Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pg. 99: Stephen V. Ash's "Firebrand of Liberty"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Stephen V. Ash's Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War.

About the book, from the publisher:
A nearly forgotten Civil War episode is restored to history in this masterful account.

In March 1863, nine hundred black Union soldiers, led by white officers, invaded Florida and seized the town of Jacksonville. They were among the first African American troops in the Northern army, and their expedition into enemy territory was like no other in the Civil War. It was intended as an assault on slavery by which thousands would be freed.

At the center of the story is prominent abolitionist Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who led one of the regiments. After waging battle for three weeks, Higginson and his men were mysteriously ordered to withdraw, their mission a seeming failure. Yet their successes in resisting the Confederates and collaborating with white Union forces persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to begin full-scale recruitment of black troops, a momentous decision that helped turned the tide of the war.

Using long-neglected primary sources, historian Stephen V. Ash’s stirring narrative re-creates this event with insight, vivid characterizations, and a keen sense of drama.
Among the early praise for the book:
"Another inspiring history of black Civil War soldiers. Ash (History/Univ. of Tennessee; A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865, 2002, etc.) reminds us that when the Civil War began no one wanted black soldiers except the abolitionists. But this minority made a great deal of noise, and they kept the subject in the public eye. After Union forces captured coastal areas of Georgia and the Carolinas, the commander of the Department of the South, General David Hunter, in April 1862 began supplementing his weak occupying forces by recruiting blacks in his jurisdiction. The War Department ordered him to disband the troops, but the groundwork had been laid. By autumn the Lincoln administration's opposition was softening, and Hunter's successor got approval for a request to enlist Negroes in the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers. The regiment's colonel was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent abolitionist and literary figure (discoverer of Emily Dickinson) who worked hard to prepare his men for battle and make their achievements known throughout the North. Superiors approved his plan to lead troops south in February 1863; together with the Second South Carolina Infantry, they captured Jacksonville, Fla., with little fighting. The goal was to hold the city, raid the surrounding countryside and recruit escaped slaves for additional black units. The regiments remained for three weeks, raiding and fighting off desultory Confederate attacks, until they were abruptly ordered home for reasons never adequately explained. Although other historians have paid little attention to the Jacksonville raid, Ash maintains that it was this watershed expedition, the first significant combat mission undertaken by black soldiers and as such widely reported in Northern newspapers, which persuaded the Lincoln administration to order full-scale black recruitment in March 1863. A well-constructed, readable account of a minor Civil War action that may or may not have had major consequences."
Learn more about Firebrand of Liberty and its author at the W.W. Norton website and Stephen V. Ash's faculty webpage.

Stephen V. Ash is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee and the author of several books on the Civil War, including A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865.

The Page 99 Test: Firebrand of Liberty.

--Marshal Zeringue