Persons of Color
Pa, June 25—midnight
train of cars came down this afternoon. It was filled with people
escaping from Carlisle. Among the collection was a large number
of contrabands. Throughout the entire day wagons of all descriptions
loaded with furniture and other property, have been coming into
town. It is enough to touch the most obdurate heart to see the
poor blacks as then come to this common asylum. Several of them
walked the entire distance from Carlisle, and the feet of many
were swollen and bleeding.
--New York Herald, 25 June 1863
in Front of Harrisburg.
Fort Washington, West Bank of the Susquehanna, June 29, - Evening.
As the sun goes down
in the west it leaves within this fort and within and around Harrisburg
an anxious, wondering, guessing, partially fearful and somewhat
excited population. The enemy holds a position almost describing
an arc of a circle. The extremes rest on two main roads, cross
the railroads, and extend through wheat and corn fields and some,
small woods. He has pickets out in all valuable positions, and
has artillery commanding and intended to sweep the roads and protect
his front and flank.
We expect a fight to-morrow,
more or less general or serious in its character.
York Gazette, 30 June 1863
cast a gray veil across the skies of central Pennsylvania
on the last day of 1862, as if in sympathy with the gloomy outlook
of those in the cities and towns below toward the year ahead. Twenty
months of brutal war had taken away too many sons and husbands from
their homes and returned them crippled shells of men, if they were
returned at all. Across the region, sacrifice was a daily practice
undertaken to supply troops with needed articles, clothing, and food.
In Harrisburg, the schoolhouses, churches, and other available spaces
overflowed with horribly maimed and bleeding men after every large
battle, and coffins arrived regularly at the train depot. Mourning
crape became all too common attire. The dampness in the air during
the waning hours of the year carried a morbid chill that seemed to
penetrate to the heart of everyone who scurried through the darkened,
muddy streets on their way to traditional “Watch Meeting” services
in the local churches. The snow that fell sporadically throughout
the day only punctuated the anxious feelings of those who congregated
in pews to cast off the sins of the old year and bid welcome to a
new year of hope.1
African American community, however, gathered in their separate churches
to celebrate a different type of Watch Night. They were following an
ancient tradition of respect and praise for the gift of a new year,
blended with a somewhat newer tradition begun by slaves of the Caribbean
on the night of 31 July 1834. During that night, the eve of emancipation
in the British Empire, slaves throughout the many British controlled
colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere stayed up to witness the coming
of freedom by the simple ticking of a clock. By 31 July 1838, when
complete emancipation was instituted, the tradition of Watch Night
had become a wildly popular, yet solemn event in the Caribbean.
reported from Jamaica, “We had a prayer-meeting and preaching…The
prayers were fervent and soul-stirring, while deep humility was their
glowing characteristic.”2 The
31 July Watch Night soon became a regular part of First of August celebrations
for African Americans in many of the larger cities of the United States,
and now, at the end of 1862, it was about to be expanded to include
a new date. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, like
the British mandate, was about to bring complete freedom to an entire
class of people, but unlike the British version, it chose the first
day of the new year to take effect. African Americans, therefore, were
gathering in large numbers in churches on the night of 31 December
1862 to witness the first step toward the destruction of slavery in
the United States.
no accounts of those first Watch Night vigils in the African American
churches of Harrisburg. We can speculate that the evening was spent
in much the same way as it had been during Watch Night ceremonies in
the Caribbean: with hours of fervent praise, followed by reflective
silence in the expectant minutes before midnight, at which time the
realization that freedom had become the law of the land must have emotionally
overwhelmed the assembled members with its implications.
new law was imperfect. It had far too many restrictions and exceptions,
but the moment that it took effect must have been deeply felt and sincerely
celebrated. There was also the realization that something more must
be done to mark the moment, something bold, and significant, and public.
For now though, the witnesses in Harrisburg’s three African American
churches were content to give thanks for the sacrifices that had brought
them to this moment, to celebrate and offer praise for the moment,
and to pray fiercely for the courage to carry out their duties, whatever
they might be, and wherever they might lead, in the New Year.
proving to be a necessary resource for African American residents of
Harrisburg as 1862 ground to a bloody close. The invasion scare in
September had worn everyone’s nerves thin, and although the city
was saved from attack when the Army of the Potomac intercepted the
rebel troops in Maryland, the resulting battles had flooded the city
with wounded and dying soldiers. Fighting in December brought still
more wounded, casting a pall over the holiday season and reminding
everyone just how close the front lines had become, and how fragile
the Pennsylvania border, as a demarcation line between slavery and
freedom, really was.
31 December, Harrisburg’s black citizens received the dreaded
news that their freedom was again in jeopardy. A report from Washington
warned that General J.E.B. Stuart had crossed the Potomac Tuesday night
at Point of Rocks and was again headed in their direction with 1500
cavalrymen and a battery of artillery.3
news, received just three months after the last invasion scare, did
not deter them from gathering in their churches to witness history
being made, though. Indeed, what they needed most in this time of great
danger was the steady reassurance that their faith could provide. Fortunately,
this latest story of invasion turned out to be just another rumor,
but they did not yet know this when they knelt down in their pews just
before five p.m. in the gathering darkness of Wednesday evening.4
It was a
very long night. Somehow, they managed to put aside fears of marauding
rebel cavalrymen and concentrate on the moment of great social and
political import that arrived with the stroke of midnight across the
land. Outside, the noise of revelers in the streets increased to a
crescendo as local church bells pealed for the New Year.
small Second Presbyterian Church, in a second floor room on the corner
of River Alley and Walnut Street, the Reverend Charles C. Gardiner
led his congregation in joyous song and praise for the New Year, and
specifically for the attainment of a lifelong dream: the beginning
of the abolition of slavery in the United States.
years of age, Brother Gardiner seemed to be an ageless campaigner for
abolition, the cause that had propelled him in his faith for most of
his long life. But the candlelight of this small one-room church revealed
in the face of the staunch freedom fighter the ravages of disease,
and his slow, pained movements betrayed the frailty of a failing heart.5 The
time was approaching when he would no longer be around to lead the
charge, and younger warriors would need to pick up the banner and continue
the advance. None of that mattered at this moment in time, however.
For now, he was savoring a hard-won victory.
expressions of great joy were being repeated in the Bethel Church on
Short Street, where the Reverend Mifflin Gibbs led his flock in welcoming
the momentous day, and in the cramped space of Aaron Bennett’s “Colored” Masonic
Hall on Tanner’s Alley, which was serving as the temporary church
for the members of the Wesley Union congregation while their new church
was being constructed a hundred yards away. The Reverend Charles J.
Carter, a veteran anti-slavery activist and church organizer from Philadelphia,
was orchestrating the solemnities, having been newly installed in this
were playing out in African American communities across the land, as
people anticipated the official enactment of the President’s
Emancipation Proclamation. At a “contraband” camp in Washington
D.C., hundreds of former slaves gathered just after sundown to hear
Camp Superintendent Danforth B. Nichols explain the importance of the
hour, and of the document that was about to take effect with the advent
of the new year. The evening activities included songs in praise of
Abraham Lincoln and in honor of his proclamation, and speeches from
elders about the trials and horrors they endured during their long
lives in slavery. A reporter from the Philadelphia Press recorded their
One described his sensations
when his youngest child was being sold into slavery. Another saw
rebels in all directions but towards Heaven; there he saw a hope
of freedom. Another reminded his comrades that, in Dixie, they
worked all day and gave no satisfaction, and compared it with their
conditions now. He had worked six months, and all he had made was
his own, and he would soon be able to educate his children…Another
said “I’ve got a right to rejoice; I’m a free
man, or will be in five minutes.”
Two minutes before
twelve all knelt in silent prayer. An oppressive stillness continued
for four minutes, when a prayer was offered for the preservation
of the Union by the speedy overthrow of the rebellion.—They
then sang an original “Hallelujah” song.6
Dawn of the
Year of Jubilee
sky began to lighten over Harrisburg at about seven a.m. on Thursday
morning, and the jubilant welcoming committees for the new Emancipation
Proclamation slowly filtered out of the three churches to their homes.
The first bright rays of brilliant morning sunshine began to illuminate
the now quiet streets by seven-thirty, and those awake for the dawn
eagerly embraced the “bright, bracing and beautiful” New
It was observed
in Harrisburg as a holiday, with banks closed and citizens holding
open houses, eagerly welcoming callers into their homes. A number of
inns and hotels put out sumptuous holiday spreads that featured bowls
of special New Year’s punch.
white citizens celebrated the coming of a new year with open houses
and punch, her black citizens did likewise, but they also spent a portion
of the day in reflection on what the Emancipation Proclamation meant
for them, and on planning ways to take advantage of the new opportunity.
They knew that the proclamation was not being well received by Democrats,
who made up a considerable portion of the local white population, and
they waited to see what the public response would be, now that it had
not have long to wait, and the response was quite predictable. The
Republican newspapers hailed the President’s proclamation as
a noble and necessary gesture to preserve the Union, while the Democratic
newspapers were outraged by it. The Reading Gazette and Democrat prefaced
the text of the proclamation with a quote from the President’s
Inaugural Address, headlined as “The Solemn Pledge,” in
which he recalled his earlier words on the subject of slavery: “I
have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution
of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful
right to do so.” It then printed the “Abolition Proclamation,” under
the headline “The Perfidious Violation,”8 neatly
ignoring all the revolutionary events that had occurred between Inauguration
Day 1861 and New Year’s Day 1863.
Spy printed excerpts of the proclamation under its correct title,
with the headline “Slaves of Rebels Declared Free.” This
central point, which was summed up by the sentence “All persons
held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the
people whereof shall then be in a state of rebellion against the
United States, shall be then, thenceforward and forever free,” was
the focus of most of the Democratic vitriol.
saw another equally outraging provision embodied in the document. This
was the final provision, written near the end, just before the President’s
statement that he sincerely believed the act to be “an act of
justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity.” It
said simply “And I further declare and make known, that such
persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service
of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other
places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” The
reference “such persons of suitable condition,” although
it read rather vaguely in the document, was interpreted to mean, and
did mean, African Americans. The Columbia Spy’s second
headline was terse: “blacks to be received into the Army and
of Jubilee had dawned.
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Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863. There are several stories
about the origin of Watch Night. In one version, English coal miners
were said to have given up their traditional New Years Eve revels
to indulge in prayerful gatherings from sunset on 31 December to
sunrise on 1 January, after being personally converted by the preaching
of John Wesley. National Era, 20 January 1848. An article
in the Christian Recorder credits the origin of Watch Night
to a folk tradition among the early European settlers of Pennsylvania
and Ohio, who believed that miraculous things occurred for those
who shunned the merrymaking in favor of “watching the old year
out and the new year in.” Gradually, the superstitious practice
evolved into “song and praise” sessions in which church
members gathered around the church pulpit, falling into a “profound
silence” in the few minutes before midnight, praying hard for
forgiveness of the sins of the old year. Upon the stroke of midnight,
the members broke into songs and shouts of joy, pledging to renew
themselves in their faith during the new year. This ceremony caught
on with their slaves, and with local free blacks, according to the
story. Christian Recorder, 26 December 1901.
25 May, 5 October 1838.
Chronicle, 31 December 1862 and Washington Star, 31
December 1862, reported in Reading Gazette and Democrat,
3 January 1863.
and Moon Data for One Day,” 31 December 1862, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,
U.S. Naval Observatory, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php.
5. “Died,” Christian
Recorder, 11 April 1863. The obituary of Charles C. Gardiner
identified his cause of death as dropsy, an archaic term for edema,
indicating congestive heart failure.
Year’s at the Contraband Camp,” Philadelphia Press,
2 January 1863, reprinted in Lancaster Intelligencer, 6 January
and Moon Data for One Day,” 1 January 1863, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,
U.S. Naval Observatory, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneDay.php; Reading
Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863.
Gazette and Democrat, 3 January 1863.
Spy, 3 January 1863.