“It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed”
Contrary to claims often made, when it formally took effect on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation immediately freed thousands of enslaved persons across areas of the South then occupied by Federal forces. As Eric Foner outlined in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, one of the most important of these was in the Sea Islands along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, territories that were still nominally in rebellion but had taken by Federal forces early in the war, to use as a staging position for further campaigns up and down the coast. And in the Sea Islands, there was probably no bigger celebration than at Port Royal, South Carolina, where a formal ceremony was held by, and for, the first black regiment in the Union Army, the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (later re-designated the 33rd USCT). The event was so dramatic that it forms the opening scene of Stephen Ash’s history of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina, Firebrand of Liberty.
Today, on the sesquicentennial of that event, we have three first-hand accounts of that celebration — one from an African American woman, an escaped slave, employed by the regiment as a laundress; a white abolitionist woman from New England, who had come to the Sea Islands to do volunteer work with the Freedmen and -women there; and the white officer commanding the 1st South Carolina.
Susie King Taylor (right, 1848-1912) was born in Liberty County, Georgia in 1848. Her mother was a house servant to a wealthy planter family, who allowed her to send her oldest children to live with her mother in Savannah. In Savannah she learned to read and write, and in the spring of 1862, in her early teens, escaped to Union forces occupying the Sea Islands of Georgia. With the support of Federal officers, she organized a school of freed slave children, and taught adults in the evening. Although she was officially classed as a “laundress,” Susie King served as a nurse, helped maintain weapons, and—most important—organized and taught classes for the soldiers. In 1902, with the encouragement of the former commander of the regiment, she published her memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops.On the first of January, 1863, we held services for the purpose of listening to the reading of President Lincoln’s proclamation by Dr. W. H. Brisbane, and the presentation of two beautiful stands of colors, one from a lady in Connecticut, and the other from Rev. Mr. Cheever. The presentation speech was made by Chaplain French. It was a glorious day for us all, and we enjoyed every minute of it, and as a fitting close and the crowning event of this occasion we had a grand barbecue. A number of oxen were roasted whole, and we had a fine feast. Although not served as tastily or correctly as it would have been at home, yet it was enjoyed with keen appetites and relish. The soldiers had a good time. They sang or shouted “Hurrah!” all through the camp, and seemed overflowing with fun and frolic until taps were sounded, when many, no doubt, dreamt of this memorable day.
Freedmen and -women on the J. J. Smith Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862. Many of these people must have attended the Emancipation Day ceremonies at nearby Camp Saxton on New Years Day, 1863. Photo by Timothy O’Sullivan, via Library of Congress.
The woman who wrote the following passage, Harriet Ware, was one of a group of “ardent anti-slavery people” who traveled to the Sea Islands in 1862 under the auspices of the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society to set up schools and provide other services to the liberated — but not yet formally emancipated — people there. The U.S. government gave them an allowance for transportation, food and lodging, while the society provided them a monthly stipend — $20 per month for first-year female teachers, $30 for men. In what came to be known as the “Port Royal Experiment,” many of the New Englanders came with little preparation or training. “They had, in fact, no other guides to action than enthusiasm and good sense,” one of their number would write years later, “and of the latter, in particular, they carried widely differing amounts. Some, who went supplied with too little of either, were back in their Northern homes before summer was under way; the majority, making what they could of the means, or lack of means, at their disposal, had within the same period of time got about thirty-eight hundred laborers at steady work on fifteen thousand acres of com, potatoes, and cotton. . . . The question whether or not the freedman would work without the incentive of the lash was settled once for all by the Port Royal Experiment.”
Disbursement of pay among the Freedmen employed at Port Royal. Harpers Weekly, via Cosmic America.
Here, in a letter written to family back home, Harriet Ware describes the events of New Years Day, 1863:The regiment, which had been drawn up at the wharf to receive the guests from Beaufort, escorted them to the platform in the middle of the grove, where we found it – the regiment – in a circle round the stand, where they remained quiet and orderly as possible through the whole proceedings, which lasted about three hours. Guests, white and colored, were admitted within the line, and as ladies we were shown seats on the platform. . . . It is simply impossible to give you any adequate idea of the next three hours. Picture the scene to yourself if you can, – I will tell you all the facts, – but if I could transcribe every word that was uttered, still nothing could convey to you any conception of the solemnity and interest of the occasion. Mr. Judd, General Superintendent of the Island, was master of ceremonies, and first introduced Mr. Fowler, the Chaplain, who made a prayer, – then he announced that the President’s Proclamation would be read, and General [Rufus] Saxton’s also, by a gentleman who would be introduced by Colonel Higginson. And he rose amid perfect silence, his clear rich voice falling most deliciously on the ear as he began to speak. He said that the Proclamation would be read “by a South Carolinian to South Carolinians” – a man who many years before had carried the same glad tidings to his own slaves now brought them to them, and with a few most.pertinent words introduced Dr. Brisbane, one of the tax-commissioners here now, who read both proclamations extremely well. They cheered most heartily at the President’s name, and at the close gave nine with a will for General” Saxby,” as they call him. Mr. [John C.] Zachos then read an ode he had written for the occasion, which was sung by the white people (printed copies being distributed, he did not line it as is the fashion in these parts) – to “Scots wha hae.” I forgot to mention that there was a band on the platform which discoursed excellent music from time to time. At this stage of the proceedings Mr. French rose and, in a short address, presented to Colonel Higginson from friends in New York a beautiful silk flag, on which was embroidered the name of the regiment and “The Year of Jubilee has come!” Just as Colonel Higginson had taken the flag and was opening his lips to answer (his face while Mr. French was speaking was a beautiful sight), a single woman’s voice below us near the corner of the platform began singing” My Country, ’tis of thee.” It was very sweet and low – gradually other voices about her joined in and it began to spread up to the platform, till Colonel Higginson turned and said, “Leave it to them,” when the negroes [sic.] sang it to the end. He stood with the flag in one hand looking down at them, and when the song ceased, his own words flowed as musically, saying that he could give no answer so appropriate and touching as had just been made. In all the singing he had heard from them, that song he had never heard before – they never could have truly sung “my country” till that day. He talked in the most charming manner for over half an hour, keeping every one’s attention, the negroes’ upturned faces as interested as any, if not quite as comprehending. Then he called Sergeant Rivers and delivered the flag to his keeping, with the most solemn words, telling him that his life was chained to it and he must die to defend it. Prince Rivers looked him in the eye while he spoke, and when he ended with a “Do you understand?” which must have thrilled through every one, answered most earnestly, “Yas, Sar.” The Colonel then, with the same solemnity, gave into the charge of Corporal Robert Sutton a bunting flag of the same size; then stepping back stood with folded arms and bare head while the two men spoke in turn to their countrymen. Rivers is a very smart fellow, has been North and is heart and soul in the regiment and against the “Seceshky.” He spoke well; but Sutton with his plain common sense and simpler language spoke better. He made telling points; told them there was not one in that crowd but had sister, brother, or some relation among the rebels still; that all was not done because they were so happily off, that they should not be content till all their people were as well off, if they died in helping them; and when he ended with an appeal to them to above all follow after their Great Captain, Jesus, who never was defeated, there were. many moist eyes in the crowd. General Saxton then said a few words, regretting that his flag had not arrived as he intended, and introduced Mrs. Gage, who spoke to them of her visit to St. Croix and how the negroes on that island had freed themselves, and telling them that her own sons were in the army; she might any day hear of their death, but that she was willing they should die in the cause and she hoped they were ready to die too. Quartermaster Bingham led the regiment in singing “Marching Along.” Mr. Judd had written a hymn which he and a few friends sang. Judge Stickney spoke. The whole regiment then sang” John Brown,” and was dismissed in a few words from the Colonel to the tables for the twelve roasted oxen, hard bread, and molasses and water, except one company and certain corporals whom he mentioned, who came to the foot of the steps to escort the colors.
The 1st South Carolina Infantry on parade. New York Public Library.
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (right, 1823-1911) was a Unitarian minister and abolitionist from Massachusetts. After his abolitionist beliefs brought to the fore by the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, Higginson joined the Boston Vigilance Committee, a group that sought to protect fugitive slaves and prevent their capture and return. In 1854, Higginson led a party that stormed the federal courthouse in Boston in an unsuccessful attempt to free Anthony Burns, an African American man who had escaped bondage in Virginia and made his way to Massachusetts. When the war came, Higginson was a commissioned a Captain in the 51st Massachusetts. In the fall of 1862, Higginson was appointed to command of the 1st South Carolina Infantry.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. 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, ‘t is 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 wond~rfully 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. 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 I – 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 I 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.
To all my readers, best wishes for a Happy New Year, and a prosperous and successful 2013.___________