Watch Night, December 31st, 1862. One hundred-fifty years ago, slaves, freemen, abolitionists and people in all walks of life, sat in churches, meeting houses and fields throughout the nation, watching and waiting for freedom's dawn. With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, freedom was to occur on January 1, 1863.
Yet, freedom's light would not be all encompassing. Military necessity, born out of the need to keep the loyalty of the border states, required the proclamation to exempt loyal slave owners from having to free their slaves. Also, the states of the Confederacy, having seceded from the Union, by definition, belonged to another country, didn't recognize it.
In and of itself, the Emancipation Proclamation didn't serve to directly free any more slaves than the 1862 Second Confiscation and militia Act . It was not a "Declaration of Freedom", as the Declaration of Independence also was not. The Fugitive Slave Act was still the law of the land, and was not repealed until 1864.
First and foremost, it was a military order, issued by President Lincoln, as Commander and Chief. It overturned the 1792 Militia Act, which barred Africans from serving in the military, specifically allowing African men to be received all military services. They already had been fighting in the Navy.
On May 22nd 1863, General Order 143 established The Bureau of the United States Colored Troops, through which the real significance of Emancipation Proclamation was manifested. Over 209 thousand black soldiers and sailors, and 7 thousand white officers who led them, prosecuted the war against the South. Forty-thousand paid the price that freed 4 million Africans from Biblical slavery.
The imagery of a sitting African-American president on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is powerful symbolism of the great sacrifices made toward realizing the ideals articulated with the founding of this country. If your group is holding an event of reflection on tonight, on New Year Eve, you may want to acknowledge this historical milestone.
Cpl Leon Brooks
6th Regiment USCT, Re-enactors