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Lt. Stephen SwailsSwails was born of a black father and white mother, Peter and Joanna Swails, in 1832 in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Columbia was an important part of the Underground Railroad, a patchwork of people who helped others escape slavery.

When Swails was 2 years old, Columbia was torn by a series of vicious race riots and his parents decided to move their family to the nearby town of Manheim. Stephen Swails attended school in Manheim and by 1860, at age 29, he had moved to Cooperstown, New York where he worked as a waiter at the Keyes Hotel. The following year, he married Sarah Thompson of Cooperstown, a young black woman.

The Keyes Hotel burned down in 1862, and in 1863, Swails enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first black regiment formed in the North during the Civil War. Swails, the first black man to be commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army, was made a first sergeant in this regiment.

In July 1863, the Massachusetts 54th led 18 white regiments in an ill-fated attack on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold near Charleston, S.C.

Swails survived this battle, however a third of his regiment perished. The remaining members of the 54th were later sent to Florida, where Swails was wounded in the head at the Battle of Olustee.

Swails was promoted in 1864 to second lieutenant for his performance on the battlefield by Massachusetts' governor John Andrews. This was an unprecedented step that was celebrated by black American journals.

However, the Army, which was not paying black recruits their soldiers' wages, refused to honor the promotion until the following year, after Andrews lobbied on Swails' behalf.

After the war, Swails worked for the Freedman's Bureau in Charleston and later moved to Kingstree, S.C. During Reconstruction, he served as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention and later became a state senator. Swails was a delegate to the Republican national conventions of 1868, 1872 and 1876 and was selected one of the first black members of the Electoral College.

Swails never reunited with his wife after the war, but married again and had four children with a second wife. He was made a major general in the South Carolina National Guard and was elected mayor of Kingstree.

At the end of Reconstruction, in about 1877, Swails and other blacks were ousted from power by white racists. Swails resisted these changes and for a time was forced out of Kingstree. He later got a job with the Postal Service and Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., and was allowed to return home. He died at home in 1900.

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