Stephen A. Swails: Black Freedom Fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction

One of the things I love most about the Civil War community is that books are such a major part of our overall culture. I love a good book, and love the fact that so many people around me love good books, too. That’s true for a well-written, well-researched story, and it’s true for a physical hard-copy of a rare book-as-artifact. Books, books, books!

Last August, Gordon Rhea surprised me with an advance copy of his latest book, Stephen A. Swails: Black Freedom Fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Swails, a well-respected member of the 54th Massachusetts, took a job with the Freedmen’s Bureau after the war and settled in South Carolina. What a gig that must have been!

Gordon had first told me about the project a couple years ago over beers in Charleston, and it sounded fascinating. I was pleased not only to see it had come to fruition but that he had a copy to give me.

Here’s what the back cover says:

Stephen Atkins Swails is a forgotten American hero. A free Black in the North before the Civil War began, Swails exhibited such exemplary service in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry that he became 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 a progressive state constitution, served in the state senate, and secured legislation benefiting newly liberated Black citizens. Swails remained active in South Carolina politics after Reconstruction until violent Redeemers drove him from the state.

After Swails died in 1900, state and local leaders erased him from the historical narrative. Gordon C. Rhea’s biography, 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, restores Swails’s remarkable legacy. Swails’s life story is a saga of an indomitable human being who confronted deep-seated racial prejudice in various institutions but nevertheless reached significant milestones in the fight for racial equality, especially within the military. His is an inspiring story that is especially timely today.

Gordon told me last week that LSU Press is offering the Swails biography at a 40% discount through the end of the year. To get the discount, purchasers need to use the discount code 04GIFT and order from either of these 3 sites:

If you’d like to know more, here’s advanced praise about the book:

I am a firm believer that history should be instructive. An important lesson we learn from Stephen Swails’ story is that if a thing has happened before, it can happen again. Despite being born free and having great success in his military and political careers, he lost his rights as an American during his lifetime. History can and does repeat itself, and I thank Gordon Rhea for reminding us of Swails’ story at a time when we see the parallels to our current history. — James E. Clyburn, Congressman of South Carolina

Stephen A. Swails fought in the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry, became the first African American line officer in the Union army, and later served with the Freedman’s Bureau and as a Republican member of the South Carolina state legislature. Gordon Rhea’s welcome biography illuminates the dramatic arc of Swails’s life amid the military and political upheavals of his time, and in doing so it pulls readers into an era marked by striking gains and heartbreaking disappointments for Black Americans. — Gary W. Gallagher, author of “The Enduring Civil War: Reflections on the Great American Crisis”

Twice-wounded Stephen Swails of the famous 54th Massachusetts infantry was commissioned as the first black combat officer of the Civil War, stayed in South Carolina after the war, and became a leading member of the state legislature during Reconstruction. His remarkable career receives its due treatment in this equally remarkable book by a leading Civil War historian. — James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Battle Cry of Freedom”

In this well-crafted narrative, Gordon Rhea documents the fascinating career of Stephen Swails, a member of the 54th Massachusetts who was the first black man to be promoted from the ranks to become an army officer and eventually became a prominent Reconstruction Era Republican politician in South Carolina. Rhea expertly combines Swails’ story with that of the war and its turbulent aftermath, bringing to life for the reader an important and compelling personal, state and national story. — Stephen R. Wise, author of “Gate of Hell: Campaign for Charleston Harbor, 1863”

Stephen Swails fought through the Civil War in the most famous Black regiment of the Civil War and served in political office during one of the most violent periods in American history. In this long-awaited biography historian Gordon Rhea brings his considerable talents to uncovering Swails’s remarkable life with vivid prose and the critical understanding it deserves. Rhea has produced a book that both reveals the revolutionary scope of the Civil War and why Americans continue to struggle with its legacy. — Kevin M. Levin, author of “Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth”

Utterly courageous in battle, Swails rose to become the first African American to be promoted into the commissioned ranks before again venturing his life in the dangerous world of South Carolina’s Reconstruction era politics. In this absorbing new biography, celebrated Civil War authority Gordon C. Rhea restores this soldier and statesman to much-deserved prominence. Exhaustively researched and elegantly written. — Douglas R. Egerton, author of “Thunder At the Gates: The Black Civil War Regiments That Redeemed America”

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4 Responses to Stephen A. Swails: Black Freedom Fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction

  1. John Pryor says:

    Fascinating. A true hero, both on the battlefield and off. I cannot wait to read Gordon’s book, he is a master storyteller. But it is instructive to contrast Swails’s career as a transplanted Pennsylvanian with that of the South Carolina born, enslaved, and heroically self freed Robert Smalls. Smalls was exposed to the identical post Reconstruction backlash, racism and violence that Swails was, but as a native South Carolinian, he was much more successful in establishing a positive long term impact, including economic, that eluded Swails. He had an amazing survival instinct that did not mean abandonment of principles, and could negotiate across some very hazardous political terrain. Toe, the greatest South Carolinian of his time.

  2. So he was in essence a carpetbagger.

  3. Terry Rensel says:

    Great book, and interesting story on how it came to him.

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