Stephen A. Swails : Black freedom fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction / Gordon C. Rhea.

Rhea, Gordon C. [Browse]
Baton Rouge : Louisiana State University Press, [2021]
xiv, 189 pages : illustrations (black and white), maps (black and white) ; 24 cm.


Southern biography series [More in this series]
Summary note
"Stephen Atkins Swails played significant roles in the Civil War and Reconstruction in South Carolina. Born a free Black in Pennsylvania, Swails volunteered to serve in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first African American regiment raised in the North. He earned distinction in a series of major battles, including the bloody assault to capture Battery Wagner in Charleston Harbor, the Battle of Olustee in north Florida, and Potter's raid into central South Carolina. Swails's service was so exemplary that his commanding officer recommended him for an officer's commission-a request the War Department initially denied because of his "African blood." After vigorous lobbying and support from Massachusetts' governor, the War Department changed course and made Swails the first African American commissioned as a combat officer in the United States military. After the war, Swails remained in South Carolina, where he held important positions in the Freedmen's Bureau, helped draft South Carolina's progressive constitution, and served in the state legislature. From his leadership position in the state senate, Swails was instrumental in securing legislation benefitting newly-liberated Black citizens. Later, he settled in Kingstree, a small South Carolina town, where he raised a family, became mayor, and practiced law. Swails remained active in South Carolina politics after Reconstruction until violent followers of racist Governor Wade Hampton drove him from the state. Despite threats against his life, Swails frequently returned to South Carolina and remained a prominent figure in state politics. After Swails died in 1900, state and local leaders erased him from the historical narrative. He would likely have remained forgotten if not for historians' recent efforts to revive his military, political, and civil rights contributions. Award-winning author Gordon Rhea's biography is the first of Swails and one of only a handful for any of the nearly 200,000 African Americans who fought in the Civil War or figured prominently in Reconstruction. Unlike many of his comrades, Swails was literate and wrote numerous letters, memoranda, and documents. Amazingly, the bulk of his most important personal papers ended up in a trash dump before two junk collectors rescued them. Rhea relied heavily on those documents, which comprise a wealth of Swails' writings, including his role in the assault on Battery Wagner and on post-war attempts on his life by political opponents. Rhea also utilized unpublished 54th Massachusetts sources at the Massachusetts Historical Society, extensive Freedmen's Bureau records in the National Archives, and Swails' letters and official documents from his years as a senator during Reconstruction. Swails's life story is a saga of an indomitable human being who confronted deep-seated racial prejudice in various institutions but persisted until he had achieved all he could. His is an inspiring story that is especially timely today"-- Provided by publisher.
Bibliographic references
Includes bibliographical references and index.
An Angel of God Come Down to Lead the Host of Freedom -- One Plane of Ashes and Blackened Chimneys -- Looking Out from among the Ghastly Corpses -- Why Can't We Have a Soldier's Pay? -- I Now Recommend His Being Allowed to Serve as a Commissioned Officer -- Crowned with Laurels -- This Is a White Man's Government -- The Political Boss of Williamsburg County -- A Campaign of Intimidation and Terror -- What a Mockery of Justice Is This? -- A Proper Denouement to an Extraordinary Man.
Other title(s)
Black freedom fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction
  • 9780807176269 (hardcover)
  • 0807176265 (hardcover)
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