Galloway escaped enslavement, became a Union spy and helped recruit thousands of Black soldiers to fight with the North, but his name has been largely left out of the Civil War narrative.



Abraham Galloway has been compared to Malcolm X and James Bond. Galloway was an African American who escaped enslavement, became a Union spy during the Civil War and recruited Black soldiers to fight with the North. Born 185 years ago today, Galloway has largely been left out of the history books. NPR's Elizabeth Blair talked to some people trying to change that.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Abraham Galloway was a man with swagger and style and a pistol in his belt.

HOWARD CRAFT: He was a very attractive, very charismatic, you know, fly type of individual.

MIKE WILEY: And he comes strapped all the time.

BLAIR: That's actor Mike Wiley and playwright Howard Craft. They developed a one-man show about Galloway.


WILEY: (As Abraham Galloway) We refuse to be a slave to the Southern white man, and we refuse to be only three-fifths free to the Northern white man.

BLAIR: "The Fire Of Freedom" is based on a book of the same name by historian David Cecelski. Cecelski says when he was doing research for another book about maritime slavery, he kept coming across the name Abraham Galloway.

DAVID CECELSKI: 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.

BLAIR: Galloway was born in a North Carolina fishing village on the Cape Fear River. Both he and his mother were enslaved. When he was 20, he escaped to Philadelphia and then Canada. He traveled to Haiti to join revolutionaries, planning an attack on the American South. It never materialized. Cecelski says by the time Galloway was back in the U.S., his reputation as a cunning, determined abolitionist was known to Union soldiers in the North. They were looking for African Americans they could recruit as spies.

CECELSKI: They realized that they're about to send a lot of their young men into the South, and they don't have the kind of intelligence-gathering capacity that they want and need.

BLAIR: Galloway became one of the Union's most trusted spies.


WILEY: (As Abraham Galloway) I waged missions from the Chesapeake Bay down to the Mississippi River.

BLAIR: When the Union planned to invade the North Carolina coast, Galloway was the perfect insider to scout landings for ships.


WILEY: (As Abraham Galloway) Or else their ships would end up capsized or stuck on sandbars. So I reached out to the watermen and the boatmen of my youth, and word quickly spread.

BLAIR: Galloway may have worked for the Union Army, but he didn't trust it. He was attached to a Union regiment in Vicksburg, Miss. Union soldiers were trying to dig a strategic canal. When they began to get sick and die from disease and exhaustion, they enlisted African Americans from nearby plantations. Cecelski says they promised them protection in exchange for their labor. Then the Union abandoned them.


WILEY: (As Abraham Galloway) Our people who were promised freedom, who watched friends and families die from toil and disease of digging that ditch, the Union left them - left them to the cruelty of the Confederate soldiers, left them to die.

BLAIR: Still, Galloway helped recruit thousands of Black soldiers in and around New Bern, N.C. He was fearless, says Cecelski.

CECELSKI: He doesn't fit in the normal narrative of slavery or the Civil War - this swashbuckling figure that wouldn't take sass from Northern or Southern or Black or white, Union or Confederate.

BLAIR: And he didn't hesitate to use violence.


WILEY: (As Abraham Galloway) A slave will not be free without much killing. There was no story in history or in scripture where an enslaved people talked their way out of bondage.

CRAFT: You're talking about a guy who was definitely from the Malcolm X school of self-defense.

BLAIR: Playwright Howard Craft believes Galloway has been left out of the history books because the narrative has been mostly written and controlled by white people.

CRAFT: You know, most folks don't know that 10% of the Union Army was African American, that, you know, 40,000 African American soldiers died in the Civil War, that a hundred and almost eighty thousand served. People don't know that history because you never see that.

BLAIR: Craft grew up in North Carolina. He says ever since he learned about this radical Union spy from his home state, he's been a fan.

CRAFT: Heroes like that give me strength, especially in a moment where everything is being challenged, where just regular history is being called critical race theory so they don't have to teach basic American history. You know, I draw a great well of strength because nothing we're facing is, you know, analogous to what our ancestors have gone through, what Galloway went through.

BLAIR: And Galloway didn't stop once the Civil War ended. In 1868, he became one of the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina state senate. Two years later, he died unexpectedly of an illness at age 33. One obituary called Galloway bold, brave, defiant and patriotic. Some 6,000 people gathered in downtown Wilmington for his funeral. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.