Watch Night: The 150th Anniversary

December 31, 2012 was the 150th anniversary of “Watch Night.” On New Year’s Eve, like many African-Americans, I go to church to celebrate Watch Night.  Depending on which church you attend, you may have a midnight Mass, have a special church service, or a service where you have testimony of the previous year.  These services are derived from the first Watch Night on December 31, 1862.Watch Night

The origin of Watch Night was based on President Abraham Lincoln issuing the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.  This proclamation was issued as a war measure, to take effect January 1, 1863, and was supposed to free the slaves – in the southern states (or parts of those states) still in rebellion against the United States.  The slaves in those areas would be forever free, if those states did not freely return to the Union by December 31, 1862. 

So contrary to its perception, the Emancipation does not free all of the slaves in the country – slavery still exists in the border states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware.  It also exists in New Orleans, Louisiana, Alexandria, Virginia, and other sections of southern states that the Union army occupies.  President Lincoln did not think he had the authority to abolish slavery in areas under Federal control; slavery was regulated by the individual states at that time, based upon the Constitution. 

Many people, black and white, doubted whether President Lincoln would execute his Emancipation Proclamation.  Frederick Douglass wondered why the President did not free all of the slaves, but looked at this as an optimistic first step toward freedom.  Republicans suffered in the 1862 fall congressional elections, so people opposed to the Emancipation thought that Lincoln should rescind it. Conservative politicians did not like the document and accused the President of wasting the lives of white soldiers in a costly war of abolition. General George McClellan opposed the Proclamation and thought the document would lead to a “servile insurrection.”  Even some soldiers in the Union army no longer wanted to serve because they did not want to fight a war to free slaves.  Two members of Lincoln’s cabinet, Montgomery Blair and Caleb Smith, opposed the Emancipation.  Lincoln, himself, devoted much of his December message to Congress to compensated emancipation of slaves and colonization of them to Africa or Central America; this talk disturbed many blacks.  So many people wondered if President Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

In places like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Boston Massachusetts, blacks and abolitionists went to church on December 31, 1862 and prayed that he would sign the Emancipation on January 1, 1863.  Many slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists would go to church and stay past midnight to celebrate the coming freedom of slaves.  This night was called “Watch Night” or “Freedom’s Eve.”  After midnight many people either returned to church or other meeting places to await President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Reverend Henry McNeal Turner of Israel Bethel Church in Washington, DC, left the church to get an edition of the “Evening Star,” the first printed in DC with the Emancipation.  Then crowds of blacks and whites marched past the White House to thank President Lincoln.  Frederick Douglass was at the Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts, he waited with the crowd there for more than twelve hours before receiving the Proclamation by telegraph.

President Lincoln kept his word and he signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law.  This final version allowed black men to join the Union military and by the end of the Civil War, over 200,000 black men served!

This year many news articles appeared about Watch Night, however, when I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s there was not much mentioned about Watch Night.  I would bet at that time, a majority of African-Americans never knew the true reason why we went to church on New Year’s Eve.  I wonder how many of us knew this year that we were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first Watch Night – waiting for President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation!

About stewardthenderson

Civil War historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and living historian with the 23rd Regiment USCT and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Co. B. I am also a member of the Trail to Freedom Committee in the Fredericksburg, VA area and a member of the John J. Wright Museum in Spotsylvania, VA.
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6 Responses to Watch Night: The 150th Anniversary

  1. joe truglio says:

    I ,as well, never knew of this event. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  2. I, too, had never heard of Watch Night.

  3. I have been seeing posts about “Watch Night” on Twitter, and I knew that it was the night before the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, but I did not realize it was celebrated every New Year’s Eve. I am surprised to hear that so many people, both North and South, opposed the Proclamation. It was a good thing for Lincoln to do, both morally and strategically.

    • The Emancipation Proclamation was a controversial document in 1862 through 1864. When Lincoln was reelected, he worked on the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Only about 10% of the North was abolitionist at that time and many Northerners were not concerned with slavery. In fact, the Republicans took losses in the House of Representatives because of the war and the Emancipation. The document infuriated the Confederacy, upset the border states, and caused some Union soldiers to resign from the army. Many people thought that the Emancipation would lead to “servile insurrection,” slave rebellions in the South. During that time, most people did not care if slavery remained in the states where it was already legal, they just did not want it expanding into the territories. So, many African Americans and abolitionists were praying on Watch Night that President Lincoln would not bow to the pressure, they wanted him to follow through with the Emancipation Proclamation.

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