In the mild spring darkness, the white man in the civilian suit pauses before the dark house. The house shows no lights, yet it is the right address — the home of a free black woman, Mary Ann Starkey, who teaches reading and Bible school here for the many displaced African-American children who have accumulated in this haven for runaways, New Bern.
His appointment is meant to take place at midnight. He arrived a few minutes early.
The white man is Edward W. Kinsley, businessman and partner of an import-export firm in faraway Boston. Kinsley traveled south to Union-occupied North Carolina surreptitiously, posing in his official pass as servant of United States Army Gen. Edward Augustus Wild, a fighting surgeon who was grievously wounded at the battle of South Mountain (Maryland) by an exploding bullet that shattered his left arm. Wild supervised the amputation of his own left arm at the shoulder — an indication of the sand in his character.
But Kinsley is nobody’s servant, except perhaps the Republic’s. He has strong features, a wide, set mouth and large, steady eyes. He is powerfully built, with a receding hairline and a square jaw framed by extravagant, graying sideburns.
Kinsley does indeed work for Wild but as a special civilian envoy for the governor of Massachusetts and President Abraham Lincoln. They dispatched him to negotiate with the freed black citizens of North Carolina. Like Wild, Kinsley is a man of determination and conviction.
Kinsley’s mission: to help General Wild raise North Carolina regiments of black soldiers to fight for the Union. So far the meetings he’s had with black leaders have proved inconclusive, and this puzzles him. He and Wild believed that after the successful formation of the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Regiments of Colored Volunteers, freed slaves in North Carolina would jump at the chance to take up arms against their oppressors.
The door cracks open and a figure beckons Kinsley inside. In the dark hallway, hands wrap a bandage around his head, blindfolding him. He is urged onto a staircase and told to climb. He ascends to the second floor and keeps climbing, aware of the movement and press of other bodies around him.
He reaches the attic and senses other bodies crowding him close, hears their breathing, smells the burn of a tallow candle. A long moment of silence ensues; then an authoritative voice orders the blindfold removed. Again he feels hands tugging at the lint fabric. His vision clears. The room is warm and close.
By the light of a single candle, he sees a formidable black man with a pistol in his belt. Beside the stranger, he recognizes a tall, well-built black man of light complexion: 26-year-old Abraham H. Galloway. Behind them are numerous other black men and women — expectant, curious, defiant, anxious, suspicious.
Before Kinsley can utter a word, Galloway slides out of his belt a long, dull revolver, cocks it, and places the muzzle to Kinsley’s ear. Silence inhabits the attic room.
This encounter is no ambush, no crime at all. It is the final offer in a stalled negotiation.
Edward Kinsley will always remember it as the most thrilling moment of his life. The gun to his head crystallizes his commitment to the cause of black enlistment. He does not hate Galloway for threatening him. On the contrary, the moment plants the seed of deep admiration for Galloway’s uncompromising zeal. Kinsley will forever count him a friend and a “man of more than ordinary ability.”
Galloway acts as the chief representative of the more than 10,000 freedmen who have found refuge at New Bern or three nearby camps — notably James City, a tent and shanty town on the south bank of the Trent River.
Galloway was born a slave on the lower Cape Fear to a black woman and a white father — not his mother’s owner but another slaveholding neighbor. Galloway escaped in 1857 on a turpentine schooner. In Philadelphia he quickly fell in with abolitionists and took up clandestine work for the Underground Railroad, venturing as far as Canada. He does not hide his half-white parentage. He points it out publicly, outraged at a social system that can declare one human being to be the property of another based on such fine distinctions of racial mixing.
Once war was declared, he found his way back to North Carolina — and at last to this attic room at midnight.
The U.S. Army needs troops, and although many of its own officers resisted recruitment of blacks — and few politicians risked their careers to champion it — the wheel of history has turned. General Order Number 143 of the United States War Department, dated May 22, 1863, establishes a Bureau of Colored Troops to recruit and train freedmen and emancipated slaves to fight.
Here in North Carolina, 10,000 white troops are about to be transferred south to attack Charleston, South Carolina, and no replacement troops are available. This is the chance for freed slaves to help liberate their brothers and sisters.
The eloquent Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave with a wide following in the North, declares, “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, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.”
The plan brings the 55th Massachusetts Colored Volunteers to New Bern as the nucleus of “Wild’s Colored Brigade.”
All along, Galloway demanded that four conditions must be met before blacks in New Bern will enlist:
They must receive pay equal to that of the Massachusetts regiments.
While they are serving, the Army must provide for their families, who are nearly all refugees.
The Freedmen’s Bureau must set up schools to teach their children to read and write, so they have a chance of advancing their prospects after the war.
Most crucial of all, the U.S. government must guarantee that, in the event they are captured, they will have all the rights of legitimate military prisoners of war.
Now, at gunpoint, Galloway demands Kinsley’s sacred oath to fulfill these conditions. He knows this is the moment of truth. If blacks stand on the sidelines and allow others to give them their freedom, that freedom will never be complete; it will always be counted a gift, not a right. Their own blood must be part of the bargain, their investment in the cause, but they must be treated as equal partners. His goal is not mere grudging freedom from physical bondage but full political equality. “And if this should be refused them at the ballot box,” he exhorts in public speeches, “they would have it at the cartridge box!”
In previous meetings, bound by the limits of his authority, Kinsley has not been able to offer his assurances. Now out of options in his midnight meeting with Galloway, pistol barrel pressed to his head, Kinsley at last swears to honor all four demands. Whether he has been granted the latitude to make these guarantees is not clear. But in the months that follow, at least two of the promises — for schools and the support of families left behind — will be kept.
Equal pay will remain a contentious issue until the end of the war, and the honorable treatment of POWs lies in the fickle hands of the enemy.
Ready and willing
Within days, hundreds of recruits queue up in the square in front of the Christ Episcopal Church. Galloway was not bluffing. He could deliver the recruits, for many of them have been training secretly all along in black militia companies.
One of the recruits is William Henry Singleton, born a slave on a Neuse River plantation. He was sold south to Atlanta to hide the family’s shame that he was the nephew of his white owner. But at age 9, he escaped north alone and made his way back to his mother’s cabin. Several times he was recaptured and sold off and ran away home, until at last he was allowed to remain with his family.
When war threatened, he begged to go into the field as a manservant to a local commander. “I was very anxious to go with him as his servant and my master, at his request, let me do so,” Singleton said. “The reason why I was anxious to go … was because I wanted to learn how to drill. I did learn to drill. In fact I learned how to drill so well that after a while when he was busy with other matters he would tell me to drill the company for him.”
Singleton brags that he is the first colored man to sign up with the new regiment with the rank of sergeant. He brings with him hundreds of others whom he has been drilling secretly with cornstalks for muskets, waiting for the day when they will be accepted into service.
The United States Colored Troops face a fundamentally different experience from that of their white counterparts. To start with, they enlist among freedmen’s camps — communities of strangers — rather than in hometown or home county militias. Their families have been scattered or sold off, and they escaped their home counties. Except in rare cases, they don’t enjoy the reassuring bonds of long friendships, of family ties to cousins and brothers. In this situation they are more like European conscripts than American volunteers.
For another, they are rarely allowed to be led by men of their own race, no matter how brave, experienced, or capable. General Wild does manage to appoint a black chaplain, the Rev. John N. Mars, but when he leaves the Army with severe rheumatism, a white officer takes his place. Likewise, Maj. John V. De Grasse is appointed assistant surgeon. In 1864, he is cashiered for “drunkenness” — although his actual offense is insubordination toward white officers.
To command the new regiment, designated the First North Carolina Colored Volunteers (later the 35th United States Colored Troops), Wild selects Col. James Chaplain Beecher, half-brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe. He chooses the remaining officers according to a simple, unvarying criterion. “Not one man have I taken who has not seen service (chaplain excepted),” he writes. “Most are real veterans. Not a few were discharged from the ranks crippled by wounds, but not disabled from using the sword or pistol, and again facing the enemy in his bitter mood.”
He wants a fighting outfit that can prove the worth of black soldiers.
Divided within the race
The black volunteers suffer the endemic racism of whites and blacks. Political leaders such as Edward Stanley, appointed provisional governor in 1862, consider the war to be “a war of restoration and not of abolition.”
More important, they face the derision of their compatriots in blue. Many Union officers remain skeptical of their courage and discipline, don’t think them smart enough to master the manual of arms and complicated battlefield maneuvering — let alone to handle artillery and command decisions.
Even many of their fellow soldiers in the white 45th Massachusetts, also stationed in New Bern, are but reluctant comrades.
Black volunteers come to the army inherently divided by their experience. Slave or free man, they bring all sorts of complicated attitudes about class, color, and talent toward one another. There are no automatic loyalties to kin, neighbors, old friends, the flag, or — especially — white officers. Alliances must be formed from scratch, trust earned through deeds.
They must fight not only the military enemy, but also their own army for equal pay, decent uniforms, and rifles that will fire when their lives depend on it.
Finally they fight the racial codes of the Confederacy. If captured, they will be treated according to the state laws in force in the territory of their capture — summary execution as slaves in insurrection or a return to bondage. The Wilmington Journal makes this plain and adds: “All commissioned officers who shall be captured in command of negroes, shall suffer the penalty of death.”
So even their handpicked white officers risk more than their counterparts in other regiments and have reason to resent the duty.
The wonder is that they take up the challenge at all — a bold, manly gamble to claim their rights as men. But Galloway is no naive freedom fighter trusting in the U.S. government to repay his loyalty with some unspecified goodwill when the war is over. He is hardheaded and pragmatic.
Already he is part of a cadre of some 50 black men who fought as night pickets, guarding Union camps from raiders. They served as guides for numerous Union sorties. They know the back trails, the swamps, the fords in the rivers. Now they also scour the countryside as recruiters, bringing in likely prospects to be signed up and sworn in.
The superintendent of Negro Affairs in New Bern writes admiringly of their exploits: “Upwards of fifty volunteers of the best and most courageous were kept constantly employed in the perilous but important duty of spies, scouts, and guides.” He further reports, “They went from thirty to three hundred miles within the enemy lines.” He calls them “invaluable, almost indispensable.”
It is not long before two black men bearing the papers of U.S. Army recruiters are captured by a Confederate patrol and hanged, to great local fanfare.
This is the world inhabited by the colored troops: rules are never quite clear, laws are slanted toward white people, and the same action is deemed either a heroic use of initiative or gross insubordination.
Galloway is a secretive individual who crosses the lines with seeming impunity. He routinely walks the streets of New Bern with the butt of his revolver sticking out of his belt. He confides in no one, leaves no written account of his activities as a scout, night picket, recruiter, or spy. Galloway is naturally suspicious of leaving behind any record that might be used against him in the shifting sands of politics.
And the plain fact is he can neither read nor write.
He is a man with many followers and numerous loyal colleagues, but few intimate friends.
Galloway manages to slip into Wilmington in November 1863 and free his own mother, Hester Hankins. He is so respected by General Wild that Wild declares, “I would like to do all I can for Galloway, who has served his country well.” Wild arranges for Hankins to receive safe passage to Boston.
Kinsley, Wild, and Galloway eventually raise three regiments of colored infantry. Gen. William T. Sherman raises a fourth during his final march through the Carolinas. By the end of the war, 5,000 North Carolina black men — most of them former slaves — fight alongside 174,000 other blacks in 175 U.S. Army regiments. More than 68,000 of them lay down their lives.
Sergeant Singleton writes with undisguised patriotism and honest emotion, “I wore the uniform of those men in Blue, who through four years of suffering wiped away with their blood the stain of slavery and purged the Republic of its sin.”
It is impossible to know whether the colored troops turn the tide in a military sense. But their blood is part of the sacrifice that, as Lincoln affirmed at Gettysburg, consecrates the American battleground “far above our poor power to add or detract.” Beyond their labor and bondage, they have now paid a new price in blood for their homeland.
After the fighting ends, one by one the contraband camps are dismantled. But James City endures, its inhabitants refuse to vacate the land that they turned into a self-sufficient community.
Back home in Wilmington, Galloway makes it clear that his war is far from over. With familiar passion, he mounts the market house, once an auction block for slaves, and exhorts a torchlight procession of fellow black citizens. “My people stand here tonight fettered, bound hand and foot by a constitution that recognizes them as chattel,” he says. He is elected a delegate to the constitutional convention, where he helps to fashion a new state compact that includes all citizens, black and white.
He goes on to election as state senator and in 1868 is named the first black elector to a presidential convention in North Carolina’s history.
He remains a passionate advocate for civil rights — including women’s suffrage — a spellbinding orator and political force, a daring leader who battles the Ku Klux Klan with fists and clubs and walks the streets with a horse pistol tucked in his belt, always wary of assassins.
Then suddenly on September 1, 1870, Galloway is stricken with fever and jaundice and dies at his mother’s home. He is just 33. His crusade for justice left him penniless, and he leaves behind no financial legacy. He never learned to read and write.
Which matters not to the 6,000 mourners who file up Market Street two days later to pay their last respects at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and escort Abraham H. Galloway to his final, unmarked resting place.
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was just published by Hub City Press.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.