Union soldier made history and Kingstree home

  • Tuesday, February 11, 2014

  • Updated Tuesday, February 11, 2014 9:23 am

The walls of the South Carolina Senate will soon include a portrait of a local African American whose remarkable life included fighting in the Civil War as a Union Army soldier in the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment, to serving as Mayor of Kingstree, Senator and practicing law with his partner M.J. Hirsch, a white Confederate veteran. Photo courtesy State Library of Florida

The halls of the South Carolina State House are adorned with the portraits of men and women who contributed to our rich history. Among the paintings are presidents, governors, generals and poets. And not too far in the future, a portrait of local African American Stephen A. Swails soon will grace the institution as well.

Local attorney Billy Jenkinson, who serves as co-chair for the African-American Historical Alliance, is leading an initiative.  The alliance is a statewide organization, which honors African Americans soldiers who served in the Civil War by marking their graves and celebrating their public service who, as freed slaves chose to serve in the Union Army.

Jenkinson, who also represents Williamsburg County, choose the first business day of Black History Month to present the initiative to Williamsburg County Councilmembers. The South Carolina Senate has already passed a resolution authorizing the acceptance of the portrait to be hung alongside the other historical figures. Jenkinson said the organization has raise over half the funds needed to commission the portrait; however, he turned to council for support in purchasing a copy of the original that will hang in the Williamsburg County Courthouse.

Swail's remarkable life was lost to history until the early 1970s when a trunk with his personal papers was found in a trash pile at Brooks and Main Streets in Kingstree. The contents, which were sold to local historian Samuel E. McIntosh who made copies available to the Williamsburgh Historical Society, revealed a treasure trove of records that included documents from the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, electoral records, and correspondence; an extremely valuable find of historical significance. Jenkinson would also research, finding Swails' obituary dated May 1900, which appeared on the front page of The County Record, predecessor of The News.

In 1863, Swails, a free black was living in Elmira, New York joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. As a Union soldier, he fought in the Battery Wagner (made famous in the 1990 movie "Glory," the Battle of Olustee, and marched through Williamsburg County in 1865 at the time of the Battle of Boykin's Mill.  He was wounded in two battles and was cited for bravery in both. In March 1865, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant.

Swails eventually settled in the state where he once did battle. After the Civil War, he located to Charleston where he married and became an agent for the Freedman's Bureau, which assisted newly freed slaves. In 1867, he was assigned to Williamsburg County.

Swails served as Kingstree Mayor and served as a SC senator in 1868, including two terms as president pro tem.  While a senator, he was elected a University of South Carolina Trustee. Swails was a delegate to the 1868, 1872 and 1876 Republican national conventions. He became a member of the US Electoral College, and published the Williamsburg Republican. He also joined the bar and opened a law firm. His partner was a white Confederate Army veteran. However, Swails was no stranger to discrimination. After Reconstruction, a white mob tried to assassinate him, which lead to his resigning from local office. Swails would later work in Washington and commute back and forth while his family continued to live in Kingstree.

Jenkinson's presentation to council was boosted by another Kingstree native. Joseph McGill is also a member of the African American Historical Alliance. McGill has worked at the Penn Center, the African American Museum of Iowa and as a field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In November of 2013, he became a historical consultant with Magnolia Plantation and has spent the majority of his time as the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. "Because Senator Swails was such a historic figure from Williamsburg County and the only politician to serve as president pro tem of our senate we believe a substantial donation from our county should be forthcoming," said McGill who was dressed in authentic Union soldier attire. "I often put on this uniform in honor of the 200,000 African-Americans that served for the Union during the Civil War. Men - who some were free even before the Civil War - put on this uniform and endured all that they had to endure within their own Union Army just to be soldiers, not to mention what they had to face, facing the Confederate foes."

In 1998, the Williamsburgh Historical Society, in a ceremony erected a historical marker at the location of the Swails home on Main Street across from St. Ann's Catholic Church. In 2006, Swails' unmarked grave was discovered in Charleston. A ceremony hosted by the alliance and other historical groups marking the gravesite with a blue granite monument included a cannon salute and Citadel cadets and Civil War re-enactors in attendance; a proper denouement to an extraordinary man who faced battles and bigotry to become an American hero.

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