Stephen Berry is Gregory Professor of the Civil War Era at the University of Georgia where his teaching and research focus on life and death in the nineteenth-century South. Berry is Secretary-Treasurer of the Southern Historical Association; co-director, with Claudio Saunt, of the Center for Virtual History; and co-editor, with Amy Murrell Taylor, of the UnCivil Wars series at the University of Georgia Press. He is the author or editor of eight books on the Civil War Era South.
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.