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’ remarkable legacy. Swails’ 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.
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"