On January 1, 1863, Prince Rivers celebrated his freedom in Port Royal, South Carolina before an admiring national audience. That day the well-known former slave also vowed to make others free by fighting in the Union army as one of his country's first black sergeants. Freedom did come for African Americans, but equality proved more elusive. Initially, however, things looked hopeful. After the Civil War, Sergeant Rivers became Judge Rivers. But the proud leader suffered for his extensive political activities. Following the Reconstruction period, Rivers was forced out of office and ultimately into the same work he had once done as a slave, serving as a local carriage driver for white people. In the end, he lost almost everything --except his dignity. Here is the remarkable story of Prince Rivers, an American whose life matters for anyone who trying to understand the complicated legacy of emancipation.
Born into slavery in South Carolina during the early 1820s, Prince Rivers worked as a carriage driver on a plantation along the Coosaw River near Port Royal in the Beaufort District. Yet despite being enslaved, Rivers stood out as a natural born leader. He learned how to read and write, and headed up what local blacks later described as a mutual aid society, that collected secret money to be used for medical and other emergencies involving any black person in the area. In the late 1850s, Rivers even delivered an appeal by the local enslaved population to the state’s governor. At that time, the South Carolina Committee on the Colored Population had issued a series of explosive reports about slavery in the region. The state legislature was considering changes to its laws on what constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” for slaves and whether to implement further restrictions on the practices of hiring out slave labor. Unafraid and unwilling to keep quiet, Rivers tried to give voice to the African American side of this debate. Sources: William Francis Allen; James Henry Gooding and Thomas Wentworth Higginson .
IMAGE BELOW: Henry Middleton Stuart, slaveholder // VIDEO INSET: Smithsonian Channel on slavery and origins of war
By the spring of 1861, local and and national debates over slavery had turned violent, following secession and the outbreak of the Civil War. South Carolina was at the epicenter of this political crisis and also experienced the hard hand of war early on in the conflict. By late 1861, Federal forces managed to occupy sections of the Palmetto state along the Atlantic coast, including much of the Sea Islands around Port Royal and Beaufort. The man who owned Prince Rivers, Henry Middleton Stuart, Jr., tried desperately to hold onto his slave property, by relocating his estate inland toward Edgefield. But in the spring of 1862, Rivers took advantage of the chaos and the proximity of Union troops and fled for freedom. Rivers actually stole his master’s horse to ensure his successful escape behind Union lines around Beaufort. It appears that he also managed to carry away his wife and two children, who were owned by a different master. Sources: Emancipation Digital Classroom.
IMAGE BELOW: A Contraband Family in 1862 // VIDEO INSET: Museum of African American History on Port Royal experiment
Once Prince Rivers found safety with the Union army along the coast, he became one of thousands of now-liberated "contrabands" being celebrated during the first year of the war in the Northern press and depicted in photographs such as the image above from Port Royal, South Carolina, March 1862. Rivers himself is not in that photograph but it captures the spirit of a recently liberated South Carolina family just like the one he had brought with him to Port Royal.
IMAGE BELOW: Union General David Hunter // VIDEO INSET: Eric Foner on Contrabands
During this period, Northern abolitionists flocked to the Sea Islands to help encourage a transition toward freedom. In their efforts, they received a great deal of support from General David Hunter, a committed antislavery officer in charge of the Union's southern coastal military department. Hunter not only wanted contrabands to receive freedom, land and education, but also expected black men from the region to serve in combat. General Hunter began issuing emancipation decrees and recruiting and training black soldiers, including Prince Rivers, who was soon designated as a sergeant in "Hunter's Regiment." Yet under pressure from conservative Unionists, the Lincoln administration hesitated. The president rescinded Hunter's most sweeping emancipation edict and then temporarily ordered him to disband the regiment of black soldiers. Angry but undaunted, Hunter invoked what he considered to be his authority under new congressional confiscation statutes. He issued an order on August 1, 1862 order declaring, “The bearer, Prince Rivers, a sergeant in First Regiment S.C. Volunteers, late claimed as a slave, having been employed in hostility to the United States, is hereby agreeably to the law of 6th of August, 1861, declared free for ever. His wife and children are also free.” This unique emancipation edict was then reprinted that summer in Northern antislavery newspapers to much acclaim. But whether this freedom movement and black participation in the Union war effort would continue to expand remained uncertain throughout the autumn of 1862. Sources: General Hunter "Confiscates" Prince Rivers
IMAGE BELOW: An article from The Liberator on Prince Rivers // VIDEO INSET: Lucretia Mott and Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society from "Philadelphia: A Great Experiment"
Prince Rivers certainly did his part to change Union policy. During the summer of 1862, he emerged as an important activist in the national fight to secure President Lincoln's support for emancipation and black enlistment. Pennsylvania abolitionist and Dickinson College graduate James Miller McKim had travelled to Port Royal in the spring to see for himself what was happening, became fascinated by Rivers, and then invoked him in speeches across the North. He quoted Rivers as promising that if "white people means right" then "I know [black people] will fight." McKim then helped bring Sergeant Rivers to Philadelphia in September 1862 --before the public announcement of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Rivers made a stirring presentation to Lucretia Mott and members of the city's female anti-slavery society. The women were moved by what they called his "true nobility of soul," but then recorded their "shame and sorrow" that soon after his speech, Rivers was assaulted on the streets of Philadelphia by a band of racist white soldiers who apparently could not bear to see him wearing his uniform from Hunter's Regiment. Yet these men failed miserably in their attempt to overcome the tall, powerful Rivers. One Union officer chuckled afterwards that the gang had soon "found it wiser and safer to leave him alone." Sources: The Liberator, August 8, 1862 (see image above); Carol Faulkner, Lucretia Mott's Heresy (2011), p. 181 and 1863 Annual Report, Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, p. 17; and Letter from Seth Rogers, January 3, 1863.
IMAGE BELOW: David Gilmour Blythe painting of Lincoln writing emancipation // VIDEO INSET: Matthew Pinsker on emancipation
Less than two weeks after the assault on Rivers in Philadelphia, President Lincoln made public his plans on September 22, 1862 for a new wartime emancipation policy to begin in the next year. Lincoln had struggled mightily to balance the sometimes-competing demands of union and freedom over the first year of the Civil War. He had been pressed on all sides, including by ex-slaves like Rivers who had effectively emancipated themselves. But now the president was preparing not only to offer a greater promise of freedom to all slaves in Rebel-controlled territories, but also to authorize the widespread enlistment of black troops into the Union military. It was a defining moment for the nation, and a life-changing opportunity for Prince Rivers.
IMAGE BELOW: Emancipation Day in Port Royal, SC from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper // VIDEO INSET: Eric Foner on Emancipation
When the nation's long-anticipated Emancipation Day finally arrived on January 1, 1863, a diverse crowd had gathered at the former plantation of J.J. Smith near Port Royal in South Carolina. To bear witness to the momentous occasion, thousands of contrabands listened to the reading of the president's proclamation and then to speeches by prominent military figures and abolitionists. They were also excited to see the presentation of colors to the newly recognized all-black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteers of African Descent. Yet the planned program was interrupted when the crowd began to sing: “My Country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing!” Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the new commanding officer of First South Carolina, was overwhelmed by the emotion of that moment. “I never saw anything so electric," he recalled. Although many of the men and women in that audience, such as Rivers, had been effectively liberated for months, Emancipation Day proved to be an unparalleled emotional peak in the long struggle for freedom. Sources: Emancipation Among Black Troops in South Carolina.
IMAGE BELOW: Detail of Prince Rivers // VIDEO INSET: James Oakes on emancipation
Prince Rivers was at the center of this powerful emancipation moment. He was the color sergeant of the First South Carolina, the man that day who would receive --and promise to protect-- the regimental flag. An artist from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper captured the very moment when Sergeant Rivers received the ornate flag, which had been sewn by members of the congregation from the antislavery Church of the Pilgrims in New York. One side was adorned with the inscription, "To the First South Carolina Regiment: The Year of Jubilee Has Come." After receiving these inspiring colors, Rivers then addressed the crowd along with Corporal Robert Sutton using words that were soon repeated across the North. Rivers "said he would die before surrendering" their flag, vowing "that he wanted to show it to all the old masters." But Sutton quickly added that "he could not rest satisfied while so many of their kindred were left in chains," and so he knew that "they must show their flag to Jefferson Davis in Richmond.” It was, as Colonel Higginson had stated, a truly electric moment. Sources: Emancipation Among Black Troops in South Carolina.
IMAGES BELOW: First South Carolina in parade and camp // VIDEO INSET: Hari Jones on black soldiers
By the spring of 1863, the War Department had organized an official effort to enlist black men into what they were calling the United States Colored Troops. “Now we sogers are men," exclaimed Sergeant Rivers in a widely reported recruiting speech at Beaufort, "men de first time in our lives. Now we can look our old masters in the face. They used to sell us and whip us, and we did not dare say one word. Now we ain’t afraid, if they meet us, to run the bayonet through them.” Yet black soldiers in the Union Army faced unique challenges. Not only were they paid less at first than their white peers and excluded from being commissioned as officers, but also they were targeted for fierce retribution by the Confederates. President Jefferson Davis vowed that any captured black soldiers would either be returned to their former masters or executed as illegal combatants. Still, despite these dangers, the men of the First South Carolina and most of the other black soldiers in the dozens of newly organized regiments proved to be willing warriors. During their years of service, the men of the First South Carolina saw combat in places such as Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. In fact, just shortly after Emancipation Day, the raw troops triumphed in a skirmish near Fort Clinch in Florida at what became known as the “Battle of 100 Pines.” The regiment later went on to be re-organized in 1864 as the 33rd United States Colored Infantry and served until 1866. They were among more than 200,000 black men who served proudly in the Union military during the second half of the Civil War. Sources: Rivers speech, Nov. 4, 1863; CNN video on 100 Pines. For special study on First South Carolina, see Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty, (2008).
IMAGE BELOW: Thomas Wentworth Higginson // VIDEO INSET: David Blight on Prince Rivers and the First South Carolina
During the Civil War, Prince Rivers served as both color sergeant and provost sergeant for his regiment. Being provost sergeant meant that he had “entire charge of the prisoners, and of the daily policing of the camp,” according to Colonel Higginson, who lamented that he could not promote Rivers to commissioned officer status because of his race. In an article for The Atlantic in early 1865, Higginson praised Rivers effusively: “There is not a white officer in this regiment who has more administrative ability, or more absolute authority over the men…if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.” Others seemed equally impressed by Rivers. Dr. Seth Rogers, the regimental surgeon, claimed in private letters home that the provost sergeant had "extraordinary executive ability" and that "his manners are not surpassed on this globe." Yet being in charge of "policing the camp" sometimes made Rivers enemies. There was an undercurrent of friction between the sergeant and some of his men, like those who occasionally went missing or the frightened families who sometimes interfered with enlistments. In his widely quoted recruiting speech at Beaufort in late 1863, Rivers sounded a frustrated note. "Women worse than the men," he claimed, "and some hide the men in the woods." Sources: Higginson, Leaves from An Officer's Journal, January 1865; Seth Rogers's letters, Jan. 3 and Feb. 5, 1863; Rivers's speech, Nov. 4, 1863.
IMAGE BELOW: Political cartoon from 1864 // VIDEO INSET: Eric Foner on war and politics in spring 1864
Prince Rivers was most notable during the Civil War for his role as a Union soldier, but he was also, briefly, a politician. In the spring of 1864, a political meeting in Beaufort selected him as one of several delegates to represent South Carolina at the national convention of the Union (formerly Republican) Party. They would be the first mixed race delegation ever sent to a major party convention, which was to convene in June at Baltimore in order to renominate Abraham Lincoln for president. The Unionists were firmly antislavery. In fact, in Baltimore they endorsed a 13th amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery everywhere in the U.S. Yet these antislavery partisans still feared the electoral fallout if they even appeared to endorse full political participation by blacks. The Unionists flatly refused to seat Prince Rivers or any members of the South Carolina delegation at their convention. Lincoln was thus renominated on a platform of freedom, but without the formal support of Prince Rivers or any black delegates. Sources: William Francis Allen on Rivers's selection as delegate; and Proceedings of 1864 National Union Convention
IMAGE BELOW: Illustration of freed people at work on their farms, 1866 // VIDEO INSET: African American Museum video on Sherman's Field Order No. 15 and origins of post-war land redistribution
Even before the formal end of the Civil War, Prince Rivers understood that freedom without true equality would reduce emancipation into an empty promise. In early 1865, while still in uniform, he gave a speech blasting the Federal government for its "whiffling course" on the policy of providing land to the former slaves along the South Carolina coast. He wanted what everyone in the wake of General Sherman's marches through Georgia and the Carolinas was starting to call "forty acres and a mule." This was a reference to what the general had promised ex-slaves when threatening to break up the old coastal plantation system. After the war, Rivers took his case to the top of the Union military brass, writing a moving post-war letter to General Rufus Saxton, then in command of the southern military department. "I was told that the Government has given Land to Soldiers," Rivers wrote to Saxton in November, 1865, "If this land were given will [it] be just for the time being or will [it] be hereafter held by the Soldiers?" Then Rivers specifically asked for "a piece" of the old "H.M. Stuart plantation, Oak Point, near the Coosaw River." Of course, this is the location where sergeant had been enslaved before the war. Rivers never did receive that particular property, but he did become a significant landholder after 1865, moving to Edgefield, and beginning, like many other ex-slaves, to take control of his family's destiny by farming his own land. Sources: Rivers speech described by William Francis Allen and letter to Saxton, in Dorothy Sterling, ed., The Trouble They Seen (1976), p. 37.
IMAGE BELOW: Composite portrait of "Radicals" from Reconstruction-Era South Carolina // VIDEO INSET: Eric Foner on Reconstruction
Farm land, however, was not all that Prince Rivers wanted or expected. Like many former slaves, he demanded real equality as a new American citizen. This became the central challenge of the post-war period known as Reconstruction. Would freedom translate into equality? Radicals and conservatives vied for control over the occupied South and argued over how to make the transition to a free labor economy and an egalitarian political culture. Eventually, in 1868, with the help of their Republican allies in Washington and federal troops on the ground, Radicals gained control of the state government in South Carolina. Men like Rivers helped rewrite the state's constitution and then rebuilt its legislature. During this period, Rivers (pictured above, fourth row from bottom, far left) served as both a state legislator and local elected official first in Edgefield and then Aiken counties. He tried his best, but like everyone else in this turbulent period, he was beset by controversies. At one point, in 1869, his supporters rallied to prevent him from getting removed as the magistrate of Hamburg, a mostly black town. They petitioned the governor, claiming that Rivers "has shown himself able to rise against existing prejudices" and that he exercised his powers with "impartial fairness." Rivers stayed in office, but the local troubles only worsened. Sources: Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt (2008), pp. 57-58.
IMAGE BELOW: Detail showing Prince Rivers, circa 1868 // VIDEO INSET: Gregory Downs on South Carolina black political leader Robert Smalls
The only existing photograph that we have identified of Prince Rivers depicts him around 1868 at the height of his post-war political powers. With a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, and an unyielding gaze, he was the embodiment of dignified achievement and pride. At that time, Rivers was not only a state legislator, but also the mayor and leading judicial officer in Hamburg, South Carolina. He also held the rank of major general in the the state's National Guard. Along with figures like Robert B. Elliott, Robert Smalls and William J. Whipper, he was one of the most influential black political leaders in Reconstruction-era South Carolina.Sources: Thomas C. Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (1977).
IMAGE BELOW: Thomas Nast illustration in 1876 depicting the aftermath of the Hamburg Massacre VIDEO INSET: WJBF Channel 6 coverage of 2016 marker dedication for Hamburg Massacre's black victims
Despite his commanding personal style and depth of experience, Rivers soon found himself overwhelmed by the violent forces of Reconstruction. The various strands of hate and resistance converged in what became known as the Hamburg Massacre in July 1876. An altercation between black militia men attempting to celebrate the Fourth of July and white residents ultimately resulted in more than half a dozen dead black men and widespread destruction of black-owned property in the area (including Rivers's own home). The rise of violent white groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Liners, and Red Shirts had created an explosive climate in the midst of the nation's centennial celebration and the presidential election. As the leading judge in Hamburg, Rivers had tried at first to defuse the situation and then to pursue justice, but his efforts were ultimately in vain. The Hamburg Massacre became synonymous with the some of the worst racial violence of the era and a depressing symbol of the final days of Reconstruction. In a series of moving illustrations for Harper's Weekly magazine, Thomas Nast asked the nation in 1876: "Is this a republican form of government? Is this protecting life, liberty or property? Is this the equal protection of the laws?" Sources: CSI Dixie: The Hamburg Massacre
IMAGE BELOW: Page image from testimony by Prince Rivers to the South Carolina Joint Investigating Committee, 1877 // VIDEO INSET: David Blight on the violence of Reconstruction
The forces who had mobilized the violence against black militiamen in Hamburg took control of South Carolina in the aftermath of the 1876 elections. This was known as the end of "bayonet rule" and "Redemption" for many white southerners, but for Southern black political leaders like Prince Rivers, it was more like a descent into hell. Wade Hampton, a former Confederate general and the incoming Democratic governor, began by informing Judge Rivers that he was soon to be kicked out of office. Rivers wrote immediately to the outgoing Republican governor (a former Union officer) asking for help. "I see that the President had ordered the troops from the State House," wrote Rivers about the actions of Rutherford B. Hayes. "Is there any hopes for the Republican Party of South Carolina?" The reply, from the governor's secretary, was devastating. "As to the effect of withdrawing the troops you must wait and see. The Governor does not know what may happen in the future." What did happen by the summer of 1877 was that Rivers and other black politicians found themselves hounded out of office by threats, intimidation, and often by accusations of corruption. Rivers himself testified to accepting a small bribe and later faced criminal indictments. Rivers may well have been coerced into making that testimony. His indictments were later abandoned. But regardless, after 1877, Prince Rivers never again held public office. Sources: Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt (2008), pp. 248-54. Testimony by Prince R. Rivers, August 13, 1877,.
IMAGE BELOW: Photograph of Randolph Cemetery, Columbia, SC (credit: L. Scott Thompson) // VIDEO INSET: Anne Rubin, Gregory Downs and Matthew Pinsker on the significance of Reconstruction
Prince Rivers died in 1887. During the final decade of his life, he struggled to support his second wife Louisa (whom he had married in 1870) and his children from his first marriage, Jack and Sarah. Rivers worked on his farm for a time, but then was compelled to find a wage-paying job in Aiken as a carriage driver at a local hotel. It was the same work he had once performed as a slave on the Stuart plantation along the Coosaw River. But at least in his final years, Rivers was a free man. It was a bitter end, however, to a remarkable story. “For over a year before his death my husband's health was very bad,” wrote his wife Louisa in a later pension application, noting that Rivers bled frequently and suffered greatly from kidney disease. She preferred to remember him in better times. "My husband was a stalwart man," she recalled proudly, "fully six feet in height, broad shouldered and robust, complexion black." Even the local Democratic newspaper in Aiken tried to remember Rivers in these terms, managing to offer grudging respect for him in an otherwise patronizing obituary. "In point of intelligence he was far above the average darkey," recorded the Aiken Review, "and was respected by the white people and looked up to by his colored brethren with much reverence. Always a pronounced Republican, he did what he conceived to be his duty." He was in his mid-60s when he died. Rivers was buried at Randolph Cemetery in Columbia, South Carolina, but his gravesite there is now unmarked. There is no real memorial to him anywhere in South Carolina. Sources: Louisa R. Rivers pension deposition, Sep. 9, 1895 and Aiken Review, April 13, 1887.
IMAGE BELOW: Emancipation Day, 1863 in Port Royal, South Carolina VIDEO INSET: Matthew Pinsker on Prince Rivers
In 1863, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper celebrated Sergeant Prince Rivers as a great symbol of emancipation's promise. By the end of Reconstruction, however, the same newspaper was far less hopeful and far more openly racist. In February 1877, Frank Leslie's reported how the traditional Emancipation Day celebrations in Charleston had been postponed that year because of the "chaotic condition of affairs." The correspondent blamed the "bloody exploits" of various black leaders in the region, including "Prince" Rivers (whose first name the writer sneeringly put in quotation marks). There was no mention of white terrorists groups like the Klan. It was a sad commentary on how much had changed. Today, there are some historical markers for "Camp Saxton," marking the spot of the Emancipation Day celebrations on the former J.J. Smith plantation in Beaufort, but that is about all. Even the town of Hamburg is gone, first abandoned and then washed away by floods.
Prince Rivers played many roles over the course of his remarkable lifetime --from slave to contraband, from activist to soldier, from landholder to politician and judge, and ultimately from aging veteran to honored family man. Throughout his struggles, Rivers always exhibited a fierce moral courage and a natural capacity for leadership. He was, without doubt, one of the most striking self-made men of the nineteenth century. And yet today, he is largely unknown. That is a shame. Prince Rivers was an American who deserves to be remembered as a central agent of emancipation, and an eloquent witness to the still unfinished legacies of the Civil War & Reconstruction.
Sarah Goldberg and Matthew Pinsker
With guest video commentary by:
Anne Sarah Rubin
Civil War Trust
Columbia University / EdX
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Philadelphia: The Great Experiment
W. Scott Poole
L. Scott Thompson
WJBF Channel 6 (Augusta, GA)
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
Yale University Open Courses
Original Image Credits
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Harper's Weekly Magazine
Library of Congress
For Further Reading
Stephen V. Ash, Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments that Changed the Course of the Civil War, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008)
Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Viking, 2008)
Thomas C. Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977)
W. Scott Poole, South Carolina's Civil War (Mercer, GA: Mercer University Press, 2005)