Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War

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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 ...

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Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Ash (history, Univ. of Tennessee, A Year in the South: 1865) here addresses a fascinating and little-known chapter of the Civil War: the capture of Jacksonville by white and black Union regiments in March 1863. His book is a bit unfocused. Clearly, he wants to profile white abolitionist colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded both black and white regiments during this campaign. But who is the "firebrand" in the title? Higginson himself? Or the black regiments who surely merited the term? Ash might have been better off writing either a full-scale biography of Higgenson or an in-depth military history of the campaign. Nevertheless, this book adds to the literature. First, although much has been written about black regiments, little of that material covers the Jacksonville campaign. Second, Ash argues persuasively that the campaign's success helped Lincoln and the Northern public push ahead to recruit more blacks into the Union army-hence the subtitle's claim that Jacksonville changed the course of the war. Approachably written for both students and history buffs, this book is recommended for all public and academic libraries.
—Bryan Craig

Kirkus Reviews
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 missionundertaken 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393065862
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/28/2008
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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Table of Contents

Note on Usage

Maps 2

Prologue 5

1 Port Royal Island, South Carolina: January 1,1863 13

2 Port Royal Island and the St. Mary's River: January 2-February 15 31

3 Hilton Head February 16 67

4 From Port Royal Island to Jacksonville February 17-March 10 87

5 Jacksonville March 10-20 110

6 Jacksonville, the East Bank, and Palatka March 20-27 135

7 Jacksonville and the West Bank March 27-29 164

8 The Aftermath 182

Epilogue 205

Appendix Historians and the Lincoln Administration's Decision for Full-Scale Black Recruitment 211

Notes 214

Bibliography 256

Index 267

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