When Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was read to tears of joy and ringing church bells 150 years ago on New Year’s Day, perhaps nowhere did it resonate as deeply as it did on South Carolina’s sea islands.
Blacks in the Port Royal and Beaufort areas southwest of Charleston had tasted freedom for months before President Abraham Lincoln’s final proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863. The landmark document declared all slaves in states or any parts of states still in rebellion against the Union to be “forever free” from that day forward.
That’s why Dec. 31 grew to be known as “Watch Night,” as the slaves watched to see what would happen with their status.
Though Lincoln had no power to immediately enforce the declaration in areas held by the Confederacy, his proclamation stirred blacks already freed in the sea islands during the ongoing Civil War. They had been anticipating the document ever since Lincoln issued his preliminary proclamation in September 1862, signaling his intent to bring the Union back together without slavery.
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“They were already witnesses to what this concept of emancipation was going to be like because that area had been occupied by federal troops since the end of 1861,” said Bernard Powers, the chairman of the Department of History at the College of Charleston. “It meant new opportunities to work and undreamed opportunities to read and write.”
This New Year’s there will be numerous observations of the anniversary. One of the biggest is planned at the National Archives in Washington, where special, late-night viewing hours for the proclamation are scheduled today through Tuesday. A bell will be rung at midnight on New Year’s Eve and the proclamation will be read the next morning.
African-American churches around the state, many of which have long commemorated Watch Night, will have special ceremionies as well.
Powers, who is black, will be in Beaufort on New Year’s Day, where he will participate in a program at Tabernacle Baptist Church commemorating the reading 150 years ago of the proclamation in nearby Port Royal.
That historic day at Smith Plantation, which was dubbed Camp Saxton by the Union troops, hundreds of freed blacks joined federal authorities as the proclamation was read. During the ceremonies the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, a black Union regiment comprised of freed blacks, received their national and regimental colors and became a full-fledged component of the Union Army.
Lincoln’s proclamation also went on to say the military would recognize the freedom of slaves and that freed slaves could enlist in the U.S. armed forces, scholars note.
The New Year’s 1863 event was recalled by Susie King Taylor, a black woman who accompanied her husband, a member of the volunteers, during his campaigns.
“It was a glorious day for us all and we enjoyed every minute of it,” she wrote in her book “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African-American Woman’s Civil War Memoir.”
“The soldiers had a good time. They sang or shouted ‘Hurrah!’ all through the camp and seemed overflowing with fun and frolic until taps were sounded, when many, no doubt, dreamt of that memorable day.”
A New York Times correspondent wrote about the event and the large crowd present.
Those attending came from Beaufort and Hilton Head Island on steamboats and would “long retain the remembrance as the first dawn of freedom,” the reporter wrote, adding 10 oxen were barbecued for the occasion.
“I think for the black troops present it must have been an additional inspiration to them to continue the struggle with sacrifice and determination,” Powers said.
The historian sees an analogy in recent history.
“When Barack Obama was elected the first time there are people like me who never thought we would live to see something like that in our lifetime. And we’re talking 2008,” he said. “You can recall the reaction of people when the returns came in and at the inauguration with tears streaming down black people’s faces and white people’s faces.”
It must have been something similar 150 years ago, he said.
“You can imagine what these people who in the twinkling of an eye had moved from slavery to freedom felt.”