“So Nearly White”: The Fight to Commission a Black Officer

Lieutenant Stephen A. SwailsLieutenant Stephen A. Swails. (Photo: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Was it possible to commission an African-American soldier as an officer in the Union Army and in the same act not commission an African-American soldier as an officer in the Union Army? The case of Stephen A. Swails, one of about 100 black commissioned officers to serve the Union, reveals that such a paradox was eminently plausible in the minds of northern military and political officials. The story of how Sergeant Swails became Second Lieutenant Swails not only illuminates the tortured logic of racism that structured the Civil War experiences of black soldiers but also suggests that one of the most revolutionary developments during the war wasn’t as revolutionary as we might think.

Swails was born in Pennsylvania to a black father and a white mother in 1832, and as his comrades and superiors observed, he could easily pass as white. “To all appearances he was a white man,” wrote fellow 54th veteran Captain Luis F. Emilio in his 1891 account of the regiment. While some light-skinned African Americans did pass as white in order to join the army before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 authorized black enlistment, Swails did not. But once the War Department authorized the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts to organize black regiments, Swails wasted no time in enlisting. On April 23, 1863, he was mustered into Company F of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

By all accounts, Swails was an exemplary soldier. Appointed sergeant of Company F before the 54th’s famous July 18, 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, Swails was among a group of soldiers who crested the fort’s parapet before being forced to retreat under a hail of Confederate fire. Again on the front lines at the Battle of Olustee, Florida in February 1864, Swails received a “severe but not mortal head wound” while rallying his comrades to stave off a Confederate advance. After the Battle of Olustee, the 54th’s commissioned ranks were stretched thin. Swails, according to Colonel Edward N. Hallowell, had demonstrated “coolness, bravery, and efficiency” in battle, and for this reason Hallowell recommended to Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew that Swails be promoted to second lieutenant. Despite Hallowell’s observation that Swails’s complexion was “darker than most officers,” Andrew commissioned Swails as a second lieutenant on March 11, 1864. In order to accept the commission, Swails first had to receive his discharge as an enlisted soldier from the War Department.

To this point, the War Department had only approved commissions for a handful of African American recruiters who would never see the theatre of war and about two dozen African American chaplains and surgeons. While technically field and staff officers, chaplains and surgeons exercised no real authority in the military’s chain of command. Moreover, the authority of black noncommissioned officers (corporals and sergeants) like Swails never extended beyond the level of the company, meaning in effect that black soldiers could only give orders to other black soldiers. A commission as a line officer (in Swails’s case, second lieutenant) opened the door to promotion up the chain of command and thus potentially allowed a soldier to exercise authority beyond the level of the company or regiment. For the War Department to discharge Swails so that he could accept a commission as second lieutenant would be to accept the possibility of a black man giving orders to white soldiers.

It took ten months through considerable obfuscation on the part of the War Department for Swails’s commission to be approved. The initial request for Swails’s discharge went to the headquarters of the Department of the South and was returned to Colonel Hallowell with an inquiry “to know if this man is of African descent.” Hallowell wrote back peevishly that he was unaware of Swails’s “pedigree” but admitted that “he has some African blood in him.” A few days later, the request for Swails’s discharge was again returned to Colonel Hallowell, this time with a one word reply: “Disapproved.” Later documentation in Swails’s case revealed that this order to prevent him from accepting a commission came straight from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s office. Thwarted by the military hierarchy, Swails enlisted Governor Andrew to lobby the War Department, a process that carried into the summer and fall months.

In the meantime, Swails executed the duties of a second lieutenant under inordinately trying circumstances. Swails’s saga unfolded amid a larger controversy in which enlisted soldiers in the 54th and other black regiments refused to accept lesser pay than white enlistees. If the War Department had not disapproved Swails’s promotion on account of his “African descent,” he would have been earning the pay of a commissioned officer by mid-March. Instead, he stood solid with his enlisted comrades by refusing unequal pay, even as his wife and children were forced to enter a poorhouse. Additionally, although Swails continued to act as a second lieutenant, he was ordered to remove the shoulder straps of an officer from his uniform. But Swails persisted. In November 1864, he obtained a furlough in order to press his case directly to the appropriate authorities. Before traveling north, Swails convinced a sympathetic Major General John G. Foster, Commander of the Department of the South, that he should be allowed to wear an officer’s insignia. “Consequently,” Swails informed Colonel Hallowell in early December, “I have again donned the straps.” An 1864 carte de visite of a square-jawed, steely-eyed Swails shows that he had indeed restored the officer’s insignia to his uniform.

Ultimately, Swails’s doggedness coupled with the efforts of a pesky War Department pencil-pusher named A.G. Browne resulted in a breakthrough. In early-December, Browne produced letters concerning Swails’s commission from Governor Andrew to Secretary Stanton in order to refute Stanton’s claim that the case was never brought to his attention. Caught in a lie, Stanton reluctantly forwarded the case to the office of the Adjutant General. One month later, on January 15, 1865, Acting Adjutant General E. D. Townsend issued a special order for “the Commanding General Dept of the South to discharge Sergt S.A. Swailes [sic], 54th Mass (colored) and to muster him into service as Second Lieutenant of the same regiment.” Shortly thereafter, Second Lieutenant Stephen A. Swails became the first African American lieutenant commissioned by the federal government.

But why did Union military authorities break from an explicitly stated policy against commissioning line officers “of African descent?” Perhaps the answer is because in their minds, they hadn’t. AAG Townsend’s special order to grant Swails’s discharge so that he could accept promotion to second lieutenant was written after Major General Foster argued to Townsend that “Sergt Swails is so nearly white that it would be difficult to discover any trace of his African blood. He is so intelligent and of such good character that after a fair trial I now recommend his being allowed to serve as a commissioned officer.” This juxtaposition of Swails’s barely perceptible African ancestry against his exceptional intelligence and character echoed language used by Governor Andrew in his correspondence with Secretary Stanton. “Sergeant Swails, although not of entire Caucasian blood,” Andrew wrote in November 1864, “is a man of character and intelligence, a soldier of superior merit, and a gentleman, and worthy of the recognition of gentlemen.”

That Swails earned the “recognition of gentlemen” only after contemporaries as progressive as Foster and Andrew figuratively diluted his African ancestry to the point of near-nothingness is illustrative of the limits of change during the Civil War. Like their southern foes, most northern military and political officials assumed the innate inferiority of men and women of African descent. Even those who didn’t knew that few Americans were prepared to accept outright racial equality, especially if such equality allowed black men to exercise authority over white men.

Of the roughly 100 African Americans who served the Union as commissioned officers, about two-thirds did so in the Louisiana Native Guards, an all-black Louisiana militia unit formed before Union forces captured New Orleans. Another quarter of the Union’s black commissioned officers were chaplains or surgeons with no real authority in the military chain of command. While three black soldiers were commissioned as officers in a Kansas independent artillery battery, their assignment to Fort Leavenworth effectively isolated them from other black and white Union soldiers alike. Five more African Americans followed in Swails’s footsteps by earning commissions in Massachusetts regiments, but their commissions did not take effect until after the war ended.

For all intents and purposes, Stephen A. Swails was the only African American officer whose commission brought with it the possibility of giving orders to white soldiers during the war. But in the eyes of the War Department and even Swails’s advocates inside and outside of the army, he was “so nearly white” that his commission could be made palatable to white northerners. Swails’s case represented a salvo fired at the pillars of white supremacy, but the foundations of American racism held firm.

About the Author

Ian Delahanty

Ian Delahanty is a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College and soon-to-be Assistant Professor of History at Springfield College. His research focuses on Irish Americans' involvement in the Civil War and the intertwined histories of nationalism and abolitionism in Ireland and America.

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  1. Thank you for this great piece, Ian. It immediately reminded me of the recent This American Life segment with W. Kamau Bell where they were contemplating how to talk with children about race and racism. They discussed Elijah Anderson’s notion of “White Space” and “Black Space” to help explain racist assumptions about African American presence in coffee shops (Bell was mistaken for a homeless person selling something while he was speaking to his white wife and her friends), on university campuses (immediate questions about what the person must have “overcome” to be there), or pretty much anywhere that isn’t an impoverished black inner-city community. And here are the same assumptions about Swails, made acceptable only by the same legitimizing calculus – on terms of how he emulates “white qualities” of character, intelligence, and being a gentleman. You might also draw a direct line to some of the early conversation around our first black president, calculated to be acceptable by some because of his “white qualities.”

    1. Thanks, Elliot–your comments get at the key issues in the larger work from which I pulled Swails’s story. There was a basic assumption among military officials that men of African descent simply couldn’t possess the qualities of an officer. The tragic irony here is that soldiers like Swails had to kill and put their lives on the line in order to try to disprove that assumption. At the same time, there were any number of Union officers whose credentials were primarily if not entirely political.

  2. Good afternoon Ian. Great article! As an educators, it is critical that the truth about “American” history be told. You openly share the “real” and very painful experience that many history books fail to mention. BTW – Stephen Swails is my great grandfather.

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