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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.
- ISBN-13: 9780393065862
- ISBN-10: 0393065863
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: July 2008
- Page Count: 282
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 57.
- Review Date: 2008-03-17
- Reviewer: Staff
The titular firebrand in this revealing history is not an individual but a curious and ambitious project: the establishment, in March 1863, of a permanent Union outpost in Florida to serve as a haven for fugitive slaves and to “help ignite the destruction of Southern slavery from within.” In readable prose and relying exclusively on primary sources, historian Ash (When the Yankees Came) tells the little-known but crucial story of how 900 newly freed slaves, under the leadership of white abolitionist officers, captured Jacksonville. They fought alongside white Union troops and liberated slaves until their mission was abruptly aborted by their commanding officer, Gen. David Hunter, one of the dimmest stars in the Union Army firmament. Ash makes a strong case that the successes of the two black regiments changed the course of war by convincing President Lincoln to authorize the full-scale enlistment of African-Americans. By the end of the war, some 200,000 black troops had served in the Union Army. Without them, Ash contends, “the Union might very well have failed to conquer the Confederacy.” (July)
The African-American experience
University of Tennessee history professor Stephen V. Ash is noted for his rigorous research and his capable, almost novelistic, way of telling a historical tale. He brings those gifts to Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War, which, unsurprisingly, will evoke memories of the story told in the 1989 film Glory. The key player here is Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an educated, moralistic New Englander with a very public abolitionist streak. In March 1863, Higginson gathered 900 African-American soldiers in South Carolina and led them, by land and sea, to Jacksonville, Florida, where their efforts helped to assert territorial control over the Confederate Army, while also sending a message to Southerners (both black and white) about freedom. This mission was relatively short-lived and its strategic importance has never been emphasized in general accounts of the Civil War. Yet it was the first instance where black troops faced live bullets and served effectively alongside white troops. The 1st and 2nd South Carolina's professional deportment also alerted President Lincoln to a new realitythat recruitment of black troops for the Union war effort could begin in earnest.