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The Choked Voice of a Race At Last Unloosed – The 1st South Carolina and the Emancipation Proclamation

Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
It’s often said that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed not a single slave. 1This inaccurate statement comes often from the pens of neo-Confederates and white supremacists. However, it was probably most famously propagated in the Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary. But when that quote is further examined, it can be seen that there’s a bit more to it: “So far ahead of Lincoln had Congress traveled on the road to emancipation that, at the moment of its issuance, the final Emancipation Proclamation freed not a single slave who was not already entitled to freedom by act of Congress.” While more or less correct, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t just free slaves through much of the South, but held that they were “henceforth and forever free.” There were other important differences as well, but since this is merely a footnote, we’ll deal with those some other time. This is, as most who study the war already know, both inaccurate and not the point of the Proclamation. Nevertheless, around 20,000 enslaved black Americans were immediately freed.

Areas such as northern Virginia, along the coast of North Carolina and Florida, through most of northern Arkansas and bits of northern Mississippi and Alabama was the channel islands of South Carolina. Port Royal had been occupied by Union troops since late in 1861, the slaves coming under their jurisdiction and, before long, joining the Union Army. From this number the 1st South Carolina was formed and was helmed by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist from Massachusetts.

Higginson’s diary details his time in command of the 1st South Carolina, including the day that the Emancipation Proclamation set the soldiers and their families – and all slaves in the area – free. To commemorate the event, a celebration was scheduled for January 1st, 1863. In the entry written the day before, Higginson doubted that the soldiers and the former slaves would care too much about the festivities: “it is not their way to be very jubilant over anything this side of New Jerusalem.” They already had their de facto freedom, since their former masters had run off just before the Federals came. “I do not think there is a great visible eagerness for tomorrow’s festival,” he wrote. “But they will enjoy it greatly, and we shall have a multitude of people.”

1st South Carolina
1st South Carolina

What follows is his diary entry (slightly edited for length) written immediately following the event:

A happy New Year to civilized people, — mere white folks. Our festival has come and gone, with perfect success, and our good General has been altogether satisfied. Last night the great fires were kept smoldering in the pit, and the beeves were cooked more or less, chiefly more, — during which time they had to be carefully watched, and the great spits turned by main force. Happy were the merry fellows who were permitted to sit up all night, and watch the glimmering flames that threw a thousand fantastic shadows among the great gnarled oaks. And such a chattering as I was sure to hear whenever I awoke that night!

My first greeting to-day was from one of the most stylish sergeants, who approached me with the following little speech, evidently the result of some elaboration : —

“I think myself happy, this New Year’s Day, for salute my own Colonel. This day last year I was servant to a Colonel of Secesh; but now I have the privilege for salute my own Colonel.”

That officer, with the utmost sincerity, reciprocated the sentiment.

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, 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.

Camp Saxton and the nearby village from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
Camp Saxton and the nearby village from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

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. Fowler, who is always, on such occasions, simple, reverential, and impressive. Then the President’s Proclamation 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.

1st South Carolina
1st South Carolina

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. 2Thomas Wentworth Higginson Army Life in a Black Regiment ((Boston: Fields, Osgood, & Co., 1870) 39-42.

Emancipation Day

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.