Van Spence (January 10 or 16, 1837 in Alabama – July 29, 1910 in Minneapolis, Minnesota) was a member of Litchfield, Minnesota's GAR. That was a little unusual in that Van was black and Litchfield was a very white Scandinavian town. The following account about Van Spence is from Terry R. Shaw's book Terry Tales:
"Van Spence's real name was Allison or Albert Van Spence, but he was known to every one in Litchfield as simply "Van". He was born to African slaves in Alabama on January 16, 1837 and was sold away from his parents at the age of seven. By the time he was nineteen, he had been sold two more times. Drafted into the Confederate Army when the American Civil War broke out, Van deserted and "escaped" to the north where he enlisted in the Union Army. It was at this time that he met Lt. Frank E. Daggett, who was as short and wide as Van was. They became friends. Van became the personal servant of Major General George Henry Thomas until the war ended. He ended up in Wisconsin where he met and married another freed slave named Missouri Jay Blair. Because of Van's friendship with Daggett, he and his wife came to Litchfield in 1880.
Van became an officer in the GAR (The Grand Army of the Republic), a custodian at the Meeker County courthouse and Litchfield's lamplighter. The city paid him 50¢ a night for his lamp lighting. As the courthouse custodian, he cut wood for its rooms' fireplaces and the heaters in the basement. Van proudly marched in every annual Memorial Day parade out to the cemetery. He entertained the veterans at the Hall with his great singing voice, singing such songs as "Old Black Joe", "Roving Little Darkey", "I'se Gwine Back To Dixie", and "That Feller What Looked Like Me" while his daughter Ada accompanied him on the organ, which is still on the small stage in Litchfield GAR Hall. Van even dressed up as Santa Claus for the Hall's Christmas celebrations. He roasted ox for the GAR encampments and several times he sent off to places like West Virginia to have opossum sent to him. He must have had it as a child and missed it. Van was known by the kids in town to always have a bag of candy on him, so he was very popular with them.
Van and Missouri had a house at 401 Marshall Avenue South in Litchfield and their children attended Litchfield schools. Their son, Van Artis, called "Tonk" or "Art", wasn't allowed to participate in sports, but he was the mascot for the Class of 1900's State championship football team. That team, which included A. W. Robertson, who went on to star for the Gophers, outscored their opponents that season 361 to 6. I will get some arguments about Art participating in Litchfield High sports, but a picture I found of the championship team clearly shows him sitting on the floor in a different outfit from the team's striped uniform and the rest of the team is either standing or sitting on chairs.
Van must have had family in Savannah, Georgia because in November 1883, twenty-seven years after he had left the south, he took his family there for a visit. When the old lamplighter "retired" in 1904, he moved to Minneapolis where he shined shoes in a barbershop until he died. His body was brought back to Litchfield and, for some reason, was buried in an unmarked grave in a Ripley Cemetery plot that he had bought for his wife, daughters Ory May, Eva Van, Zula Viola, and son Frank Daggett Henry Spence. "Doc" J. H. Bacon, a fellow GAR member who had been wounded at the Battle of Bull Run, wrote a poem, which he read at the graveside. It contained a very politically incorrect verse: "Tho born a slave and black his skin, he was always welcome, for he was white within." In the winter of 1968, a group in town petitioned the Army and finally, in April 1969, Van got a proper marker for his grave."[This quote needs a citation]
Other articles of the topic American Civil War : George Right Smith, 14th Kansas Militia Infantry Regiment, 31st Kentucky Infantry Regiment, Zesch's Militia Battery Kansas Light Artillery, Sterling's Infantry Company, Orlow Smith, 29th Kentucky Infantry Regiment
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- "Minnesota Death Records, 1866-1916". FamilySearch. Retrieved 19 September 2017.
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