A civil war canon on the Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA, selective focus

When they reminisce over you. The freed, escaped and enslaved Blacks who helped the Union win the Civil War

6 mins read

Histories of the Civil War unveil that Blacks were not passive participants, but active disruptors, spies, scouts and masters of disguise who helped the Union’s victory in the bloodiest war in American history.

In historical documents, they are identified by first names or simple descriptions such as “negro guide,” “contraband,” or “a colored man.” They were even described as moving with agility and adaptability like “black snakes and alligators.” For many of them, we will never know their personal histories. But, as a collective, they served as one of the most critical parts of intelligence and strategy in a war that defined America post-slavery.

Black folk, both men and women, either freed, enslaved and escaped, have been noted by the Union and the Confederate, as a critical factor in combat. While Blacks initially could not serve as soldiers on either side of the war, both the Union and the Confederate armies employed Blacks from the beginning in the capacity as servants. Eventually, they discovered that Blacks from the pseudo-freed Negro to the those still in bondage, possessed a depth of knowledge and set of skills that whites did not have, and never acquired: an ecosystem of survival. 

Subterfuge, masquerading, scouting, mapping, double-talk, clandestine communication, coding, reading the terrain and disguise; were just some of the expertise brought by Blacks during the Civil War. Indeed, whites and those of European have carried out the same skills at different points in history. Yet and still, Blacks did so during the Civil War, and within a strong culture of whiteness and white supremacy where they operated under a different social, political and cultural currency that often went unnoticed. Thus, it was the same invisibility that allowed them to develop an ecosystem right under the nose of plantation masters in the south and bankers in the North.

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With the exception of Harriet Tubman, most Blacks who worked as spies, scouts, guides, gunrunners and even assassins, are forgotten in the mainstream annals of the bloodiest combat in American history. Harriet Tubman was a mastermind and American hero for her work in the Civil War. She was a real person, who impressively led emancipation trips and commandeered an army as a woman—an unusual accomplishment. At the same time, there are often myths about her work. One of them is her knowledge of the terrain in and around South Carolina that led the Union army to seizing ammunition bunkers. Eventually, Tubman would lead a Black regiment up the Combahee River to a significant Union Army victory. 

Because Tubman lived and worked in South Carolina for years, her vast knowledge of the land was a result of her relationships in an extensive communication network of Blacks. In the network were living guides and surveyors of a terrain that changed due to the hyper-capitalism of slavery and the need to use more land for cash crops and other agricultural industries. Only those who walked and worked the land, and created secret pathways and found enclaves to engage without being under the white gaze would know the slightest changes. Like many, Tubman relied on updated knowledge. Though she was dope, she did not move in a silo. She was a part of a community of land stewards and disruptors.

. . . .
Photo of Harriet Tubman as a young woman.

Initially, Tubman was recruited by the Union Army to recruit Blacks to join. Unbeknownst to her, she was expected to operate in a passive capacity. But as the Union kept losing, and Black folk weren’t enlisting, there had to be swift changes. As a result, Tubman was sent to the South to work with military leaders and talk to Black folk.

When her role did change, it was to help the Union Army win the trust of Black people. Under her revised assignment, Tubman served more as a liaison between the Blacks in the South and the Union Army. She collected essential information through the Black circuits to deliver to high-ranking army officials. However, most of the stories and Black peoples who participated in clandestine activities are located at the margins of history or forgotten? 

Historian Carly S. Mayer writes that due to Blacks’ illiteracy. Most never wrote down their experiences and contributions, or told someone who could document the war from their lens. In another argument, David S. Cecelski points out that Blacks hid their role in the Civil War due to concerns of reprisals by whites during the war and after. As well, to be a spy means to remain anonymous, in which most remained out of the spotlight. 

Of other importance, Blacks did not have a media machine to pierce the mainstream. Unlike Sarah Emma Edmonds, a white Canadian woman who feigned being a Black man to enlist as a Union soldier in the Second Michigan Infantry in May 1861 under the alias “Franklin Thompson.” Her memoirs were published broadly, and have become a center topic in race and gender discourse during the Civil War. Even though Edmonds story is salient, left out are the numerous Black women whose participation were key in the Union’s victory like Mary Bowser and Mary Touvestre.

Bowser was a freed woman emancipated as a young girl by the widow of a Quaker plantation owner in Richmond, Virginia. One of the Blacks who repartriated to Liberia, she returned dischanted by the Negro colony in Africa. When the war broke out, Bowser returned to the South disguised as a slave as part of an intricate spy ring. She ended up as a servant in the house of the President of the Confederate States of the Americas, Jefferson Finis Davis.

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Union Officers and Black enlisted men and boys 2nd Rhode Island Camp Brightwood. Photo credit: Library of Congress

When the Civil War raged and deaths mounted, the Union Army began to rely more-and-more on Black people’s abilities. One of the most coveted collaborators was Abraham Galloway. A fugitive slave who used the Civil War for Black liberation. He and a collective of self-emancipated slaves worked with the Union Army by going deep into hot zones and carrying out some of the most dangerous missions. In 1861, Galloway and his comrades, brokered a deal with the Union Army—to add the mission of freedom for those enslaved.

Before Tubman’s appeal to Blacks in South Carolina, and Galloway’s negotiations with the Union Army, there was a skepticism about the Union’s direction of the war. On April 15, 1861 President Abraham Lincoln committed to not interfering with slaveholder’s property or disrupting the institution of slavery. A month later, Galloway said to a Union Army official that Lincoln’s position on slavery was a central reason why Blacks refused to join the Union, as well as, their desire to be treated as paid, respected military rather than servants and slaves.

Once Galloway and his group of supporters won the Union’s commitment, the next day hundreds began to sign up from South Carolina to Louisiana.

But that wasn’t all that Galloway did. He operated as a chief operator in an intelligence network that supplied information about the Confederate spanning from the to Virginia-Maryland area, all the way down to the heel of New Orleans. In order for Galloway to collect and transmit such information, he had to travel behind enemy lines. At one point, Galloway is even captured and imprisoned. But, escaped months later.

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Before the Civil War, Galloway is documented as being an active participant in anti-slave movements and meetings as far north as Massachusetts, and as far west as Ohio. He is also recorded as a confidant to the famous white, radical abolitionist, John Brown. In this vein, Galloway too, was an “by any means necessary” freedom fighter. In the collective he worked with, armed Blacks used their guns, and carried out clandestine missions that included transporting firearm to assassinations.

Galloway, a Wilmington, North Carolina native who was born into slavery is an opaque figure with limited research. However, that might have been his desire. He said years later, “I rendered good service to this government—if I didn’t do it publicly, I did it privately.” 

Galloway was the exception in that he held a position to be in constant communication with high-ranking military officials. But him being a scout, spy and having the ability to map terrain as live geolocator was the work of hundreds of Blacks who contributed to the Civil War. For those who kept the Black communication network flowing, it was in the thousands. In these distribution channels, the most secret of discussions were passed on to the Union. So much so, it caused concern with whites in the Confederate.

There was also a concern of personal safety and the maintenance of the most prized “real estate,” the slaves. Because there was concern of what enslaved Blacks would do when white men left their plantations for war, the Confederate South enacted the “Twenty Negro Law” in 1862. The legislation said that if you had a plantation with more than 20 slaves then you did not have to fight. 

The stories of the Civil War continue to develop over 150 years later. What historians are beginning to unfold is those narratives that have remained in silence. Now they are resurfacing.

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