The real Happy New Year’s of 1863

Emancipation-Proclamation1-5I’m glad I found the previous post via CNN, so actual experts set the scene on what happened 150 years ago yesterday.  It was, of course, pivotal to many of the figures in Ain’t Marching– from Quaker CO’s like Jesse Macy to Lewis H. Douglass.

So in writing my Civil War chapter, I couldn’t resist from painting the scene myself, including its immediate aftermath. We can go on for days about who therein counts as a dissenting soldier, but how not?

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On New Years’ Day 1863,  Boston’s Music Hall on Hamilton Place held 3000 people, twice the norm. Frederick Douglass and his friends Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson listened eagerly as the Boston Philharmonic played Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The crowd huddled with Douglass, waiting for news over the telegraph from Washington.

But Douglass also kept running around the corner to Tremont Temple, where he had first burst to public prominence, to calm down a similar-sized crowd of largely black people hoping for word. Ten o’clock approached and passed. At 11:00, both crowds were was growing restive, and Frederick Douglass took the stage. In the caramel baritone they loved so well (so unlike that man Garrison’s soprano), he said that if necessary, “We won’t go home till morning.”

They didn’t have to wait that long. Douglass wrote later about the “scene of excitement that baffles description,” when the ceiling seemed draped in “all the Hats and bonnets hurled in the air.”

Young Jesse Macy, now studying at a small Quaker college in Ohio, writes that the same day, “A mass meeting was held to celebrate[…] The Academy was soon after depleted of nearly all its men suitable for military service.”

And in Boston, Lewis H. Douglass and his brother Charles listened with one scary reality in mind: that both were old enough to fulfill their dad’s explicit promise, made in an article in the very newspaper Lewis worked on every day.

.. that colored men in Rhode Island and Connecticut performed their full share in the war of the Revolution, and that men of the same color, such as the noble Shields Green, Nathaniel Turner and Denmark Vesey stand ready to peril everything at the command of the Government. We would tell him that this is no time to fight with one hand, when both are needed; that this is no time to fight only with your white hand, and allow your black hand to remain tied.

Harriet Tubman acted right away, crossing both color and gender lines. To busy to celebrate — “I had my jubilee three years ago” — Tubman received one hundred dollars “secret service money” from the Union Army a few days later, and was sooncollecting data, paying for information from slaves in Confederate territory, and recruiting.112  The Secretary of War would soon be informed that 750 blacks waiting to join the Union Army “had been rescued from slavery under the leadership of Harriet Ross Tubman.”

The units organized to receive them were commanded by white officers including George Garrison, William Lloyd’s wayward son, and Robert Gould Shaw, who’d agreed to assume command of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Infantry.
Douglass senior, now a one-man recruiter of free blacks for the Massachusetts 54th,  said proudly that the troops, including his two oldest sons, would “by striking down the foes which oppose it, strike also the last shackle which binds the limbs of bondmen in the Rebel States.”

For Lewis and Charles, who had grown up in mostly white Rochester attending desegregated schools, the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Artillery Companies were the first time they had ever been entirely surrounded by other black men. After finishing training in June, they headed to South Carolina to the hottest temperatures the brothers had ever known.

Lewis Douglass wrote to his father every week, mostly asking for money to supplement the paltry $5 a month the 54th’s enlisted men were being paid, and whenever he could to his fiancée Amelia Loguen. To Amelia that he wrote his most famous letter about the an assault on Fort Wagner, which sat like a Bavarian castle above white, terrifying cliffs: “I have been in two fights, and am unhurt. I am about to go in another I believe to-night.”

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But what everyone should be reading about the Proclamation, of course, is the peerless Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose nonfiction novel on the war is likely to rock our world. His smart exegesis concludes with something we all need to remember:

With something as dramatic as emancipation, there should be some break point, some specific document that freed the slaves. But as [Eric] Foner points out, emancipation is a process (one that I would argue begins with slave abscondance and the Underground Railroad), not so much a point. And emancipation is itself a part of an even larger process — integrating African Americans as citizens of equal standing. That effort continues even today.

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