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


by Gordon C. Rhea .

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. Pp. xiv, 189. Illus., maps, notes, sources, index. $29.95. ISBN: 0807176265

An African American Soldier and Civil Rights Advocate

Stephen Swails was an important individual in the story of African American involvement in the Civil War, and in South Carolina’s Reconstruction experience. He made significant contributions to the advancement of African Americans, but failed to achieve full equality for Black veterans. In this book Gordon Rhea covers the story of how Swails devoted much of his life trying to secure Blacks parity with whites, but white supremacists in the South and in the Union Army and national leadership prevented him from helping to attain this goal.

A free African American volunteer in the 54th Massachusetts, Swails distinguished himself in battle and was wounded twice fighting for the Union cause. He served and fought with the 54th Massachusetts, fought through the war in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida, at Legare Island, Fort Wagner, Olustee Station, and Boykin’s Mill, proving consistently brave and cool under fire, and gaining acceptance by many white solders. Rhea reminds us that one of the great challenges for Swails and his fellow Black soldiers was securing equal pay with white Federal troops. He gives us a look at how Swails and his fellow African American soldiers felt under fire and dealt with the stress not only of battle, but also from news of mobs, slaughter and bloodshed in riots in the North at places like New York City.

Swails overcame discrimination to become the first Black man to be commissioned a combat officer in the Union Army. Following the Civil War, he practiced law, was a political boss, served with the Freedman's Bureau, and was a Republican member of the South Carolina state legislature. Swails remained active in South Carolina politics after Reconstruction until the violent Redeemers threatened him with death, and drove him from the state during the Jim Crow era.

Following his passing in 1900, Swails became a footnote until distinguished historian Gordon Rhea helped this important figure to come alive in this valuable new book, which draws upon many previously unpublished documents and manuscripts. Readers will find much about Swails, as soldier, politician, and reformer, one of the few people who spoke up about racial prejudice, especially in the military and in South Carolina’s white community. Some readers may find Swails’ story relevant to today’s events, especially for those facing the loss of their voting rights in several states, just as happened to Swails and others in the late nineteenth century.

Combining fresh historical detail with a very compelling, readable, and informative text, and several maps by the notable cartographer, George Skoch, makes for a book that will be enjoyable for novice readers and as well as serious students of the Civil War. Highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include, Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg, Passing Through the Fire: Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the Civil War, The Summer of ’63: Vicksburg and Tullahoma, Crosshairs on the Capital: Jubal Early’s Raid on Washington, Ends of War: The Unfinished Fight of Lee's Army after Appomattox, Voices of the Army of the Potomac, The Record of Murders and Outrages, Gettysburg 1963, No Common Ground, and Confederate Conscription and the Struggle for Southern Soldiers.



Note: A volume in LSU’s Southern Biography Series, Stephen A. Swails is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close