150 years ago this week, on September 3, 1864, a Missouri slave in the Union Army, wrote two of the most interesting surviving letters related to emancipation in the Civil War. The author of the letters was Spotswood Rice, a literate tobacco roller from Glasgow, Missouri, who had joined the Union Army in his forties. He had plenty of time to write letters in early September 1864, as he was hospitalized at Benton Barracks in St. Louis fighting a serious leg infection.
Although in St. Louis, Rice’s mind at that moment was without a doubt back home in Glasgow, a Missouri River town roughly half-way between St. Louis and Kansas City. In the Upper South, plantation units were smaller than in the Cotton South, and many slaves, like Rice himself, more often had family members scattered across different owners. Just as other slave parents in such circumstances, his parental role with his children was subject to interference from their owners, and his first letter to his daughters was clearly an attempt to assert fatherly care and authority despite the owner’s power over them. Rice wrote:
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
Clearly from the letter, Spotswood Rice had been made previous efforts to reunite his daughters with the rest of the family, which had been thwarted by their owner, Kitty Diggs, who refused to sell them. His letter was meant to reassure of his fatherly love and his efforts to reunite them with their family were continuing.
The reason we have Rice’s tart words speaking down to us across 150 years was that the letter above and the one that follows were intercepted by Diggs, an unmarried woman, who passed them on to her male protector, her brother, who obviously outraged by what he saw as Rice’s insolence, complained to the Union Army since Rice was a soldier, where the letters got caught up and preserved by the military bureaucracy until they were rediscovered by researchers of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.
While the first letter was from the Diggs’ perspective bad enough, the second letter, written from Rice to Kitty Diggs personally, was even more incendiary. He wrote:
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
While Spotswood Rice was misguided in his belief that the Union Army would launch a military expedition to free his daughters from slavery, as Missouri was a loyal slave state (slavery would end in the state on January 11, 1865, by executive proclamation), it says something about the progress of emancipation by Fall 1864 that Rice would write such a letter. Clearly, he would not have written it before the Civil War or early in the conflict when the Lincoln administration sought to reassure loyal slaveholders that their human property was secure even as the President sought to encourage gradual compensated emancipation in states like Missouri. Yet it also says something about Rice’s personality. He was clearly a leader as his postwar career as an AME minister in the West testifies (he died in Colorado in 1907). And Rice was courageous, for even in 1864, it must have taken a great deal of moxie to for a black man to write his daughter’s owner, “that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their.” Among other emotional comments. As a parent myself I understand his feelings much better than I once did. There are people I encounter in my study of history that I would dearly like to meet. Spotswood Rice is one of them.