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Mon Dec 31, 2012, 12:33 PM

New Year's Eve: Watch Night

One hundred and fifty years ago this evening, on New Year's Eve 1862, thousands of black people across the South Carolina sea islands surrounding Port Royal Sound gathered in their small churches for another Watch Night Service... This New Year's Eve, however, was radically different, because at the stroke of midnight, they would become free men and women. This year, they watched though the night for the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect.


In the morning, these newly freed citizens would be transported by steamers provided by the army to Camp Saxton, on what had been the Smith Plantation, to hear the proclamation read to them. The First and Second regiments of South Carolina voluntary infantry then stood in formation. Except for the officers who were whites, these were black faces in blue uniforms. Themselves slaves until this day, they would fight to bring freedom to all slaves. On the flag-draped platform stood Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Massachusetts, who commanded the First Regiment. By way of introduction of the government official who would read the proclamation, he observed it was "a thing infinitely appropriate" that it should be read by this particular individual, the Rev. Dr. William Henry Brisbane.


The back story is that Brisbane, both a Baptist pastor and medical doctor, had inherited a plantation with its many slaves. Although initially a published advocate of slavery as well as himself a slaveholder, he became convinced by more careful reading of the Bible that slavery is sinful. Accordingly, he freed his own slaves and, consequently, was driven out of the South. He was appointed to head the tax commission after having served as chaplain in the Union army. Brisbane read from the telegraphed text. As of this very date, the black people who were listening "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free ..." As soon as Brisbane concluded his reading, the blacks burst into song as of one voice: "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing!"

Higginson was later to write: "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."


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Wallace Alcorn is an independent scholar living in Austin, Minn.


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