Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War
Stephen V. Ash
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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.
letter. “No regiment of ’Fugitive Slaves’ has been, or is being organized in this Department,” he wrote in response to the secretary of war’s inquiry. “There is however, a fine regiment of persons whose late masters are ’Fugitive Rebels.’” Arming blacks had earned him not only the displeasure of his government but also special attention from the enemy: The Confederate War Department declared him an outlaw, to be treated as a capital felon rather than a soldier if captured. Too radical and brash
they called “de expeditious,” and in the days following their return to Camp Saxton they told and retold stories about it around their campfires. Robert Sutton, who recovered quickly from his wounds, particularly enjoyed recounting his return to his former place of servitude. Listening to these increasingly exaggerated tales, Higginson realized that the raid had already begun to assume mythic status in the men’s minds. He saw too that it had strengthened the regiment by solidifying the men’s
structure that could provide cover for a good two miles from town. Rebel pickets sometimes contested this inching forward, but they were always driven off sooner or later. The Union picket line eventually stabilized a mile and a half or so out; the Confederate picket line stabilized where the uncleared terrain began. In between was what Higginson dubbed the Debatable Land, rarely crossed by either side in the daytime. The colonel continued to pull the pickets back close to town at sunset.34 An
movement. And this order will be communicated to the commander of the Colored troops by you, and will govern him. By order of Maj. Gen. Hunter.20 Higginson was shown this order, and that night he pondered it. It was even more peremptory than the first, snuffing out any lingering hope that Hunter might be persuaded to change his mind. Clearly, rejecting Stickney’s advice to delay the evacuation and seek an audience with Hunter had been wise. Furthermore, this new order specified what the troops
of committing. In choosing horses for military service, we have never heard it urged that white horses are better than black horses. Why, then, in a question of fighting should we refuse black men and confine ourselves to white men?”42 The news of the expedition not only heartened the believers in black recruitment and justified their faith but also converted some of the skeptics. The moderate Republican editor of the Washington Evening Star was among those who experienced an epiphany of sorts.