Once a Slave, Then a Soldier in a Battle for Freedom and His Family

Hidden History: Through the writings of Spotswood Rice and his daughter Mary Bell, historians have pieced together an extraordinary tale of resilience, courage and ultimately triumph for an African-American family in the late 1800s.

The men in this picture are from the 4th United States Colored Infantry in 1864.  
The men in this picture are from the 4th United States Colored Infantry in 1864.   Wikimedia Commons

In September 1864, Spotswood Rice, a 44-year-old soldier in the 67th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, wrote two letters from his hospital bed at a U.S. Army barracks near St. Louis. Seventy-three years later, in the same city, his daughter, Mary A. Bell, by then an 85-year-old widow, sat down in her four-room, wooden frame cottage to be interviewed for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative project. Together these documents amount to a little over 2,000 words, but they tell a compelling story of a typical African-American family—strong, loving and united—as it negotiated the challenging transition from slavery to freedom during the Civil War.

Rice was born in Madison County, Va., in November 1819. At some point before 1843, he was brought to Glasgow, Mo.—perhaps with his parents—and was sold to a man named Benjamin Lewis. In 1852, when he was working on Lewis’ plantation as a tobacco curer and roller, he married another Virginia-born slave, Orry Ferguson, but was forced to live apart from her and their six children, who were enslaved by a spinster named Kittey Diggs.

Bell recalled that her father, restricted to only two visits a week, often arrived bruised and bloody after being beaten for various forms of insubordination by Lewis’ black overseer. “She [his wife] would take those bloody clothes off of him, bathe [the] sore places, and grease them good and wash and iron his clothes, so he could go back clean,” Bell said. One beating in August 1863—the result of Rice’s having read the Emancipation Proclamation to his fellow slaves—was so severe that he ran away and hid from slave patrollers for three days before giving himself up.

Lewis, the owner, knew that the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply in Missouri or the other slave-owning states that had stayed loyal to the Union. But he also knew that freedom was coming, and he wanted to keep his labor force intact, so came to a compromise with Rice, the most influential leader on the plantation. As Mary Bell recalled, her father agreed to stay for six months in return for Lewis’ promise to provide him with a house and several acres of farmland once the war was over.

In February 1864, Rice decided that he could wait no longer for freedom. Along with 11 of Lewis’ most valued slaves, he ran away and enlisted in Company A of the 67th Colored Infantry. Lewis again sent for the patrollers to bring Rice and the others back, but as Bell noted, “They were now enlisted U.S. soldiers and not slaves and could not be touched.”

By that September, Pvt. Rice had been reunited in St. Louis with his wife, Orry, and two of his sons, while another son had enlisted in the Army. His letters make clear his determination to secure the freedom of his remaining children, Mary, 12, and Corra, 23, still enslaved by Kittey Diggs. The original and full text of Rice’s letters can be read here (and heard here).

One letter (slightly edited for spelling and punctuation) reads, in part, as follows:

My Children: I take my pen in hand to write you a few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever. Now, my dear children, I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots. Be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life. On the 28th of the month, 800 white and 800 black soldiers expect to start up the [Missouri] river [from St. Louis] to Glasgow [commanded by] a general who will give me both of you. When they come, I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Don’t be uneasy my children I expect to have you. If Diggs don’t give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you. Your Miss Kittey said that I tried to steal you But I’ll let her know that God never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. … And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy. I once [thought] that I had some respect for [slaveholders] but now my respect is worn out and I have no sympathy for them. And as for her Christianity, I expect the Devil has such in hell. You tell her from me that she is the first Christian that I ever heard say that a man could steal his own child, especially out of human bondage.

Rice’s letter to Kittey Diggs reveals his earlier efforts to secure his daughters’ freedom and is even more uncompromising in its righteous anger:

I received a letter … telling me that you say I tried to steal, to plunder my child away from you. Now I want you to understand that Mary is my child and she is a God-given right of my own. You may hold on to her as long as you can, but I want you to remember this one thing: that the longer you keep my child from me, the longer you will have to burn in hell, and the quicker you will get there …