When New Year’s Meant Freedom

Some white Americans still try to dismiss the evils of slavery, pretending that many slaves were happy serving their white masters. But the morning of Jan. 1, 1863, showed a different reality when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and blacks celebrated, as William Loren Katz recalls.

By William Loren Katz

When the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, African-Americans had been fighting the Confederacy near the South Carolina Islands for months. These soldiers assembled with their families to celebrate. Their commander, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had been a militant Abolitionist minister who together with black people in Boston had stormed jails to free captured people of color.

In South Carolina he was devoted to his courageous soldiers. His Diary describes their New Year’s Day ceremony:

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“About ten o’clock the people began to collect by land, and also by water, in steamers sent by General Saxton for the purpose; and from that time all the avenues of approach were thronged. The multitude were chiefly colored women, with gay handkerchiefs on their heads . . . . “There were many white visitors also, ladies on horseback and in carriages, superintendents and teachers, officers, and cavalry-men. Our companies were marched to the neighborhood of the platform, and allowed to sit or stand, as at the Sunday services; the platform was occupied by ladies and dignitaries, and . . . the colored people filled up all the vacant openings in the beautiful grove around, and there was a cordon of mounted visitors beyond. . .

“Then the President’s Proclamation was read by Dr. W. H. Brisbane, a thing infinitely appropriate, a South Carolinian addressing South Carolinians. . . . Then the colors were presented to us by the Rev. Mr. French, a chaplain who brought them from the donors in New York. “All this was according to the program. Then followed an incident so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it on recalling, though it gave the keynote to the whole day. The very moment the speaker had ceased, and just as I took and waved the flag, which now for the first time meant anything to these poor people, there suddenly arose, close beside the platform, a strong male voice (but rather cracked and elderly), into which two women’s voices instantly blended, singing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of the song-sparrow.,

“‘My Country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing!’

‘People looked at each other, and then at us on the platform, to see whence came this interruption, not set down in the bills. Firmly and irrepressibly the quavering voices sang on, verse after verse; others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence. I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap; it seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.

“Nothing could be more wonderfully unconscious; art could not have dreamed of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it; and when I came to speak of it, after it was ended, tears were everywhere.”

As cited in several of my books: from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Army Life in A Black Regiment (Boston, 1882) 40-41.

William Loren Katz is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden History and 40 other books on U.S. history. His website is williamlkatz.com

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5 comments for “When New Year’s Meant Freedom

  1. Joe Tedesky
    January 1, 2016 at 5:02 am

    Sometime long ago when I was a young musician, someone once told me how music was God’s first language, and I believed them.

  2. PJ London
    January 2, 2016 at 6:37 am

    “others of the colored people joined in; some whites on the platform began, but I motioned them to silence.” Didn’t want to integrate then, and they still don’t..

    PS Joe, you were fortunate to chat with Ludwig v Beethoven?

    Ludwig van Beethoven:

    “The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul.
    Music is the language of God.
    We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.”

    • bobzz
      January 2, 2016 at 4:55 pm

      I read Higginson and Joe with different possibilities. Higginson may have bid the whites to be silent because it was a special moment for blacks that they could finally have to themselves. Joe, of course, can speak for himself, but my guess is that he heard this quote from someone that did not cite Beethoven. But I do thank PJ for the original source.

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 3, 2016 at 12:30 pm

      “The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul.
      Music is the language of God.
      We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.”

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i29LA1fy5r4

  3. Evangelista
    January 4, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    Meanwhile, while all that singin’ an’ celebratin’ was goin’ on in South Carolina, in Delaware an’ in Maryland, they was none but glum silence. Weren’t no slaves freed nohow, nowhere in Maryland and Delaware, because they was both Union slave-states…

    Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only applied in the seceded states, the Confederacy, where, until the UNion won the war (except behind Union lines when and where they were not pushed back) Abraham Lincoln’s authority as President of the Union States did not extend.

    Black slaves in Union slave-state had to wait for the 13th Amendment to free them. Brown slaves, in the new (since 1847) American Southwest, known as “peons”, had to wait until 1912, for a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming the 13th Amendment applied to them. And women, because the Roe v. Wade decision was crafted to avoid recognition of the 13th Amendment applying to them, still ‘enjoy’ slave status in the United States, which is why there can be legal argument in regard to how much who of their owners have control over their reproductive capabilities.

    A Happy New Year of the same old duplicities.

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