- Date of birth: November 20, 1819
- Place of birth: Virginia
- Claim to fame: Successfully escaped from slavery and served in the 67th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry
- Date of death: October 31, 1907
- Final resting place: Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs
As the entire nation went to war, slaves in Missouri, a border state where slavery was legal until 1865, remained in bondage. The story of Spotswood Rice illustrates the Civil War experience of one such slave and his personal battle to liberate himself and his family. Waged without certainty of success, within a legal framework that denied his freedom even as neighbor fought neighbor on the Missouri-Kansas border, Spotswood Rice and his family represent the courage of African American slaves who were willing to risk everything for freedom.
Spotswood Rice was born into slavery in Virginia on November 20, 1819, and moved with his family to Missouri when he was quite young. He lived on the plantation of Benjamin Lewis, where he worked as a tobacco roller. In 1852, Spotswood married Orry Ferguson and together they had seven children. Orry and her children were owned by members of the Diggs family in Glasgow, Missouri. For the first 12 years of their marriage they lived apart, as was common with Missouri slave couples. As a result, Spotswood was only allowed to visit his family two nights each week. Years later, their daughter, Mary Bell, shared her memories of these visits with a Works Progress Administration interviewer.
The abuse Spotswood suffered from the slave driver on Benjamin Lewis’s plantation drove him to run away on several occasions in an attempt to reach “Free Kansas.”
The abuse Spotswood suffered from the slave driver on Benjamin Lewis’s plantation drove him to run away on several occasions in an attempt to reach “Free Kansas.” Even after the Militia Act of 1862 allowed employment of African American men in the service of the Union army, the status of Missouri slaves remained muddy. The 2nd Confiscation Act, passed at the same time, only freed slaves of “disloyal” citizens. Slaves of “loyal” citizens had to have their owner’s permission to join the Union army.
When the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was implemented, it did not free Missouri slaves, but it did suspend enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, making it possible for Rice to run for freedom to the Union lines. In February 1864 he finally gained his freedom by enlisting in the 67th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. Unfortunately, since slaves in the slaveholding border states had not been freed, Rice’s family, like the families of many African American soldiers, continued in bondage after his enlistment.
From his hospital bed, Rice continued the battle to have Mary and Cora reunited with the rest of the family. He wrote to them with words of affection, reassuring them that they had not been abandoned.
Spotswood was assigned to the Benton Barracks Hospital in St. Louis, where he worked as a military nurse and was eventually hospitalized with chronic rheumatism. By September 1864, Orry and all but two of their daughters, Mary (12) and Cora (23), managed to reach St. Louis, where Orry worked as a laundress to support the family. From his hospital bed, Rice continued the battle to have Mary and Cora reunited with the rest of the family. He wrote to them with words of affection, reassuring them that they had not been abandoned.
At the same time, Spotswood wrote a letter filled with threats of retribution to Kittey Diggs, who owned his daughter Mary. Miss Diggs’s brother, F. W. Diggs, the postmaster of Glasgow, owned Rice’s daughter, Cora. Angered by Rice’s threats against his sister, Diggs forwarded the letters to General Rosecrans, Commander of the Department of the Missouri, demanding that Rice be sent out of the state.
Filed away in the military records, the three documents survived to inform history and testify to the hostility between slaves and their former owners during the tumultuous Civil War experience. They also demonstrate the deep bonds that African American families formed, even when forced to endure the separations of “abroad marriages,” as well as the battles these families undertook to reestablish their families during and after the Civil War. That Rice was successful in his efforts is evidenced by the 1880 Census, which reported Rice and Orry living in St. Louis with their children, including Cora (39) and Mary (28).
The letters also demonstrate Rice’s effort to exert his manhood as a free citizen – a status he believed he had earned through his military service to the Union. In this too he was successful. After leaving the army in May 1865, Spotswood Rice became a licensed minister in the African American Methodist Church, serving in Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, and Colorado. In the process, Rice was successful in gaining middle class status in the community for himself and his family. He died in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on October 31, 1907.
Berlin, Ira and Leslie S. Rowland, Associate Editor, ed. Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era. New York: New York Press, 1997.
Foner, Eric. The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010.
Mutti Burke, Diane. On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2010.