Rhoda Steele Ray, the Unsung Florence Nightingale of Wilson’s Creek

As a history adjunct, I frequently have dealt with questions of ethnicity that come up in class.  I always try to have my students of color or women speak about their own issues.  This is particularly critical with the history of women.  Good historians facilitate “her story” by encouraging women to speak about their struggles.

However, sometimes a historian is the only one available to tell the tale.  Since a branch of my family in Missouri owned slaves it also an act of contrition for me and Black History Month seems to be a fine time to tell the story of an amazing black woman who has received no recognition for her unique contributions during the American Civil War.  I am speaking of Rhoda Steele Ray, an unsung Florence Nightingale and hero on the battlefield of the second big battle of the American Civil War.

The battle of Wilson’s Creek occurred in the front corn field of my great great grandfather John Ray’s farm house in 1861, near Republic, MO.  It was widely known as the West’s Bull Run, because of the high casualties and its occurrence very early in the war.  With some 2500 casualties, it devastated the area for years.  The polluted creek infected the locals with cholera for a year and the Confederate invaders impoverished my great great grandfather, his family and his neighbors in the entire area.

The Confederate troops descended on the Ray property like locusts.  Brigadier General Benjamin McCulloch and Major General Sterling Price’s men had been in camp along Wilson Creek since August 6 and foraged the Ray and surrounding farms so badly that the Rays were only able to find a single chicken to slaughter to feed all of the children for breakfast on the day of the battle.  All of the horses were stolen by the rebels for the Confederate cavalry.

The Ray’s and Rhoda’s story was mirrored in the experiences of many other Missourians as well, as the state has the third highest casualty rate of the Civil War after Virginia and Tennessee and the worst of any border state.  I doubt their sufferings will ever be commemorated in any rally at a Confederate war memorial by Donald Trump.

John Ray’s former farmhouse is now a museum at the Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield site.  The building served as a field hospital for Confederate, Missouri Guard and Union soldiers, including the first Union General killed in battle, Nathaniel Lyon.  The battle happened here largely because of location.  It was on the “wire road,” the main highway between Springfield, Missouri and Fayetteville, Arkansas that got its name because of the new telegraph technology, telegrams which were written down and sent from the US Post Office where John worked as the postmaster.  Lyon decided to strike the Confederates here to help keep Missouri in the Union and drive the resource poor Confederates from the state before they could consolidate around Wilson’s Creek with its abundant water and fertile farm land and supply more troops for combat.

The Confederates under Brigadier General McCulloch and the Missouri State Guard troops under Major General Price approached Lyon’s Army of the West which camped at Springfield. On August 10, Lyon marched his troops in two columns commanded by himself and Colonel Franz Sigel.  They attacked the rebels on Wilson’s Creek which runs through the Ray farm and is about 12 miles southwest of Springfield. Confederate cavalry was hit first by their Union counterparts and retreated from the high ground. Southern infantry attacked the Union forces three times during the day, failing to break through.

Unfortunately for Lyon, Sigel’s troops were driven back to Springfield during the battle.  This allowed the Confederates to consolidate against Lyon’s main column with devastating effect. When Lyon was killed and the other senior officers put out of action as well, Major Samuel D. Sturgis assumed command of the Union Army.  He realized that his men were exhausted and lacked ammunition and even water to fight on.  He then ordered a retreat to Springfield. The battle was a Confederate victory, but the rebels were too disorganized and ill-equipped to pursue the retreating Federal forces.  While Missouri remained in the Union for the rest of the war, the battle of Wilson’s Creek effectively gave the Confederates temporary control of Southwestern Missouri. The Confederate victory at Wilson’s Creek also allowed Price to lead the Missouri State Guard north, culminating in a siege of Lexington.

Originally, Union General John C. Fremont had denied Lyon’s requests for more troops due to the Union disaster at Bull Run.  However, the Union loss at Wilson’s Creek shocked Abraham Lincoln, who strengthened Union troop numbers in Missouri to keep it in the Union.  The Battle of Pea Ridge (March 7 – 8, 1862) in Arkansas defeated Confederate forces in the Ozarks, after which the war in Missouri degenerated into savage guerrilla warfare.

Much is written about the battle of Wilson’s Creek, but Rhoda is barely a footnote.  This angel of mercy spent 6 ½ hours comforting the Steele and Ray family (and her own) children in the house cellar during the battle only to be thrown pell-mell into the nightmarish hell of an improvised Confederate Civil War field hospital by the invaders. “Aunt” Rhoda, as she was affectionately called by the Steele and Ray family children, tended all of the injured, dying and dead regardless of affiliation, including General Lyon.  It is high time that her services are recognized in print, although I won’t hold my breath expecting the Daughters of the Confederacy or Melania Trump to erect a statue in her honor or give her a medal of freedom while they are defending all of the statues dedicated to American traitors like Robert E. Lee who tore the country asunder and caused at least 625,000 dead (and probably many more.).

Rhoda’s first master was not John Ray, but was William Steele, Roxana’s first husband and a black smith who died at Wilson’s Creek on July 22, 1849.  Roxana met and married John Ray and married in September, 1849.  John had left his native Tennessee and settled at Wilson’s Creek.  In those days, all of a woman’s property passed to her husband.  John assumed ownership of Rhoda and her brother Wiley, and in 1851 he purchased the 120 acres belonging to the Steele estate. That same year John purchased 40 acres adjacent to the Steele estate, which ran along the telegraph road.

Rhoda and Wiley were “wedding gifts” to Roxanna for her marriage to William Steele.  Later, John Ray sold Rhoda’s brother Wiley to neighbor Samuel Fulbright in 1856 for $867.00 because he was getting “too hard to handle.”  It is disgusting to think that even the smallest slaveholder saw his bondsmen as mere chattel to be bred, sold and treated like so many Missouri mules.  This is the real story of white privilege, told by a descendant of one of its participants who added to the misery by breaking up a slave family and having his way with Rhoda.

Rhoda Steele Ray had four daughters from her “unions” with John Ray.  Her four daughters included Mahala (born 1852), Hanna (1854), Millie (1856) and Hettie (1859).  In addition to caring for her own children as a single mom, she also was responsible for helping with the care of all of the Steele and Ray children, all of this with the Civil War raging around her.  Perhaps like in the story of Roots, I wonder if there may be a faint memory for Rhoda or an ancestor from Africa when she named her first daughter Mahala.  Perhaps the name Allah is there?

I also wonder if John’s taking advantage of Rhoda was why Roxanna kept her second husband Ray on a bit of a short leash after the Civil War.  Despite the slave and master situation, it looks as though Roxanna and Rhoda developed a close relationship.  War and poverty may have changed things dramatically.  The family story my grandmother told me was that Rhoda did not want to leave in 1865 when she was freed may have some truth behind it.  At first, I rolled my eyes and thought this was garbage, but as I do more research into Rhoda and the family, there might be some truth to this.

Missouri was totally devastated by the Civil War and there may have been literally no place to go for Rhoda and her four girls.  So, both Rhoda and Roxanna probably needed each other desperately given the situation they found themselves.  What was not destroyed in the conventional fighting was devastated in the savage guerilla warfare that followed as William Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson would school young dead men riding like the Younger brothers and Frank and Jesse James in murderous tactics condemned that even by the distant Confederates in Richmond, Virginia.  Whole counties near the Kansas and Missouri border were empty because of Union Army Order Number 11.  The population was deported by the Union Army to drain the sea the Southern guerrilla “fish” swam in.  With nowhere to go, Rhoda might have stayed in the Ray home for awhile after 1865, at least until she established her own home later.  Whatever the case, I feel as though my angelic grandmother Roxie drew from two fonts of kindness and one of these was Aunt Rhoda.

Though they owned slaves, the Rays were devoted to the cause of the Unionists.  Like most Missourians the Rays used slaves for an extra set of hands around the farm and home. This was in contrast to the big plantations in “Little Dixie,” the land along the Missouri River where big cash crops like hemp were raised for rope and cotton bailing by hundreds of slaves.  Due to his loyalty to the Union, John Ray was able to keep his federal government position during and after the Civil War. Had he displayed loyalties to the Confederacy, he would have been removed as postmaster.  In addition to having a stable government job, the farm was successful, making John moderately wealthy by local standards until the devastation of the battle and the Civil War.

Rhoda was freed in 1865 and moved to Springfield, MO, where she married John Jones in 1868.  She took in laundry and her husband worked in a stone quarry. Rhoda Jones tragically died at the age of only 60 in Springfield on November 4, 1897 and is buried in Hazelwood.  I have not been to the grave personally, but it will be a priority for pilgrimage before I die and to meet her descendants who are my distant relatives.  Until then Rhoda, thank you for all of your kindness and rest in peace.

About the Author
Akiva ben Avraham is a former community college adjunct, US Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver.