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.
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.  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