Once a Slave, Then a Soldier in a Battle for Freedom and His Family

A compelling story of a typical African-American family—strong, loving and united—as it negotiated the challenging transition from slavery to freedom during the Civil War.

Spotswood Rice, a 44-year-old soldier in the 67th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry, in September 1984, wrote two letters from his hospital bed at a U.S. Army barracks near St. Louis.

Mary A Bell, a daughter of Rice who was 85-year-old widow by then, sat down in her four-room, wooden frame cottage to be interviewed for the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration Slave Narrative project.

Bell recalled that the father was sold to a man called Benjamin Lewis, where he worked in his plantation as tobacco curer and roller in 1952.

She said his father was restricted to only two visits a week, and often arrived bruised and bloody after being beaten for various forms of insubordination by Lewis’ black overseer. The wife treated his wounds every time he comes with injuries.

In August 1863, having read Emancipation Proclamation to his fellow slaves, was beaten so severe that he ran away and hid from slave patrollers for three days before giving himself up. Lewis knew freedom was coming, and so he wanted to keep his labor force intact, so came to a compromise with Rice, the most influential leader on the plantation.

Rice with other 11 slaves of Lewis in February 1964 run away because of the hardship faced from Lewis. Lewis sent for them through his patrollers but they couldn’t touch them because they were now listed as U.S soldiers and not slaves.

Rice’s letter explained how he toiled to gain freedom for himself and the children. Bell preferred telling much about his father and his sacrifices than talking about her. A student in St. Louis was inspired by Rice’s story which inspired her to grace her family tree in 2005.

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