Stephen A. Swails: Black Freedom Fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction by Gordon C. Rhea. Louisiana State University Press, 2021. Cloth, IBSN: 978-0-8071-7626-9. $29.95.
Among the many shelves of biographies chronicling the exploits of Civil War Americans, there are precious few treatments of Black soldiers or sailors. This is just one reason that students of the nation’s defining conflict will cheer the historian Gordon C. Rhea’s new life of Stephen Atkins Swails, the free Black who shouldered a Springfield in the 54th Massachusetts, became the first African American to receive an officer’s commission in the United States armies, and continued his fight for full citizenship and equality as a force in South Carolina politics during the tumultuous years of Reconstruction.
Rhea, perhaps best known for his definitive, five-volume study of the 1864 Overland Campaign, returns here to biography, the tool that he first honed with his Carrying the Flag: The Story of Private Charles Whilden, The Confederacy’s Most Unlikely Hero (2004).
In Stephen A. Swails, Rhea builds his narrative from an array of newspaper and manuscript sources, but especially vital to his effort is a trove of the soldier’s personal papers salvaged from a municipal trash dump in the late 1970s (Rhea relates the improbable tale of their chance rescue in his prologue).
Not surprisingly, Swails’ postwar endeavors and aspects of his political activities are best documented by the extant archives; details about the soldier’s early years as well as his personal life remain frustratingly elusive. Building on the work of local historians, Rhea dispatches the early Swails, including his birth in Pennsylvania and formative years in New York, in the space of just six pages.
Rhea hits his narrative stride when recalling the service and sacrifices of the 54th Massachusetts, the most well-known among the African American infantry units mustered into United States service during the Civil War. Drawing on testimony supplied by many of the regiment’s more familiar voices as well as Swails’ compiled service records, Rhea delivers gripping accounts of the assaults on Battery Wagner; the Union army’s ill-fated endeavors in Florida, including the ugly bloodbath at Olustee; and the regiment’s participation in a rail-twisting raid that, in April 1865, liberated thousands of enslaved persons in the South Carolina interior. Rhea also recounts Swails’ fight for equal pay, as well as his ultimately successful quest to secure from the War Department the officer’s commission recommended for him by Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew.
No less compelling are the four chapters devoted to Swails’ activities during Reconstruction. In South Carolina, as an agent of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau—Swails pursued equitable wages and fair labor arrangements for formerly enslaved persons. “In only a few months,” Rhea writes, “Swails had established himself as the person Williamsburg District’s freedmen could count on to effectively intercede on their behalf with the white power structure” (99).
Swails leveraged that reputation in launching a political career, serving first as a delegate to the new state constitutional convention mandated by the First Reconstruction Act of 1867. Just as he remained a symbol of Black military service, so too did he serve as a powerful symbol of the promise of a multiracial democracy. Voters rewarded Swails with five terms in the state senate—and with stints as district auditor and Kingstree, South Carolina, mayor. His heroic war record proved crucial to Swails’ triumphs at the ballot box. “He was a war hero with the wounds to prove it,” Rhea writes (107).
Swails commanded the respect of his colleagues in the state legislature, but the specter of white supremacist terrorism cast an ugly shadow over his toils—no less than project of Reconstruction itself. Regrettably, not long after he signed the Ku Klux Klan Act into law, South Carolina supplied President Ulysses S. Grant with an opportunity to test the measure’s efficacy. The prevalence of racist terrorism in nine of the state’s upcountry counties prompted the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpusand send in troopers of the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, led by Major Lewis Merrill. Three years later, “armed violence erupted across the state” as Democrats embraced a bulldozing strategy to “redeem” the state government and reaffirm white supremacy (118). Campaigns of violence and intimidation reached their crescendo when an armed mob—in an ironic index of his effectiveness as a political organizer—forced the “notorious” Stephen Swails into an involuntary exile from his adopted home state. The old soldier nonetheless availed himself of Republican patronage and, in his final years, worked in the nation’s capital in the U.S. Treasury Department. He had made clear the perils of Republican politics and the precarious state of free speech in the Reconstruction South.
Segregated narratives of the Civil War and racist tropes about Reconstruction soon effaced Swails in public memory. Rhea’s effort is an exercise in historical recovery that restores to view a soldier who made “significant contributions to the advancement of the nation’s African American citizens” (151).
Scholars may wish that Rhea had more to say about gender as an animating theme of Swails’ life. Rhea might also have supplied more insights into Swails’ experiences, both as a Civil War veteran and as a custodian of historical memory. The author notes that the first lieutenant “renewed contact with members of the 54th Massachusetts” after the war and even attended the dedicatory exercises for the Robert Gould Shaw Monument on Boston Common. Yet we learn little else about how Swails (or other African Americans) engaged in the protracted battles over the war’s historical memory (145-146). How did they conceive of themselves as veterans?
These are, in the end, quibbles. Engaging and accessible, Rhea’s short biography is ready-made for adoption in the undergraduate classroom. Marked by hope and fear, heorism and heartbreak, promise and betrayal, loss and recovery, Stephen Atkins Swails embodied the triumph and the tragedy of the Civil War era.
Brian Matthew Jordan is the author of Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, among other titles.