Firebrands of Liberty: The Story of Two Black
Regiments That Changed
the Course of the Civil War
by Stephen V. Ash
W.W. Norton, 2008, $25.95
Seldom does a Civil War story come along today that is historically significant and yet still relatively unknown. Firebrand of Liberty, a new book by historian Stephen Ash, is one such account.
Tapping a fertile collection of primary and secondary sources, Ash has created the first detailed modern account of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina, two of the earliest black units to fight for the Union. The 1st and 2nd were composed primarily of freed blacks and former slaves from the coastal Carolina region, ledlike the more famous 54th Massachussetts—by white officers.
The colonel of the 1st South, as the first and more famous of two regiments became known, was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who penned detailed firsthand accounts of the organization and training of the controversial unit. Ash supplements Higginson’s observations with other diaries, newspapers, letters and official records to tell the story of Higginson’s daring and courageous regiment, which was ultimately vindicated after some early disappointment.
The scholarship in this book is impeccable. Ash has woven together an authoritative account with logic and care. His extensive use of multiple primary sources leaves few gaps in the flow of events as the 1st and 2nd invade Florida, capture Jacksonville, liberate some slaves and then are mysteriously recalled to South Carolina at the pinnacle of their success
As with every work of historical research, there are questions that can and should be raised. The main question that is debatable about the book is the degree to which the overall strategic significance of the campaign can be assessed. Ash maintains that the success of the two black regiments changed the course of the war, tying it directly to President Lincoln’s decision through the War Department on March 25th, 1863, to begin vigorous recruiting of blacks into the military across the country and occupied territories. He admits, however, that this is speculative, and places it in an appendix to clearly separate it from the scholarship of the Florida campaign, which is already well documented.
Another factor for readers of popular Civil War nonfiction will be the level of military activity. Two regiments, entering into nonpitched battles, occupying towns without opposition, drilling endlessly, ultimately may seem anticlimactic to readers who expect cavalry charges, gallantry under fire and dramatic death-bed speeches by mortally wounded officers. Ash, however, makes it clear from the beginning that this is not what is significant about these soldiers and their story. Nevertheless, from Lincoln down through the entire chain of command, greater numbers of men and resources were sent where they were perceived to be the most strategically effective, and experimental or not, the Florida campaign was a minor military affair.
Overall, this is a solid piece of historical work that will stand the test of time, and probably be the seminal work on the 1st and 2nd South Carolina. There are also human interest stories and curiosities: the Confederate make-shift railroad artillery and the pitiless burning of Jacksonville by abandoning Union forces, for example. The casual reader will find this story refreshing and informative; the scholar will appreciate Ash’s care and polished research.