Firebrand of Liberty

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Stephen V Ash, W W Norton, £15.99

The 1st and 2nd South Carolina regiments were some of the first black troops to go into action in the 1863 American Civil War.

Their bravery was to influence Lincoln's decision for the large scale recruitment of black soldiers. Almost 200,000 black troops were to fight for the union by the war's end.

Under the command of abolitionist Thomas Higginson, the black regiments occupied the Confederate town of Jacksonville hoping to hold it as a launch point for a campaign to bring the state back into union hands.

The troops were also to liberate the region's slaves, recruiting them to serve under Union colours. The campaign saw black and white troops fight together for the first time in the war, challenging the deeply held racist attitudes of many white officers and ordinary soldiers. The story of the Florida campaign's termination and the destruction of the grand hopes that were held for the scheme are laid out by Ash. The story ends with the momentous decision for the union to recruit black troops wholesale.

Ash's book brings the black troops themselves to the front. Soldiers like Prince Rivers knew the importance of their actions. In their bravery lay the future of the black population, and the fight to end slavery and for civil rights.

This little known episode confirms that blacks were central to the process of their own liberation. They proved, gun in hand, their right to equality.