I have just finished reading Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments that Changed the Course of the Civil War (Norton, July 2008),by Dr. Stephen Ash, a book which easily ranks among the best Civil War histories I have read in a long, long time.
Before Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, there was Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment the origins of which predated the more famed Massachusetts regiment by many months. In Firebrand of Liberty, Ash recounts an overlooked--indeed, almost entirely forgotten--but vastly important March 1863 expedition led by Higginson and the soldiers of the 1st & 2nd South Carolina Infantry, which, the author convincingly argued, had profound consequences in the outcome of the war. The three-week long St. James River Expedition, launched on the heels of the Emancipation Proclamation, was unique and unparalleled in the annals of the war, for its purpose was to essentially free slaves in the Florida interior and thereby destroy the very social and economic foundation of the Confederacy. Think of a John Brown-type raid, only a much larger scale, and with the full endorsement of the U.S. government. The expedition was launched also to prove the fighting ability of black troops. All eyes, especially those of Abraham Lincoln and the authorities in Washington, were on Higginson, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, and his soldiers, and they succeeded admirably in their mission. Supported by the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine, the 1st & 2nd South Carolina seized Jacksonville and spent three weeks raiding the Florida interior, freeing slaves and securing provisions for the Union. As Ash demonstrated, had this expedition failed, the future recruitment of black troops and their use in combat operations would have been severely challenged, if not suspended entirely. Their success, which was reported widely in the press, helped pave the way for the tens of thousands of black men who ultimately served in uniform, although their exploits would be overshadowed by the bravery of African-American regiments at such later battles as Port Hudson and Fort Wagner.
With Firebrand of Liberty, Ash has penned an outstanding and entirely original work that will contribute greatly to our understanding of the war, and especially to our understanding of the role played by black regiments. Ash's narrative, which is weaved masterfully with analysis, is lively, and it is one of those books I had a difficult time putting down. Indeed, I picked it up just yesterday morning. Firebrand of Liberty is a welcome and most valuable addition to Civil War historiography, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.