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Stephen A. Swails - a forgotten Black freedom fighter in the Civil War & Reconstruction

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LSU Press
Stephen Swails

Stephen Atkins Swails is a forgotten American hero. A free Black in the North before the Civil War began, Swails exhibited such exemplary service in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry that he became the first African American commissioned as a combat officer in the United States military. After the war, Swails remained in South Carolina, where he held important positions in the Freedmen’s Bureau, helped draft a progressive state constitution, served in the state senate, and secured legislation benefiting newly liberated Black citizens. Swails remained active in South Carolina politics after Reconstruction until violent Redeemers drove him from the state.

After Swails died in 1900, state and local leaders erased him from the historical narrative. Gordon C. Rhea’s biography, Stephen A. Swails: Black Freedom Fighter in the Civil War and Reconstruction (2021, LSU Press, restores Swails’s remarkable legacy. Gordon Rhea talks with Walter Edgar about Swails’s life story, a saga of an indomitable human being who confronted deep-seated racial prejudice in various institutions but nevertheless reached significant milestones in the fight for racial equality.

News and Music Stations: Fri, Mar 18, at 12 pm; Sat, Mar 19, at 7 am
News & Talk Stations: Fri, Mar 18, at 12 pm; Sun, Mar 20, at 4 pm

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Dr. Walter Edgar has two programs on South Carolina Public Radio: Walter Edgar's Journal, and South Carolina from A to Z. Dr. Edgar received his B.A. degree from Davidson College in 1965 and his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina in 1969. After two years in the army (including a tour of duty in Vietnam), he returned to USC as a post-doctoral fellow of the National Archives, assigned to the Papers of Henry Laurens.