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a letter from a black civil war soldier to the owner of his daughter

June 24, 2019
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There aren’t enough hours in the day to count just how many times the American education system has let down Black people and I think one of the biggest injustices baked into that tragedy is the omission of narratives of Black Americans during slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Understandably, reading through the experiences of Black people at that time is a heavy exercise but I do believe there is so much to be gained if one decided to dive in and bear that weight. There is rage, candor, wit, longing, confusion and the spectrum of human emotions and perspectives to be found in those writings and one that has really depicted the sense of sheer injustice and indignation from the Black people who served this nation is a letter a Black Civil War soldier sent to the owner of his daughter.

Spotswood Rice was born in Virginia in 1819 and some 30 years later, he would be sold to Benjamin Lewis in Howard County, Missouri, forced to be a tobacco roller. Missouri was a slave state but it did not secede from the Union like the Southern Confederate States when the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1st, 1863. Rice managed to run away and enlist in the 67th US Colored Infantry in Glasgow, Missouri in 1864. His wife Arry, and his daughters, Cora and Mary were still enslaved by the Diggs family of Madison County Missouri and the word that they had not been granted their freedom (even though Missouri was a swing-state of some sort) drove Rice to write a scathing letter Kitty Diggs — the woman enslaving his daughter Mary.

Letter from Spotswood Rice to former slave owner. National Archives Building – Archives

Spotswood Rice, a former slave, writes to Kittey Diggs, 1864. 

I received a letter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal, to plunder, my child away from you. Not 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 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’ll get there. For we are now making up about one thousand black troops to come up through, and want to come through, Glasgow. And when we come woe be to Copperhood rebels and to the Slaveholding rebels. For we don’t expect to leave them there. Root nor branch. But we think however that we (that have children in the hands of you devils), we will try you the day that we enter Glasgow. I want you to understand Kittey Diggs that where ever 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. You never in your life before I came down here did you give children anything, not anything whatever, not even a dollars worth of expenses. Now you call my children your property. 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 both a power and authority to bring her away and to exact vengeance on them that holds my Child. You will then know how to talk to me. I will assure that. And you will know how to talk right too. I want you now to just hold on; to hear if you want to. If your conscience tells that’s the road, go that road and what it will bring you to Kittey Diggs. I have no fears about getting Mary out of your hands. This whole Government gives cheer to me and you cannot help yourself. 

The letter basically went: “Let my daughter go or I’m about to come and tear up all your s***,” made only more poignant by the fact that he wrote it from his hospital bed in Benton Barracks Hospital while suffering from rheumatism. Regardless of his physical well-being, the letter exudes power, empowerment and the innate knowledge that freedom and familial reunification was his God-given right. Kitty Diggs’ brother F.W Diggs enslaved Rice’s other daughter Cora. Kitty was so enraged by the letter that she enlisted her brother to send a letter of complaint to General Rosecrans, Commander of the Department of Missouri, demanding that Rice be re-assigned out of state. That was all for nothing because Rice did eventually end up reuniting with his family. Federal Consensus data in 1870 and 1880 showed Rice living with his wife and children, with an additional child in the later census which is a happy ending we’ll hold onto considering those are not the norm. He became a pastor, purchasing some land and opening the first Black church in New Mexico. He would lose his wife Arry in 1888 and remarry Eliza Lightner, leaving Albuquerque and opening churches around the state — what would eventually be known as the African Methodist Episcopal church.

There are so many things to love about this letter, the main one being that the brutal dragging of this letter can be felt more than 150 years later. Black America just celebrated Juneteenth and slave narratives are an important part of that legacy because it trashes any misconception that Black ancestors accepted or welcomed their subjugation. Here was a father ready to march 1,000 Black troops through Missouri to show a white slaver owner that freedom would land on her doorstep regardless of what she thought or did. Rice built a life, spread the word of God and passes away at the age of 88 on October 31, 1907. His daughter, who went by Mary Bell in 1930, shared details of his life in a series called the WPA Slave Narratives. Give me slave-owner draggings every day and twice on Sundays. That’s the history I want to learn.