Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Stephen V. Ash's "Firebrand of Liberty"

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

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War, and reported the following:
I’m not sure my new book, Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War, would pass FMF’s page-99 test. That page, while it does mention several major characters, would by itself leave readers pretty much mystified about the book’s subject. Whether the page reveals the “quality” of the book, I leave to readers to decide.

The book is about a small-scale, nearly forgotten, but quite extraordinary Civil War military expedition. In March 1863 two regiments of black Union troops commanded by white officers invaded Florida and seized Jacksonville, deep inside Confederate territory. It was a daring undertaking whose aim was not purely military. It was intended to provoke a slave insurrection that would destroy the Confederacy from within.

For three weeks the expeditionary force waged war in Florida, fending off Confederate counterattacks and liberating slaves. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, it was recalled by higher authorities. Though abruptly terminated and seemingly a failure, the expedition nevertheless had profound consequences. Apprised of the two regiments’ accomplishments in Florida, President Lincoln decided to go forward with full-scale recruitment of black troops (up to this point, the use of such troops was a very limited and controversial experiment). Ultimately some 180,000 black troops served, giving the Union a crucial manpower edge that helped it win the war.

This story has a fascinating cast of characters, as I discovered doing research. Not all were soldiers, and not all were men. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the expedition’s commander, had before the war been an ally of the fanatical abolitionist John Brown; he envisioned this expedition as a chance to redeem Brown’s failure to stir up a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, four years earlier. Prince Rivers, a former slave, was Higginson’s most trusted sergeant, a man with a brilliant though untutored military mind. U.S. Treasury agent Lyman Stickney was a liar and con man who accompanied the expedition in the hope of lining his pockets. Charlotte Forten, a cultured young black woman from the North, came south to educate the freed slaves and became involved in a passionate affair with the expedition’s surgeon, who was white, married, and old enough to be her father.
Learn more about Firebrand of Liberty and its author at the W.W. Norton website and Stephen V. Ash's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue