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.

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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.

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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.”

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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 …

I want you to understand, Kittey Diggs, that wherever you and I meet, we are enemies to each other. I offered once to pay you forty dollars for my own child, but I am glad now that you did not accept it. Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you. Never in your life did you give [my] children anything … not even a dollar’s worth of expenses. Now you call my children your property. My children [are] my own and I expect to get them.

Rice left it to Diggs’ own conscience whether she should voluntarily hand over his daughters to him, but he expressed “no fears about getting Mary out of your hands.” Like a growing number of African Americans by 1864, he was emboldened by the Union’s emerging commitment to abolition: “This whole Government gives cheer to me and you cannot help yourself,” he taunted Diggs in the final sentence of his letter.

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Neither Mary nor Corra ever saw their father’s letter to them, however, since the local postmaster, Kittey Diggs’ brother, seized his letters at the post office and forwarded them to the U.S. Army command in Missouri. Diggs, a loyal slaveholding Unionist, demanded that Rice be exiled from the state to prevent him from carrying through his plans to seize his children. “To be thus insulted by such a black scoundrel is more than I can stand.” The Union army command in Missouri does not appear to have acted on Diggs’ request, and the issue was rendered moot four months later, in January 1865, when an Ordinance of Emancipation abolished slavery throughout Missouri.

Spotswood and Orry Rice were finally reunited with Corra and Mary at Benton Barracks by the following year. There, Mary attended school and worked with her mother as a laundress. She is listed in the federal censuses of 1870 and 1880 as living in the same home as her parents in St. Louis, along with her husband, who died in 1896.

Bell’s WPA narrative tells us more about her father than about her own life, but we learn that she managed to save enough money to buy her own home in her 60s. At the time of the interview, a year before her death in 1938, only two of her seven children were still living: a daughter, who lived next door, and a son, who was a soldier in the Philippines. Noting that her father, brother, husband and son had all served in the military, Bell declared: “I love army men … any man who will fight for his rights, and any person that wants to be something.”  

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Rice’s letters were discovered in the 1970s by historians working on the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland who saw his letter to his daughters as representative of the efforts of freed people in the Civil War to reunite families ripped apart by slavery. His letter to Diggs likewise evoked the empowerment of black men and women as they asserted their rights and their humanity to their former owners. The letters subsequently appeared in several books published by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project, as a poignant vignette in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary The Civil War, and in high school and college course materials about emancipation.

Historians and genealogists continue to explore the lives of Spotswood Rice and Mary Bell. We now know that in 1882 he founded the first black church in New Mexico and that, after his first wife’s death in 1888, he moved with his second wife to Colorado, where he established another African Methodist Episcopal church before his death in Colorado Springs in 1907 at age 88.

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A graduate student in St. Louis was so inspired by Rice’s story that she devoted herself to tracing his family tree in 2005 and contacted his great-great-granddaughter Portia Taylor, who was then unaware that historians now recognized her ancestor as a symbol of African-American resistance in the Civil War. Taylor, exhilarated by the news, mused that Spotswood’s militant influence had continued—“No one in our family is milquetoast”—and that her son, Captain Kyle Taylor, a chaplain in the U.S. Army, had unknowingly continued the family tradition of faith and military service.

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Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.

Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.