Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ash: "Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments that Changed the Course of the Civil War"

[Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments that Changed the Course of the Civil War by Stephen V. Ash (W.W. Norton, 2008) Hardcover, photos, 2 maps, notes, appendix, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 230/303 ISBN: 9780393065862 $25.95]

In addition to being a unit study, Stephen Ash's Firebrand of Liberty is the first book length history of the U.S.'s March 1863 expedition up Florida's St. Johns River. Transported and supported by the navy, a pair of black regiments (expedition commander Thomas Wentworth Higginson's 1st South Carolina and two companies of James Montgomery's 2nd South Carolina) occupied and fortified Jacksonville. Later movements reached as far upriver as Palatka. An important goal of the campaign was to strike at slavery in the region and recruit large numbers of black soldiers. With few soldiers of their own in the region, Confederate resistance was slight, but, with many slaves refugeed inland, the number of men, women, and children liberated by Union forces was disappointing [one hundred, all told]. Later reinforced by the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine, Higginson was able to completely secure his Jacksonville base, and was planning to strike inland just as a recall order was issued by the department commander.

Ash writes historical narrative with considerable flair, but the accessible style does nothing to hinder the author's construction of a detailed campaign history that should satisfy the demands of serious students. The research is very solid, and the author wishes the reader to recognize that the operation was conducted during a period of uncertain northern attitudes toward the widespread recruitment and combat use of black regiments. However, Ash's larger contention that the campaign "changed the course of the Civil War" is speculative, as no direct documentary link exists between the positive reports of the operation and the Lincoln administration's decision to ramp up the organization of black units. The author clarifies his interpretation of the circumstantial evidence in the book's appendix, but, while it's likely the Jacksonville operation contributed to the decision, it remains unclear if its impact was decisive*.

Another point of emphasis is the "hard war" aspect of the campaign, with the insertion of race into the equation. Prior to the Jacksonville operation, Higginson and the 1st burned the town of St. Marys. As the army advanced up the St. Johns River, plantations were frequently looted and burned (Montgomery's 2nd was especially enthusiastic). Additionally, perhaps a third of Jacksonville was burned when the Union forces withdrew, although Ash blames Maine soldiers for most of the damage. Predictably, northern public opinion was especially divided over such destruction being issued at the hands of black soldiers. Radical Republicans generally applauded, but many conservative Democrats were angry and dismayed at the prospect of white civilians being harassed or rendered destitute by the actions of these units.

While the confining of his study to the Union viewpoint limits its overall perspective, Stephen Ash has nevertheless crafted an original military study and unit history. Beyond the need for more and better maps, there's little to complain about. Ash's linking of the campaign to a transitional period in Union military policy is also instructive, if a bit overstated. Recommended.

* - The Jacksonville/St. John's River expedition was in March 1863. At this point, black regiments had already demonstrated combat prowess [the 1st Kansas Colored at Island Mound, Missouri in October 1862] and discipline in non-combat roles [the Native Guards units] in SE Louisiana from late 1862 to early 1863.


  1. I would like to say "thank you" for your blog. I would probably be considered a "buff", and I don't think a non-specialist would ever come across these sorts of titles (or perhaps wouldn't know if I should buy) without a site such as this. I hope the publishers realize this.

    scott s.

  2. Scott,
    Thanks for writing. I appreciate your kind note. So far, I'm pretty pleased with the response from publishers.

  3. Drew, thanks for the review. Coverage of the black regiments is very sparse, so this work is welcome indeed.

    -Rick A.


If you wish to comment, please sign your name. Otherwise, your submission may be rejected, at the moderator's discretion. Comments containing outside promotions and/or links will be deleted.