolm X, Galloway was a fearless man who openly carried a pistol in his belt. But he also had “a sarcastic sense of humor”, according to a report by ABC11.

Historian Cecelski was doing research for a book about maritime slavery when he came across Galloway’s name and the special attention he attracted at the time. “And the stories were sort of so different than what I had been taught about slavery or the Civil War, or the role of African Americans in the Civil War,” he told NPR.

Galloway was born on February 8, 1837, in what is now Southport, North Carolina. His mother was enslaved while his father was a White man. At age 19, Galloway escaped to Philadelphia and then Canada by hiding in the hold of a ship. He often went back to the South to help other enslaved people escape to the North. He also traveled to Haiti in 1860 and joined revolutionaries who were hoping to invade the American South. That never materialized.

By the time Galloway was back in the U.S., the Civil War had begun and the Union Army was looking for African Americans who they could recruit as spies to gather military intelligence in the South. Galloway became the person with the kind of intelligence-gathering capacity the Union leaders wanted, according to Cecelski.

Setting up a network of spies in the South, he passed information to the Union Army and even went into Confederate territory to rescue his mother. When the Union made plans to attack the North Carolina coast, Galloway became the “perfect insider to scout the coastline for the best landings,” as stated by NPR.

Cecelski writes: “Without a topographical engineer at hand, Galloway had to rely on local sailors and pilots for insights about the navigability of inlets, the twists and turns of channels, and details of winds, tides, and currents. For all that information, his most reliable source was slave watermen like those around whom he’d grown up in Smithville and Wilmington.”

During the war, Galloway did not only help recruit thousands of Black soldiers to fight with the North but also created the first Civil Rights groups in the South. He led a delegation of African American men from the South to the White House to “pressure President Abraham Lincoln into promising political equality and full citizenship to African Americans if the Union wins the Civil War.”

And Galloway and the delegation were successful in that, Cecelski said. “It may not have been everything they wanted after the war. It may not have been every goal accomplished, but they brought millions of people out of enslavement. And from the beginning-and this was eye-opening for me-it was southern blacks, men and women like Galloway, who were leading that push. It wasn’t white abolitionist up North, it wasn’t freed black people from the North, it was people who were fighting in the trenches in little places like Kinston and Durham and around the South. People like Galloway who risked their lives day in and day out.”

Galloway continued to fight for equality for all men and women after the Civil War. After becoming one of the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1868, he introduced the first amendments for women’s suffrage, worked for labor rights, and argued against the use of the N-word.

But he had a short life as he passed away in 1870 at the age of 33 from fever and jaundice. About 6,000 people attended his funeral in downtown Wilmington, N.C. as he was well known at the time. Then for almost 100 years, he was forgotten until now. Not too long ago, Wilmington put up a historical marker near where he lived.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 21, 2022


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