Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The First Second Lieutenant

Union Lieutenant Stephen Atkins Swails the first African American to be promoted to an officer was wounded for the second time April 11th 1865.

Stephen Atkins Swails was born February 23rd 1832.  He married and was working in Cooperstown, New York as a waiter prior to the war.  When Frederick Douglass called for recruits for the 54th Massachusetts Swails enlisted in Elmira, New York as a private.  He became a member of Company “F” and was soon appointed First Sergeant.  Following the assault on Fort Wagner in which the 54th lost a lot of men, Swails was appointed Sergeant Major on November 12th 1863.

The 54th was posted in Florida in early 1864 under Union General Truman Seymour.  Swails was wounded the first time at the Battle of Olustee on February 20th 1864.  When promotions came out on March 26th 1864, Swails was promoted to Second Lieutenant.  The promotion made him the first African American to receive a commission in the Union Army.  While the 54th was on reconnaissance near Camden, South Carolina on April 11th 1865 Swails was wounded a second time.  They were near a railroad junction when a locomotive was steamed up.  A detachment led by Swails captured the train.  He entered the cab and waved his hat in triumph which drew the attention of a Union sharpshooter who mistook Swails for the engineer, and shot him.  Swails was promoted to First Lieutenant April 28th 1865.  He was mustered out of service with the rest of the 54th August 20th 1865 in Boston, Massachusetts.

After the war Swails became a lawyer and worked for the Freedman’s Bureau.  He settled in South Carolina where he was the mayor of Kingstree, South Carolina from 1868 to 1879.  After Reconstruction and an assassination attempt Swails resigned from office.  He went to work in Washington, DC at the United State Treasury and the United Post Office.  He died May 17th 1900 and is buried the Friendly Society Cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina.

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