The Black Prince: The Emancipated Life of the Next Black Man to be Put on a United States Postal Stamp

“His figure [is] superior to that of any of our white officers,” marveled his colonel, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He is “six feet high, perfectly proportioned, and of apparently inexhaustible strength and activity…. There is not a white officer in this regiment who has more administrative ability, or more absolute authority over the men…. If his education reached a higher point, I see no reason why he should not command the Army of the Potomac…. and if there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its king.”

Lecture Description

Prince Rivers may be the most consequential American about whom Americans know nothing. During the American Civil War, Rivers was the tip of the black spear—the first of the first—Color Sergeant, Company A, First South Carolina Volunteers—the highest-tranking black member of the first black regiment mustered into Union service. The 54th Massachusetts, made famous by Matthew Broderick and the movie Glory, came later and was fundamentally different, composed primarily of Northern-born free blacks. With the exception of its white officers, Rivers’s First South Carolina was composed entirely of former slaves. Their families were often still in bondage. They fought not for an abstraction but for wives, sisters, children, and parents. They did not fight in the Civil War’s most storied battles—Antietam or Gettysburg—because they were not allowed to. They fought a different kind of war instead—a war of resistance behind enemy lines in the Deep South— a war of liberation in which they took the fight directly to slavery and even to the plantations of their former owners. They were, in a sense, a government-sponsored slave insurrection, and it was their actions, abilities, successes, and restraint that convinced Abraham Lincoln to actively recruit “colored” troops. Like their forebears—the escaped slaves who took over the abolition movement in the 1840s to precipitate a conflict with the Slave Power—Rivers and his men fought the war for what the war would mean.

CATEGORIES

1800-1865 African American

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