Prince Greer: Slave, Freedman, and Entrepreneur

Prince Greer

One of the issues facing newly freed men and women was how to make a living in a world that had never paid them a living wage for their contributions. Even the USCT initially were paid less than white soldiers, and contraband labor was not paid at all. One of the African-American men who not only contributed to efforts during the Civil War but was instrumental in developing the African-American-based business model was simply known as Prince Greer.

Slaves burying the Union dead at Antietam

What we might recognize as proto-modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War. Embalmers often followed both armies, hoping to profit from the misfortune of others. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back North in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. After a battle, especially in the East, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of this work.[1]

One particularly interesting example is that of Prince Greer, America’s first African American embalmer.  He was the personal slave of a Confederate cavalry officer who was killed in Tennessee.  Greer took it upon himself to return the body of his former master to his estate and contacted a Nashville undertaker, Dr. W. P. Cornelius, for help in this endeavor.  Cornelius embalmed the officer, and his body was shipped back to Texas, but during this time Cornelius’ current assistant, a Dr. Lewis, decided that embalming was not quite the job he wanted.  Upon the departure of Lewis, Prince Greer stepped forward.  He offered to learn the embalming trade in exchange for room and board, and Cornelius was glad to have him. Greer became the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States.[2]

William R. Cornelius, Greer’s employer, was an interesting man in his own right. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was apprenticed as a carpenter and furniture maker. During this time he also learned how to make coffins. By 1849 he had moved to Nashville, TN and had become the sole proprietor of the firm McComb and Carson, which focused exclusively on undertaking. He won a contract to bury the Confederate dead and when the Union army arrived in 1862, he got a contract to bury the Union dead at the same terms.  He opened branch establishments in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as Stevenson, Huntsville, and Bridgeport, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia.  He claimed to have buried or shipped to their homes over 33,000 remains by the end of the war:

                        I suppose I embalmed and had embalmed some 3,000-3,500 soldiers and   employees of the U.S. Army. Embalming was not introduced until after the  Confederate Army left, so I did not embalm any Confederates.  I embalmed and shipped General McPherson, General Scott and General Garesché.  The latter  had his head shot clear off.  I shipped nearly all of the Anderson cavalry to Philadelphia at one time.  After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels,majors, captains and privates by carloads some days.[3]

Staged Union embalming enterprise

The work was overwhelming for one man and the addition of an eager pupil such as Prince Greer was a welcome boon. Cornelius trained Greer to perform the arterial embalming method perfected by Dr. Thomas Holmes, of Washington.[4] Cornelius bragged about his star pupil:

Prince Greer appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he himself  became an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war and was very successful at it.  It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone.  He was always careful, always . . .  coming to me in a                         difficult case.  He remained with me until I quit the business in 1871.[5]

Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites. Almost at once, these services became segregated. While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burials. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homecoming. By the turn of the century, Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.[6]

Horses & Carriages in front of C. W. Franklin Funeral Home

The combination of experiences with slave funerals, Civil War burials, and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during and after the Civil War and was the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position. Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. The funeral director was a well-respected figure, and the funeral home was a place of safety for the black community, away from prying eyes and ears. It is not known when Prince Greer discontinued his business, but without his example, there may have been many fewer African-American undertakers, morticians, and embalmers making their living through Reconstruction and into the future.



[3] Ibid.


[5] Ibid.


From Civil War to Civil Rights, and Some Thoughts on Sleeping In

MLK at the Lincoln Memorial (courtesy NPS)

My university used to hold classes on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day—a policy I wholeheartedly supported. I used the opportunity to spend time in my writing classes looking at the masterful craftsmanship of King’s rhetoric. People tend to remember him today for his “I Have a Dream” speech, but King was a highly effective writer and a distinctive stylist. I thought this was an excellent way to not only give my students a useful lesson about writing but also help deepen their appreciation for a man worthy of a national holiday.

Alas, we have the day off this year—a decision unilaterally made last year by an interim president who declared it “the right thing to do.” I’ve never been a big believer that a day off is the best way to honor or commemorate someone. Better to have class and conduct a lesson relevant to the day as a way to try and raise my students’ appreciation, I’ve always figured. I’m not sure how many students are going to say “Thanks, Dr. King!” for their chance to sleep in on their extra day off.

But if we’re going to have King Day off because it’s “the right thing to do,” then certainly we should celebrate President’s Day in equal fashion, too, right? After all, it’s also a national holiday specifically designated to honor the contributions of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (not all presidents, as is often misunderstood). Except the university does not take the day off—which suggests to me that we have King Day off not because it’s “the right thing to do” but because it’s the politically correct thing to do. 

I’ve heard no viable argument for having one day off but not the other. The closest anyone’s come was a colleague who said that King Day is perhaps more relevant to us today because the Civil Rights struggle continues. I get that, particularly at a time when America seems especially troubled by racism. King Day is an important reminder of the work we still have yet to do in the name of equality and social justice.

But the “What have you done for me lately” rationale implies the exact reason why we should commemorate Presidents Day, too: to remind people (students especially) why the contributions of Washington and Lincoln remain relevant, too. By ignoring Presidents Day, we only contribute to the epidemic of historical illiteracy and lack of civic understanding that has weakened our society.

Yes, Washington and Lincoln have both “had their day,” as another colleague said. We don’t need to pay as much attention to them because they’ve had plenty attention paid to them already, he suggested—and implicit there was the idea that they had their moment because they were white men of privilege. Unfortunately, that demeans their contributions simply because of their race, which is exactly what the Civil Rights movements urges us not to do.

Washington made sure we had a country to begin with, first on the battlefield, then at the Constitutional Convention, then by the example of his personal integrity in the office of president at a time when America wasn’t quite yet sure if it was going to be a nation of laws rather than of men. Lincoln, for his part, saved that nation by seeing the Civil War through to its successful end, at the cost of his own life. Those are no small contributions, and they’ve impacted us all. Lincoln’s authorship of the Emancipation Proclamation and his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment are Civil Rights achievements arguably no less important than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vital leadership a century later.

King himself drew a direct line from the Civil Rights movement back to the Civil War, and from himself back to Lincoln, when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

In that one line, King not only made an explicit reference to Lincoln, “a great American” in whose “shadow we stand,” but he evoked the “Gettysburg Address,” too, which began with its famous “Four score and seven years ago.”

The rest of King’s speech is filled with other powerful allusions and metaphors. (A personal favorite of mine is his evocation of Shakespeare’s Richard III when he laments about “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent,” but instead of a glorious summer made by the sun of York, he hopes for “an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.”) He had great skill at turning a phrase, and his rhetoric is as fresh and electric today as it was in 1963.

King’s use of repetition to drive home points works brilliantly on the page, and it had an almost hypnotic rhythm when delivered verbally. Again, his phrase “I have a dream” is best remembered today, but his speech gains its strongest momentum as he roars into the home stretch with a series of phrases that begin “Let freedom ring.” Among the places he calls out in that last sequence:

…let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi….

He specifically names a pair of iconic southern Civil War-related sites, Stone Mountain and Lookout Mountain, followed by rather anonymous hills and molehills in a state that was literally afire with Civil Rights-related strife (“Mississippi Burning,” anyone?). King makes a deliberate connection between the Civil War and Civil Rights—a thread that carries on today, made explicit by the National Park Service’s theme for the Civl War Sesquicentennial.

King’s a remarkable speech—one I encourage everyone to read, and read closely, if you’ve never taken the opportunity. (And if you ever visit the Lincoln Memorial, you can stand on the step where King delivered the speech; an inscription on the step marks the exact location. It’s wicked cool to stand there.)

King fought for equal rights, and so it’s based on that premise that I argue King Day and Presidents Day should be given equal treatment. Both holidays have equally relevant stories worth commemorating, and in commemorating them, we strengthen, not weaken, our democracy by developing our students’ sense of history, justice, social responsibility, and civic engagement.

A day off, while always a welcome opportunity to sleep in, means a lost opportunity, too.

Christmas Arrives in January at a Washington D.C. Camp of Instruction

Emerging Civil War welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson

Union soldiers open a shipment of clothing on Christmas Day, 1861, in this
Illustration by Winslow Homer that appeared in Harper’s Weekly (Library of Congress).

Combing through my great grandfather’s Civil War letters for a holiday season story, I learned how, in 1861, he celebrated Christmas in January. That year George A. Marden was a fresh volunteer in the Army of the Potomac on December 25, and just a month into his training at the U.S. Sharpshooter’s Second Regiment Camp of Instruction in Washington, D.C. The letters home— which were saved by his parents, back in Mont Vernon, N.H.— have been passed down to me through my family.

By multiple newspaper accounts, this Christmas was a joyous occasion for most of the tens of thousands of Union soldiers training for war in 1861 at the Army of the Potomac camps in and around Washington, D.C. The weather leading up to the day had been miserable, but Christmas morning dawned “with all the beauty of a Pennsylvania May Day,” wrote a Philadelphia Press reporter. The Keystone State troops he visited that day had been excused from drill and were busy decorating their camp. “Our boys… had quite a jovial time, all things considered,” he wrote.[i]

From the tone of his Christmas day letter, however, Marden had not joined in the camps’ general merriment and was feeling pretty blue. The 22-year-old from the tiny town of Mont Vernon had volunteered for the Sharpshooters in November. That month he and his Company G comrades— all boys from southern New Hampshire—had traveled some 500 miles by train and steamship to their Camp of Instruction. The fresh recruit was spending what likely was his first holiday season away from family and friends. In his letter of December 25, he wrote of missing his usual snowy New England Christmas at home. Yet homesickness was not the only reason for the soldier’s low spirits.

Despite the warming sunshine bursting forth on the 25th, the month of December had delivered its share of icy and wet days to the capital city. The soldier wrote that the harsh conditions were making camp life extremely difficult.

Our rain storm cleared off in a snow squall and came out in a gale of wind and cold snap…  I seldom have heard the wind blow harder, and it froze up tight.  You may imagine that a tent would not be the most comfortable place in which to pass the night. I confidently expected every moment that the tent would leave us.  We could keep no fire for our stovepipe chimney blew down, and I have not passed such a disagreeable night on the ground. Those who had fireplaces were even worse off, for the wind drove the fire all over the inside of the tents and came near causing a general conflagration.[ii]

The storm, he continued, blew down two hospital tents, leaving the sick inside exposed to the wind and cold. “In our Reg. the 2nd, of 700 men 150 are on the sick list,” Marden wrote. “Two men died night before last.” Just the week before, the soldier had visited one of the unfortunate soldiers— a Sharpshooter from New Hampshire he knew— as the man lay in his tent, on a bed of straw, suffering from measles and a bad cold and cough.

After describing a ration of raw salt pork he had been issued to fry or boil on his own because his company’s cookstand had been damaged badly in the storm, the lonely Private Marden concluded his woeful eight-page letter with an epicurean fantasy. “I should like a Christmas dinner from home and a few fried sausages if I didn’t have to pay the express.”

His letters do not indicate whether the Sharpshooter actually expected his family to grant his wish. But sixteen days later, on January 10, a substantial collection of holiday gifts from Mont Vernon arrived, packed in a barrel and addressed to Private George Marden. The delivery— which included a variety of food items that could be considered sumptuous by our own 21st Century standards— apparently caused quite a stir in the Second Regiment camp. Here is my ancestor’s account of the event, which brought some belated Christmas cheer to a day that was “wet and nasty… so it continues just foggy and drizzling and mud ankle deep.”

Detail of the newspaper illustration – featured complete at the beginning of this article

My Express barrel arrived at half past three in the P.M. To say that I was tickled wouldn’t to begin to express it. So it came off the wagon a dozen of the boys clamored around me to help carry it to our tent, eager and noisy… I manned the hatchet and commenced my first assault in a military capacity. I am proud of the success of my charge… The Sausages came out all straight in one sense, though crooked enough in another. The brown bread took best… I distributed a slice and a link to some of my particular friends and the way it brought New Hampshire to their minds was gratifying. Some jumped right up and down. The sponge cake was delicate and sweet and was a fitting addition to the rest. The baked chicken brought up the rear, and filled the post as bravely as Marshal Ney in Russia.* I don’t forget the cheese which like all the other things was excellent and in excellent order.”[iii]

Marden wrote that he shared much of his food with his enlisted Company G comrades, and delivered a portion of the “rear guard” chicken to a sick friend from New Hampshire soldier in another regiment. He also carried “a piece of the cake, a few of the sausages and a part of the brown bread” to one of the captains with whom he was friendly, perhaps hoping to bolster his chances for the promotion to sergeant towards which he’d been working.

“I didn’t get any more than taste the things for I got enough to eat and ‘the boys’ needed it all,” he continued. “I can’t tell which they were most pleased with, but you may all rest assured that everything was thankfully received.”

The bounteous barrel also contained some practical items that Marden especially appreciated. “I was most pleased with the clothing, and visions of clean shirts, clean collars and a pair of boots I could wear pleased me more than all the edibles,” he gushed. “When I realized them all this morning, I came out a new man.”

The soldier knew well that the cost of the various purchases and the shipping of the express barrel constituted a considerable expense for his parents. The gift of boots “I could wear” (as opposed to his uncomfortable government-issued footwear) were, to Marden, a treasure. They were made by his father, who owned a small shoemaking facility and shop in Mont Vernon. George had worked there when he was not in school, and his wages helped to fund his college education.

As he continued his winter training in Washington during January and February, the cold and miserable weather slowly would improve. Yet, challenges of a more desperate and deadly variety awaited on battlefields in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. For Marden, those risks would commence when he was promoted to sergeant, transferred to the U.S.S.S. First Regiment staff, and shipped to southern Virginia for the Peninsula Campaign. But the Sharpshooter, like so many of his Army of the Potomac comrades, would weather war’s cruel hardships and carry on. Letters and the occasional packages received from home—arriving at Christmastime or anytime— would play an essential role in boosting the soldiers’ morale through the Civil War’s darkest moments.


* Ney had been a leader in the French army, and was well-known in Marden’s time. The Marshal’s command of the retreating French rear guard is credited with saving Napoleon’s forces from annihilation during their disastrous 1812 invasion of Russia.

[i]  Philadelphia Press, Dec. 27, 1861

[ii] The Civil War letters of George A. Marden, Dec. 25, 1861 (Archived at Rauner Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H.)

[iii]  Ibid., January 10, 1861

“On Christmas Day” – An ECW Tradition

Merry Christmas!

It’s a tradition at Emerging Civil War to read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” and Meg Groeling’s memorable article, sharing the Civil War history surrounding this holiday classic.

As you enjoy your Christmas morning traditions, we hope you will be inspired by this historical poem and the account of family and faith.

“I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day…”

Boughs of Holly

In May of 1863, the thick and prickly holly bushes were just one of a dozen hostile flora the soldiers had to contend with as they tried to maneuver and fight their way across the Chancellorsville battlefield. Tonight, though, the holly offers a welcome splash of green–punctuated by little dots of red–on a peaceful winter weekend.

Merry Christmas from Chancellorsville.

Holly @ C-ville