Prince Rivers spent many days, amidst steaming rows of cotton dreaming about escaping slavery. Born a slave in South Carolina, he eventually became a carriage driver for his enslaver, Henry Middleton Stuart, cracking the reins to and from Beaufort. By the time he was a young man, he was well known in the Beaufort area and not just for his towering height as he stood at over six feet tall. Rivers ached for freedom, and from a young age pushed against the constraints of the institution of slavery. Long before the booming of the cannon fire at Fort Sumter, enslaved African Americans were fighting for freedom in a variety of ways. Resistance to slavery took many forms, not just outright rebellion. Rivers learned to read and write, no small feat since literacy for slaves was illegal in many southern states. Even in states where it was legal, most white southerners disapproved of teaching slaves to read and write. Frederick Douglass recalled when Hugh Auld, his former master in Baltimore, found out his wife Sophia Auld was teaching young Douglass to read and write he remarked: “if you teach that nigger how to read, there will be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.” After that the lessons for young Douglass stopped and he had to continue learning clandestinely. Literacy then was often a small act of rebellion for slaves.
Prince Rivers rebelled against the indignities of slavery in more direct ways as well. He was allegedly the leader of what was called a mutual aid society—an informal group of enslaved blacks that pooled their meager resources to help fellow slaves in need. This informal group served to undermine the myth of paternalism, for if masters were indeed caring for their slaves like their own children, there would have been no need for a slave support network. In 1856, following the publication of an explosive report on the brutal nature of slavery in the Palmetto State; Prince Rivers traveled to Charleston and sought an audience with the Governor to recommend that he “modify some certain statutes that the negroes could live a little more like civilized people.” His request for an audience, much less his recommendations for changes to the laws that governed slavery were refused and he was sent back to Beaufort. However, both examples were extraordinary acts of defiance against the outrages of slavery. No doubt Rivers carried out more common strategies of resistance against slavery as well. For slaves not willing to incur the risk of revolt or escape, resistance took the form of small yet powerful acts. Slaves most commonly resisted by slowing the means of production. Working slow, faking illness, and breaking tools were safer ways to resist slavery by depriving the master of a small amount of wealth.
Following secession and the Confederate assault on Fort Sumter in 1860, Beaufort quickly fell within the reach of Union forces. The Union army and navy led joint assaults on vulnerable forts and islands along the Confederate coast. Fort Monroe in Virginia fell, much of the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands fell, and Port Royal—just South of Beaufort—in South Carolina fell. Slaveowners in the region panicked and in an effort to save their property—including slaves—fled to the interior. Prince Rivers’ enslaver, Henry Middleton Stuart, began preparations to move his property to another estate near Edgefield, South Carolina. Prince Rivers took advantage of the chaos and escaped from Stuart’s grasp in the saddle of his carriage horse. Rivers also apparently liberated his wife and children as well.
Once he escaped, Rivers came into the orbit of Union General David Hunter, who was the commanding general of the southern coastal military department. Prior to the war, Hunter had been a committed abolitionist, and in his position as commanding general of Port Royal he began to emancipate escaped slaves arriving in his department. Hunter also had plans to organize African American men as soldiers, and when the War Department did not respond to his request for sanction, he assumed the silence meant tacit approval. Hunter began to organize a regiment of former slaves, which took his name. Included among the ranks of “Hunter’s Regiment” was Prince Rivers, who quickly became a Sergeant.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected as president in 1860, his only position on slavery was that he opposed its spread into the western territories. Lincoln did not desire—nor did he believe he held the authority—to interfere with slavery where it already existed. When he was elected he was not remotely in favor of abolition. Even after white southerners seceded from the Union and armed conflagration at Fort Sumter inaugurated the war, Lincoln still clung to his moderate views on slavery. In Missouri in August of 1861, for example, John C. Fremont, the Union military commander of the region declared the slaves of rebellious owners emancipated. Lincoln ordered Fremont to reverse the announcement, and when Fremont refused, Lincoln fired him and reversed his action. When Lincoln caught wind of what Hunter was carrying out in South Carolina, he ordered him to stop. The War Department followed that up with an order that Hunter dissolve his regiment of former slaves.
However, enslaved people would force first Congress and then Lincoln to take a more bold position on slavery to help win the war. In May of 1861, before the first major battle of the conflict even took place, three black slaves escaped to Fortress Monroe in Virginia—already under Union control—and sought an audience with the Fort’s commander, Benjamin Butler. They told Butler of their master’s desire to send them to Carolina to labor on Confederate infrastructure. Butler, a lawyer before the war, declared the men “contraband of war” and refused to send them back to enslavement and put them to work for the Union. Soon, thousands of slaves fled their bondage in Virginia to Fortress Monroe.
In August, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which officially allowed Union soldiers to confiscate property—including slaves—that might be used for the Confederate war effort. Following Lincoln’s order to David Hunter to cease his abolitionist activity, Hunter defiantly used the Confiscation Act to officially emancipate Prince Rivers. “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,” Hunter wrote in an official dispatch. Prince Rivers was now officially free.
Because he could see that the political winds were shifting on slavery, and because the war was proving difficult to successfully prosecute, Lincoln began to alter his former position on slavery. For instance, in the spring of 1862, Lincoln asked Congress to pass a joint resolution endorsing compensated graduated emancipation for loyal slaveowners. By the fall of 1862, Lincoln was ready to jettison his moderate position on slavery altogether in favor of emancipation as a policy to win the war. Following the Battle of Antietam, Lincoln announced a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves in rebellious states free in the eyes of his administration. Slaves in loyal states or areas under Union control—such as southern Louisiana—were not affected by the proclamation and would remain enslaved until the end of the war. The proclamation would go into effect on January 1, 1863.
Before then, Prince Rivers was enlisted as more than a soldier, he became a public speaker advocating for emancipation. He also publicly endorsed using blacks as soldiers in the war. The several speeches he delivered throughout the country give clues as to why Rivers had become a soldier, and why other former slaves might have as well. For Prince, the war gave him and other former slaves the opportunity to be men. “Now we sogers are men—men de first time in our lives,” Rivers exclaimed in a speech in Beaufort. African Americans who had been enslaved had endured the oppressive fetters of bondage, which had circumscribed their freedom but also limited the exercise of their manhood. Enslaved black men had found creative ways to try and assert their manliness, but mostly found their manly power was limited within the confines of slavery. Formerly enslaved black men frequently lamented that they were unable to protect black women from the depravity of white slaveowners, who often had unfettered sexual access to black women. Becoming a soldier, though, would allow black men to finally protect black women. In his speech in Beaufort, Rivers proclaimed that a “man’s place is to take care of the women and the children” and if he failed in that “he be no man at all.”
He next traveled first to Philadelphia to support emancipation and arming slaves as soldiers. He spoke to the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. He told the audience, which included abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott, his story of emancipation and why emancipation was the right policy. Following his speech to the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Rivers was assaulted by a motley group of white soldiers who could not bear to see a black man with sergeants’ stripes on his uniform. Rivers stood his ground and traded blows with the white soldiers, who ultimately found it “wiser and safer to leave him alone” and retreated.
In New York, Rivers was again attacked by a mob of whites who could not stand the sight of chevrons on a black man. Again, Rivers stood tall and traded blow for blow with his attackers. After metropolitan police broke up the row, a reporter asked him now that he was done pummeling whites on Broadway, if he was ready to fight for the Union. “This is our time,” he said. “If our fathers had had such a chance as this, we should not have been slaves now. If we do not improve this chance, another one will not come, and our children will be slaves always.” Prince Rivers had survived and escaped slavery, he certainly was not going to be intimated by racist northern whites. Furthermore, he reiterated his belief that this was the best—maybe the only—chance to destroy slavery and nothing was going to stand in his way.
In the summer of 1862, Congress cleared the way for Lincoln to employ blacks as soldiers if he wished. The Second Confiscation Act, passed in July 1862, re-authorized the first and added a new provision that forbade Union officers from returning escaped slaves to bondage. It also empowered the president to employ African Americans in any way he saw fit to defeat the rebellion. Congress also passed the Militia Act, which repealed a 1792 law that barred black men from serving as soldiers
In response, that year “Hunter’s Regiment” was re-formed as the First South Carolina Colored Infantry. General Rufus Saxton became the commander of the regiment (later to be re-organized as the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troop). He offered fellow abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson the position of colonel. White officers who volunteered to lead black regiments were often committed abolitionists or career officers interested in promotion and advancement. They had varied reactions to their new charges. Higginson was particularly taken with Prince Rivers, and wrote a glowing description of him. Higginson described Rivers as “jet-black” and standing “six feet high, perfectly proportioned” and possessing “inexhaustible strength.” “His gait is like a panther’s,” Higginson wrote, “I never saw such a tread. No anti-slavery novel has described a man of such marked ability.” It was not just Rivers’ towering height and fountain of strength that impressed Higginson, it was his deep intellect and impressive executive ability. Higginson believed that there was “not a white officer” in the regiment who possessed “more administrative ability” and furthermore if Rivers’ “education reached a higher point” Higginson saw no “reason why he should not command the Army of the Potomac.” Ultimately, Higginson concluded that “if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina” Prince Rivers would “be its king.”
Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson
On January 1, 1863 Lincoln formally signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In the eyes of the Union, slaves in rebellious states were considered free. It also formally authorized the recruitment and employment of blacks as volunteer soldiers. An extraordinary celebration commenced in Beaufort, South Carolina. Thousands of people—mostly freed slaves, but also white teachers and superintendents who had traveled south to educate them—descended on Beaufort for the celebration. In a beautiful “live-oak grove, adjoining the camp” prayer was first offered, then an ode, then psalm singing followed. Then the Proclamation itself was read and lustily cheered. After that, flags were presented to the regiment that had been sewn by a local black church. As Colonel Higginson was reaching an older black woman near the stage spontaneously began to sing “America.” The “many voices of freedmen and women joined in the beautiful hymn,” and their voices rang out “touchingly” so much so “that every one was thrilled beyond measure.” Col. Higginson, very much moved by the scene, delivered a short speech and then called upon Prince Rivers to receive the flag. Higginson handed Rivers the flag with the “most solemn words, telling him that his life was chained to it and he must die to defend it.” Before trusting Rivers solely with the flag he asked him if he understood what was expected of him, “Prince Rivers looked him in the eye” and “answered most earnestly, ‘Yas, Sar.’” Corporal Robert Sutton was handed a bunting flag, and promised the same oath as Rivers. The two men, Rivers and Sutton, then delivered speeches to the regiment. Rivers promised “he would die before surrendering” the flag, and hoped he could march into Richmond and “show it to all the old masters.” He would soon get that chance.
sketch of the Emancipation celebration in Beaufort, South Carolina. Prince Rivers is depicted standing on the right, Corporal Robert Sutton on the left
In the spring of 1863, several units of black soldiers got an opportunity to fight. This was not expected, nor was it altogether welcome among many northern whites. Most white Americans in the North did not expect blacks could, or would make good soldiers. One white missionary to the colony of freed slaves on the South Carolina Sea Islands wrote: “If we can have blacks to garrison the forts and save our soldiers through the hot weather, every one will be thankful. I don’t believe you could make soldiers of these men at all—they are afraid, and they know it.” African Americans however, would prove that they were not afraid and could stand the challenges of soldiering.
That spring, the First South Carolina launched a daring raid of Georgia and Florida. The men of the 1st South Carolina boarded the Ben de Ford, the John Adams, and the Planter (the latter a famous ship commandeered by escaped slave Robert Smalls and sailed into Union hands outside of Charleston) and steamed South. The men helped free slaves in the Peach State, and launched a daring raid of Florida. They skirmished with Confederates in Florida. At one point, the regiment marched through Corporal Robert Sutton’s former plantation, where the indignant mistress, who was still on the premises, insisted on calling him Bob. Eventually the regiment briefly occupied Jacksonville, before being recalled to Beaufort for fear of being overwhelmed by superior numbers of Florida Confederates.
First South Carolina Colored Infantry (later reorganized as the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troop)
Despite the regiment being recalled from Florida, the operation was considered a success. “I am glad to see the accounts of your colored force at Jacksonville, Florida,” Lincoln wrote to General Hunter. “…It is important to the enemy that such a force shall not take shape, and grow, and thrive, in the South; and in precisely the same proportion, it is important to us that it shall.” The Christian Recorder, the official organ of the A.M.E. church based in Philadelphia wrote: “Our colored soldiers prove themselves to be men. The expedition into Florida, up to the latest accounts, has proved a complete success.”
Personally, for Prince Rivers, his service with the unit was redemptive. Shouldering a musket and fighting his former enslavers made him feel like a man. He said as much, in a speech he delivered in Beaufort. “Now we sogers are men—men de first time in our lives,” Rivers exclaimed. “Now we can look our masters in de face. They used to sell and whip us, and we did not dare say one word. Now we an’t afraid, if they meet us, to run the bayonet through them.” In the same speech in Beaufort, Rivers also testified to the fact that through their actions on the battlefield, African Americans had changed the minds of many of their white comrades.
Before black men saw combat, many if not most white soldiers did not believe blacks would make good soldiers. Many thought African Americans were inherently too “docile” and “subservient” to be able to stand the hard test of war. “The white soldiers used to say, the niggers fight!” Rivers claimed in his speech at Beaufort. “Oh, no, dem black niggers don’t fight. Won’t fight if they be sogers.” After the First South Carolina had invaded Georgia and Florida, many white soldiers had changed their tune. “Now they done cursing—they say, come on brother soldier, we will whip out the Rebels,” Rivers claimed. Rivers was not alone in noticing this change, many white soldiers themselves testified to the massive shift in opinion on black soldiers that had taken place. “I have thought that the negroes would not make good soldiers and so did most of the men in this regt,” wrote one soldier from the Eight Maine Infantry, which had fought with Rivers and the First South Carolina, “but in the several skirmishes they have had with the rebels they have won the prases of all and the rebels are as afraid of them as they would be of so many tigers.” This was just a prelude of what was to come. In action at Port Hudson, Milliken’s Bend and Fort Wagner, black soldiers acquitted themselves with bravery and earned the praise of their white comrades and northern civilians alike. “The slave has proved his manhood,” wrote Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Abraham Lincoln, “and his capacity as an infantry soldier at Milliken's Bend, at the assault upon Port Hudson and the storming of Fort Wagner.”
Of course, life in uniform was not always or altogether positive for many African American men. For starters, while many black men were promised equal pay and bounties when they enlisted, the government planned to pay them ten dollars a month, three dollars less than white soldiers. In addition, white soldiers received a clothing stipend that paid for their uniforms, black soldiers did not. Many African American men were livid. “i am content with every thing but my pay and i never can bee, contented untill i get my rits,” wrote Hiram Peterson, a soldier in the Second UCST, to his father Aaron from camp. “i am first duty sargt and my pay should bee 17 dolars a month and i think it is hard to bee abliged to poot up with sevan dolars…i am willing to bee a soldier and serve my time faithful like a man but i think it is hard to bee poot off in sutch a dogesh maner as that.” Some were so angry they protested. The vaunted 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry refused to accept the discriminatory pay in protest. They continued to refuse even when the Bay State raised funds to make up the difference. Others mutinied or deserted in protest.
Furthermore, many former slaves found the rigidity of the military and the harsh and sometimes unfair punishments that were levied for infractions large and small, eerily similar to slavery. As Jonathan Lande has argued, many African Americans deserted in protest. By the war’s end more than 12,000 African Americans would flee the army. These black men found service in the army not an expression of freedom—but a limit on it. As provost sergeant, it was Prince Rivers’ job to enforce discipline in the camp of the First South Carolina Infantry. That also meant he had to hunt down deserters from the regiment. His work as the enforcer of military discipline and justice (which for some felt uncomfortably similar to slavery) did not engender much love for Prince within his own regiment. While Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted that Prince held “absolute authority over the men” he tellingly added: “they do not love him.” Moreover, the irony of sending a former slave to hunt down other former slaves who deserted from the army was not lost on many of the abolitionists turned officers of the unit. “This sad contingency of military discipline seems to me just,” regimental surgeon Seth Rogers noted when Rivers was sent to hunt down several deserters, “but falling as it does upon a member of that race so long denied common justice by my own, I cannot help feeling a peculiar sadness about it.”
In addition to discrimination and punishments within their own ranks, African American risked re-enslavement or death if captured by Confederates on the field of battle. Following the First South Carolina’s invasion of Florida, the Confederate Congress resolved that all “negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war or taken in arms against the Confederate States” and captured would be delivered to the authorities of the state in which they were captured and “dealt with according to the present of future law of such State or States.” Essentially, if black men were captured by Confederates, they would be enslaved or summarily executed. This was not, it turned out, an idle threat. In April 1864, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest captured Fort Pillow, on the Mississippi River. Garrisoning the fort were several hundred black troops. Once the fort fell, the Confederates unleashed an orgy of violence, executing several hundred of the black troops and their white officers in cold blood.
depiction of the massacre of Fort Pillow
Ultimately, however, despite the discrimination and the risk, nearly 200,000 black men would serve in uniform before the war ended. Once Richmond fell, black troops marched through the streets of the former Confederate capital. After Lee surrendered, black men would garrison the forts and defeated towns throughout Dixie. It seemed, indeed, there would be a new birth of freedom.
Seth Rogers, the surgeon of the First South Carolina could not help but admire the “outburst of love and loyalty” of the men of his unit “to a country that has heretofore so terribly wronged” them. This was a new “birth of a new hope in the “honesty of her intention.” Rogers hoped most earnestly that “they not hope in vain.”
Rogers wish was not answered, and that new birth of freedom, would be short lived.