Alcorn: A different New Years 150 years ago

Published 10:51 am Monday, December 31, 2012

New Years is seductive with possibilities seized upon as promises, which presumption is almost the cause of the promise not being realized.

New Years resolutions, of course, have proved themselves impotent all our lives and, so, we more joke about them than make them. There is only one day in a year when it is effective to resolve to do the right thing. This is whatever day it is we become convinced we need to starting doing the right thing — but also persuaded to do it. A decision without commitment is no decision at all.

Another fallacy is that, somehow, things are going to be different tomorrow from what they are today. Taking down the 2012 calendar from the wall and replacing it with a 2013 calendar does but one thing, i.e., it replaces one calendar with another. Nothing more. There is no more significance in passing from Dec 31 to Jan 1 than there was in passing from Dec 30 to the 31st or from July 23d to the 24th. The only certain change is in the calendar, not in our lives or the condition of our lives.

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Exactly 150 years ago tomorrow things did change, because a president who was at once crafty and courageous made, not a resolution but, a proclamation. He made a decision, at long last, to free slaves in America, and he committed himself to accomplishing their freedom

The president was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and his was the Emancipation Proclamation, which became effective on New Years Day 1863.

It took another two years to get the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified so that all slaves within the preserved Union would be freed. This immediate initiative was a war measure. The only places it could be imposed upon states were the “insurrectionary” states, those of the Confederacy who were seeking to succeed from the Union. It would then have been politically disastrous to demand this of the northern “free” states as well as utterly impossible in fact. And, finally, the only place in the Confederacy where it could be put into effect and enforced was the single area occupied by Union forces.

This was on the sea islands around Port Royal and on the mainland near Beaufort in South Carolina.

As they had done for generations since conversion to Christianity, slaves huddled in their little churches across the sea islands for the Watchnight Service, as many churches will do so this night across our now united states. Prior to New Years Eve, 1862, they had nothing more to watch for than yet another year of slavery. This New Years Eve, 150 years ago, was vastly different. Mr. Lincoln had already proclaimed them free and when the clock struck midnight they would be free indeed.

In the morning, Union General Rufus Saxton sent steamers throughout the islands to transport those who until a few hours earlier had been slaves to hear read the official executive act that proclaimed their freedom. This took place at Camp Saxton near Port Royal.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Union troop commander, chose a certain federal official, recently a chaplain in the Union army, to read the Proclamation because it was “a thing infinitely appropriate” because he was: “a South Carolinian addressing South Carolinians; for he was reared among these very islands, and here long since [1837] emancipated his own slaves.”

And so it was that on New Years Day, 1997, I was invited to Port Royal to read this historic and critical document on the very grounds, now Naval Hospital Beaufort, on which the Reverend Doctor William Henry Brisbane read Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, now 150 years ago. The only claim I have to the honor, but sufficient for me, is that he was my great, great grandfather.