He was a representative at the 1868 constitutional convention and then represented Edgefield County in the state House of Representatives from 1868 to 1872. After Aiken County had been created in 1871, Rivers served as its representative in the House until 1874.
Soldier, statesman. Born a slave in the coastal town of Beaufort, Prince Rivers had training as an artisan and was frequently hired out by his owners as a coachman. Rivers’s precocious nature soon became apparent. He learned to read and write despite the legal and customary barriers to slave literacy. Following the Union occupation of Beaufort in November 1861, Rivers’s white owners, the Stuart family, fled to the upcountry district of Edgefield. Making use of the dislocations of war, Rivers escaped Edgefield for the safety of Union lines on the coast. There he joined the First South Carolina Volunteers, one of the first African American Union regiments, reorganized later in the war as the Thirty-third U.S. Colored Troops.
By late 1862 Rivers served as a sergeant in the First South Carolina, holding the position of provost of the guard. Rivers’s obvious leadership skills soon received notice. His commanding officer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, later wrote, “If there should ever be a black monarchy in South Carolina, he will be its King.” A clearly impressed General David Hunter, commander of Union forces along the southern coast of South Carolina and one of the early proponents of black enlistment, took Rivers along on a recruiting trip to New York City in 1862. Working-class New York whites, filled with a combination of antiwar and racist sentiment, hurled stones and racial epithets at Rivers. The indomitable Rivers refused to back down and physically held off his attackers until military police arrived to provide him safe escort.
Following the war, Rivers resided in Edgefield and the new county of Aiken. He was a representative at the 1868 constitutional convention and then represented Edgefield County in the state House of Representatives from 1868 to 1872. After Aiken County had been created in 1871, Rivers served as its representative in the House until 1874.
After completing his tenure in the General Assembly, Rivers served as a trial justice in Aiken County. In this capacity he became embroiled in an incident in the town of Hamburg that would lead to the infamous Hamburg Massacre. Rivers attempted to mediate the situation, both trying to quell white intransigence and encouraging the black militiamen to turn over their weapons in order to prevent a bloodbath. The white Red Shirts clearly wanted battle, evidenced in part by their bringing of cannons from nearby Augusta, Georgia. Seven African Americans died in the Hamburg Massacre, and the Red Shirts ransacked and destroyed the homes of black leaders, including that of trial justice Rivers.
The end of Reconstruction in 1876, hard on the heels of the destruction of his property, forced Rivers to find work as a house painter and, as in antebellum times, a carriage driver. Rivers lost much of his savings in the 1880s during an extended illness. He died in Aiken in 1887.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. 1870. Reprint, New York: Norton, 1984.
Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.