He has been compared to James Bond and Malcolm X, though his name has largely been left out of the history books.
Abraham Galloway was an African American who escaped enslavement in North Carolina, became a Union spy during the Civil War and recruited Black soldiers to fight with the North. That’s the short version. The fuller picture would include his work as a revolutionary and being one of the first African Americans elected to the North Carolina Senate.
When Cecelski was doing research for another book about maritime slavery, he kept coming across Galloway’s name. “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 says.
“Galloway is like the supersecret agent who travels from North Carolina to the Mississippi River Valley,” the now-deceased historian Hari Jones told me when I interviewed him for a story on Civil War movies. “[He] gets captured by the Confederates, escapes, takes on two, three men at one time. He’s that kind of a guy, but he’s almost unbelievable because he’s been left out of the narrative for so long.”
Galloway was a man with swagger who openly carried a pistol in his belt. “He was a very attractive, very charismatic, you know, fly type of individual,” says poet and playwright Howard Craft. “And he comes strapped all the time,” marvels actor Mike Wiley. Craft wrote a one-man performance based on Cecelski’s book, starring Wiley.
Galloway was born 185 years ago, on Feb. 8, 1837, in a small fishing village on the Cape Fear River. He and his mother were enslaved; Abraham worked as a brick mason. At age 20, he escaped to Philadelphia and then Canada by hiding in the hold of a ship carrying barrels of turpentine, tar and rosin. He traveled to Haiti to join revolutionaries planning an attack on the American South that never materialized.