Last New Year’s Eve, 2011, within the backdrop of today’s resurging racism and political discord, I reflected on the process of setting men free within the horrors of a glamorized Antebellum South, 150 years ago! I struggled to imagine what others may have been thinking, concerning that historic first Watch Night—known as Freedom’s Eve—on December 31, 1862. Surely, I thought, they must have reflected on the nasty national conditions, which unfolded that year, leading to the issuance of the historic Emancipation Proclamation.
It was finally about to happen, after midnight, setting free some 3 million slaves– with a mere piece of paper! Real freedom would unfold gradually, as the American Army’s sea of federal blue uniforms made its final sweep across a turbulent nation. What caused me to pause and think about it all was the fact that I simply had a lot of free time. It was the first Watch Night service I had missed in 10 years.
It seems to me that the real history of our nation often unfolds within the ragged mix of lopsided versions of some national march toward freedom and justice, with tidbits of objectivity, tons of murky narratives and subjective musings, chockfull of nibbles and nuggets of multi-cultural truths. Like personal opinions and rear ends, everyone has a story, I thought. Some are passed on quietly and clearly, but truthfully. Others are shouted over reason and logic, creating annoying, hard-to-reverse distortions for whoever is willing to listen, or fails to adhere to minimal principals of independent thinking, all within some twisted quest for inner peace and human understanding. At least, that’s what I was thinking when considering the racial realities and internal strife that must have faced President Abraham Lincoln and the nation on the eve of his great proclamation.
According to my history lessons and other stories passed down through the ages, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Based on what could objectively be pieced together, it probably wasn’t too far off from today’s politicized rancor, in my humble opinion, of course.
From what I could gather, when President Lincoln assumed the reins as this nation’s 16th president, on March 4, 1861, the country was already in a state of economic and moral decline. Thirty days earlier, the Deep South “cotton states” of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas had seceded, forming the Confederate States of America (CSA). After the canon fire, at the Battle of Fort Sumter, ignited the Civil War, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia jumped into the fray, on the side of the secessionists. Depending on whom you talk to, even now, the whole secession scenario was treasonous, patriotic or some jacked up scheme of white supremacists to continue the foul system of black slavery, sanctioned rapes, sexual exploitation and free black labor.
Back then, opinions about manumission were all over the place, ripping kinfolk, church folk and communities apart. But, in my opinion, slaves couldn’t give a damn about some silly intellectual divide. Freedom from their wretched condition was foremost, from the time they arrived on these shores. At least, that’s the storyline passed down on my side of the nation’s quilted past and patchwork ideologies.
Stories within the bloodlines of my community are chockfull of personal and group sacrifice which include violent slave rebellion, runaway schemes, brave white and black abolitionists, systematic slave resistance, guerilla warfare coalitions by Maroon societies and black-Indian warriors, as well as a continuing rejection of the warped mindset of racial superiority. Our stories aren’t even close to the fantasized myths of a docile slave mentality often romanticized by an Antebellum South and “Gone with the Wind” enthusiasts.
History records from 1861 show that the country was confused about what to do with fugitive slaves or blacks seeking refuge near federal forces. Until the Confiscation Act, in August 1861, the nation lacked a clear federal policy. This legislation allowed for any “property” used to support Confederate insurrection to be confiscated by federal forces. But, President Lincoln hesitated to sign the bill and only signed after heavy senatorial lobbying. Then, when he finally signed on August 6, he provided no instructions on enforcement. Thus, with slaves being “property,” too, not many slaves were “confiscated” as a result of the bill (“From Slavery to Freedom…,” John Hope Franklin, Knopf, Inc. Publishing, 5th Ed.).
The period between 1862 and 1864, was a mess in regards for what to do with emancipated blacks. President Lincoln’s political “solutions” considered colonizing blacks outside the United States, as well as actually compensating slave owners for the “loss” of their slaves. And, after the Union victory at the Battle of Antiem, near Sharpsburg, MD, on September 17, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation, reviving “…the possibility of compensated emancipation and said that he would continue to encourage the voluntary colonization of Negroes ‘upon this continent or elsewhere.’” (Franklin)
Poor Lincoln. While proper credits go to him for putting his pen to the historic Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, he was truly walking a political tight-rope in trying to hold the country together. A month after he took the reins, the Civil War started. It lasted until June 23, 1865, when the last major fighting took place, following General Lee’s surrender two months earlier. And, all hell broke loose when he decided, at the urging of Frederick Douglass, to put black men—the United States Colored Troops– in Union blue uniforms with pistols and Springfield muskets. Whites on both sides of the political divide expressed all kinds of fear from blacks now being armed. But, ultimately, it was a positive decision that helped change the course of the war.
America’s cherished plantation lifestyle was in shambles. Black slaves began walking off the plantations in large numbers to seek refuge among approaching Union troops. Slaves became insolent to whites, no longer fearing retribution. In one case, according to a Richmond newspaper, The Richmond Enquirer, when a black coachman heard that he was free, he went to his master’s chambers, dressed himself in his master’s finest clothes, “…put on his best watch and chain, took his stick, and returning to the parlor where his master was, insolently informed him that he might for the future drive his own coach.” Clearly, mental landscapes were changing.
When the law changed, on January 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared free, legally. At 10:45 a.m., the document was taken to the White House for the president’s signature. The president noticed an error within the superscription, but it was corrected for the formal signing to take place on the corrected document. Yet, it wasn’t until 8 p.m. that telegraph wires actually began announcing the signing to the country. Celebrations continued throughout the week (From a 1993 speech, at the National Archives, given by John H. Franklin, on the 130th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation).
My reflections reminded me that a legal document did not free the slaves. Lincoln had gone as far as the law allowed him to go. Yet, he at least had the political courage to do what was right. The law was no longer an obstruction to justice and equality. It was the people under the law who were the obstruction, similar to the way the broken system of representative government seems, today. Lincoln was far from being the perfect leader. But, he possessed what many leaders seem to lack, today– the courage of their convictions or the spunk to support or promote the true spirit of the Emancipation Proclamation, in spite of de facto political, economic- and mental- landscapes.
Hmmm… And, those are still my thoughts within the poisoned political environment, today.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! And, may God guide a more enlightened America, in 2012.
“Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.