Black Soldier to his enslaved children: “be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life”


African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsca-36454

In February of 1864, Spottswood (AKA Spotswood or Spottwood) Rice, a slave in Missouri, made a momentous decision: he fled bondage and enlisted in the Union army. Rice’s story is discussed in the previous blog post. Army enlistment gave Rice his freedom, but it did not free his children. But he was determined that he would have them.

One of Rice’s children, whose adult/married name was Mary A. Bell, was “owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs.” Back then, members of slave families might have different owners, and that could complicate the process of reuniting them.

By September 1864, Spottswood Rice had apparently made attempts to get his children, but was frustrated by his lack of success. He wrote two letters, one to his daughter Mary, the other to owner Katty (Kitty) Diggs, to let them know his plans. The letters, dated September 3, 1864, were written from Benton Barracks Hospital, St. Louis, Missouri, where Rice was recovering from chronic rheumatism.

Three things are striking in these letters. The first is Rice’s contempt for, and indignation at, the idea that he could “steal” his own children from their slaveowners. He tells Kitty Diggs “you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them.” Anyone who tries to prevent him from getting his children, he tells Diggs, is his “enemy.”

The second things that is striking is the sense of power and empowerment Rice has gotten from being a soldier. When Rice comes to get his daughter – and he says forcefully that he is coming – he warns that he “will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child… this whole Government gives chear to me.”

And finally, one cannot help but be struck by the religious language employed by Rice. He tells Diggs that his daughter Mary “is a God given rite of my own” and that “the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell.” He tells his daughter that Diggs “is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage.” Although in fact the idea that slaveholder property rights trumped the slaves’ family rights was a common belief of most white southern Christians at the time. Unsurprisingly, Rice became a reverend in the African Methodist Episcopalian (A. M. E.) Church after the war.

Rice speaks with a righteous voice that proclaims, with God and government behind me, I shall prevail. His daughter would fondly recall many years later that she loved army men, and any man who would “fight for his rights.” And, she might have added, she loved men who fought for their children, just as her father fought for her.

This is Rice’s letter to his childrendated 9/3/1864:

My Children I take my pen in hand to rite 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 mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you

Your Miss Kaitty 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. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have 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 them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you Give my love to all enquiring friends tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing I you father have a plenty for you when I see you Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

[Spotswood Rice]

This is Rice’s letter to Katty Diggs, also dated 9/3/1864:

I received a leteter from Cariline 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 rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow

I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere I offered once to pay you forty dollers 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 you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs

now you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

Spotswood Rice

Notes:

[1] Slavery was abolished in Missouri in February, 1865. The13th Amendment, which abolished slavery nationwide, was ratified in December 1865.

[2] The two letters from Rice were forwarded to Union General William Rosecrans, Commander of the US Army’s Department of the Missouri, by F. W. Diggs. Diggs was the brother of Kitty Diggs, and owned one of Spottswood Rice’s children. Diggs wrote to the general, “I write this to ask the favour of you to send the scoundrel that wrote (the letters) down to the army  I do not think that he should be allowed to remain in the state… to be thus insulted by such a black scoundrel is more than I can stand.” All of the correspondence is in Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867; Series 2, The Black Military Experience, ed. Ira Berlin, Joseph P. Reidy, and Leslie S. Rowland; pages 689-691.

Enlistment Emancipation in Missouri: “I love a man who will fight for his rights and any person that wants to be something.”

Spotswood Rice Enlistment form
Enlistment papers for Spotswood Rice, AKA Spottswood Rice. Spottswood Rice escaped from bondage during the American Civil War and joined the Union army. Rice lived in Missouri, which was a Union slave state. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln at the start of 1863, did not apply to Missouri and the other Union slave states. But by February 1864, when Rice enlisted, the Union was accepting enslaved men from its slave states into the army, sometimes without the explicit permission of the owner. Once enlisted, the slaves were legally free; hence the term, “enlistment emancipation.” For the 39 year old Rice, military enlistment was an act of liberation.

(NOTE: More about Spottswood Rice is here.)

For Spottswood Rice, life as a slave in Missouri was hell. And the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t helping.

Issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, in the midst of a bloody Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within rebelling states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” But that only applied to states that had seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Missouri and several other slave states (often called the Border States, because they bordered the North and South) that remained in the Union were unaffected by the Proclamation. There was a logic to this policy: the Union did not want to lose the loyalty of its slave states, lest they join forces with Confederates. And after all, those states were not in rebellion against the United States. But it must have been bewildering and frustrating to Border state slaves like Rice.

But the “military necessity” mentioned in the Proclamation would yet serve to free tens of thousands of black men in the Border States. As the war wore on, the overriding need for soldiers led the Union to enlist Border state slaves. In October 1863, the War Department ordered the recruitment of black soldiers in Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee (none of which were covered by the Emancipation Proclamation), with compensation to loyal owners for their lost property. Enlistment had a unique benefit for enslaved males: it gave them the status of free men. I have dubbed this “enlistment emancipation.” Enslaved men throughout the border states fled their masters and enlisted, gaining their freedom in the process. [1] Spottswood Rice was one of those men.

The freedom stories (individual accounts of how people moved from slavery to freedom) of men like Spottswood Rice have not always survived, but in this case, we are lucky. One of his children, Mary A. Bell, was interviewed about her life as a slave for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era’s Works Progress Administration. Born in 1852, she was 85 at the time of her interview. But she had a keen memory of the “hard times” faced by herself and her parents. She recalled how her father, who was nicknamed “Spot,” led a group of men to escape enslavement and enlist in the Union army. He was, she said proudly, a man who would “fight for his rights.” This is from her narrative of life as a slave:

I was born in Missouri, May 1, 1852 and owned by an old maid named Miss Kitty Diggs. I had two sisters and three brothers. One of my brothers was killed in de Civil War…

I so often think of de hard times my parents had in dere slave days, more than I feel my own hard times, because my father was not allowed to come to see my mother but two nights a week. Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So often he came home all bloody from beatings his old nigger overseer would give him. My mother would take those bloody clothes off of him, bathe de sore places and grease them good and wash and iron his clothes, so he could go back clean.

But once he came home bloody after a beating he did not deserve and he run away. He scared my mother most to death because he had run away, and she done all in her power to persuade him to go back. He said he would die first, so he hid three days and three nights, under houses and in the woods, looking for a chance to cross the line but de patrollers were so hot on his trail he couldn’t make it. He could see de riders hunting him, but dey didn’t see him.

After three days and three nights he was so weak and hungry, he came out and gave himself up to a nigger trader dat he knew, and begged de nigger trader to buy him from his owner, Mr. Lewis, because Marse Lewis was so mean to him, and de nigger trader knew how valuable he was to his owner. De nigger trader promised him he would try to make a deal with his owner for him, because de nigger trader wanted him. So when dey brought father back to his owner and asked to buy him, Mr. Lewis said dere wasn’t a plantation owner with money enough to pay him for Spot. Dat was my father’s name, so of course that put my father back in de hands of Marse Lewis.

Lewis owned a large tobacco plantation and my father was de head man on dat plantation. He cured all de tobacco, as it was brought in from the field, made all the twists and plugs of tobacco. His owner’s son taught him to read, and dat made his owner so mad, because my father read de emancipation for freedom to de other slaves, and it made dem so happy, dey could not work well, and dey got so no one could manage dem, when dey found out dey were to be freed in such a short time.

Father told his owner after he found out he wouldn’t sell him, dat if he whipped him again, he would run away again, and keep on running away until he made de free state land. So de nigger trader begged my father not to run away from Marse Lewis, because if he did Lewis would be a ruined man, because he did not have another man who could manage de workers as father did. So the owner knew freedom was about to be declared and my father would have de privilege of leaving whether his owner liked it or not. So Lewis knew my father knew it as well as he did, so he sat down and talked with my father about the future and promised my father if he would stay with him and ship his tobacco for him and look after all of his business on his plantation after freedom was declared, he would give him a nice house and lot for his family right on his plantation. And he had such influence over de other slaves he wanted him to convince de others dat it would be better to stay with their former owner and work for him for their living dan take a chance on strangers they did not know and who did not know dem. He pleaded so hard with my father, dat father told him all right to get rid of him.

But Lewis had been so mean to father, dat down in father’s heart he felt Lewis did not have a spot of good in him. No place for a black man.

So father stayed just six months after dat promise and taken eleven of de best slaves on de plantation, and went to Kansas City and all of dem joined the U.S. Army. Dey enlisted de very night dey got to Kansas City and de very next morning de Pattie owners were dere on de trail after dem to take dem back home, but de officers said dey were now enlisted U.S. Soldiers and not slaves and could not be touched. Continue reading

Child’s Play is Not Child’s Play on a Civil War Era Plantation

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“But seriously Topsy… did you have to go there?”
Source: Image of Miss Ophelia and Topsy from Selection from Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Digital Critical Edition: “Topsy”: Houghton, Osgood & Co. “New Edition,” 1879

Sometimes a game is not a game. Susan Snow, a former enslaved woman, learned this the hard way during the Civil War.

Snow was one of many former slaves who was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Depression-era Work Projects Administration. During her interview with a Project writer, she recalled an incident from the War, when she was in her early teens:

I was born in Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1850. W.J. Snow was my old marster. He bought my ma from a man named Jerry Casey. Venus was her name, but dey mos’ly called her ‘Venie.’

“I got more whuppin’s dan any other Nigger on de place, ’cause I was mean like my mammy. Always a-fightin’ an’ scratchin’ wid white an’ black. I was so bad Marster made me go look at de Niggers dey hung to see what dey done to a Nigger dat harm a white man. Continue reading