Last week I posted a beautiful quote written by Frederick Douglass where he captures what it was like for a slave to see ships of free men sailing in and out of port each day. Here is another great entry from the Civil War. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers and a strong abolitionist. Here he captures part of the events at Camp Saxton on the evening of January 1, 1863. Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on this first day of January. On this “Emancipation Day” 3 million slaves from the confederate states were given the legal framework for their freedom. One could argue about why Lincoln issued the Emancipation and Proclamation and why it was only for slaves in the confederate states, but those discussions don’t diminish just how celebratory a day this was for Black Americans. Most cared little about the details of the Proclamation. What they knew was it was a turning point for them and now, maybe for the first time, there is hope for a new level of freedom and personhood to them and their families. Even for those in states not given such freedom, the light in the distance finally shining dawned hope where only a hopeless darkness had prevailed.
On this Emancipation Day, there were celebrations in many places, but the following account form Higginson’s diary comes from Camp Saxton in South Carolina (see image above). It tells us the festivities of the day and the planned celebrations, but more importantly it gives us a sense of what it must have feel like for those people who tasted their bite of freedom.
“…About ten o’clock the people began to collect by land, and also by water,–in steamers sent by General [Rufus] 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, and a sprinkling of men, with that peculiarly respectable look which these people always have on Sundays and holidays. 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 by the band of the Eighth Maine, which kindly volunteered for the occasion; the colored people filled up all the vacant openings in the beautiful grove around, and there was a cordon of mounted visitors beyond. Above, the great live-oak branches and their trailing moss; beyond the people, a glimpse of the blue river.
The services began at half-past eleven o’clock, with prayer by our chaplain, Mr. [James H.] Fowler, who is always, on such occasions, simple, reverential, and impressive. Then the President’s Proclamation [from September 22, 1862] was read by Dr. W. H. Brisbane, a thing infinitely appropriate, a South-Carolinian addressing South-Carolinians; for he was reared among these very islands, and here long since emancipated his own slaves. 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 programme. 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 key-note 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. If you could have heard how quaint and innocent it was! Old Tiff and his children might have sung it; and close before me was a little slave-boy, almost white, who seemed to belong to the party, and even he must join in. Just think of it!–the first day they had ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people, and here, while mere spectators stood in silence, waiting for my stupid words, these simple souls burst out in their lay, as if they were by their own hearths at home! When they stopped, there was nothing to do for it but to speak, and I went on; but the life of the whole day was in those unknown people’s song.”