Sample text for 1863 : the rebirth of a nation / Joseph E. Stevens.
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Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow
January 1, 1863, was a crisp, sparkling day in Washington. A throng of holiday promenaders strolled along Pennsylvania Avenue enjoying the fresh breezes and brilliant sunshine. The air was alive with the tinkle of organ grinders playing "Ben Bolt" and "Captain Jinks," the cries of street vendors hawking rock candy and roasted chestnuts, the shouts of drivers jockeying their rigs through the crush of traffic on the muddy boulevard. Eager bootblacks scurried to and fro, polishing the shoes of sauntering swells, while on every street corner leather-lunged newsboys bawled the morning dailies. Here and there ex-soldiers with empty sleeves or trouser legs panhandled for money, but the passing pedestrians paid them little heed, ambling cheerfully down the broad sidewalks, "each and all seeming bent on the enjoyment of the festivities of the day according to their varying tastes and fancies."
For some that meant going to Gautier's, Hammack's, or Wormley's restaurant to feast on platters of pâté de foie gras, stewed terrapin, and fried Chesapeake oysters. For others it meant attending a matinee performance at Grover's National Theater, where Miss Lucille Western, the "pearl of the American stage," was appearing in "Cynthia the Gipsy, or The Flower of the Forest." For still others--off-duty army and navy officers, mostly--it meant guzzling ten-cent cocktails in the boisterous barroom at Willard's Hotel, playing faro or chuck-a-luck in one of the gambling halls on Pennsylvania Avenue's seedy south side, or dropping by one of the scores of bawdy houses located in the flourishing red-light district between Ninth and Fifteenth Streets.
The most popular destination, however, was 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands of Washingtonians congregated there to take part in a holiday tradition almost as old as the Republic itself--shaking the hand of the president at the annual New Year's reception. Well before noon, the hour at which the White House would be opened to the public, a great crowd had gathered in Lafayette Square to watch the cream of Washington officialdom--the members of the diplomatic corps, the justices of the Supreme Court, the generals and admirals of the armed forces--arrive to pay their respects to Mr. Lincoln.
One after another the gleaming black carriages rolled up the avenue, turned into the White House drive, rattled to a stop beside the north portico, and discharged their loads of ambassadors, ministers, and chargés d'affaires onto the sun-splashed gravel. They were followed by the members of the judiciary, led by tottering eighty-five-year-old Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, which had done so much to assure the outbreak of hostilities between North and South. The heirs to those hostilities, the high-ranking officers of the army and navy, came next, strutting into the mansion in an auriferous blaze of braid and epaulets.
Finally, at twelve o'clock precisely, it was time for the ordinary citizenry to be received. The gates swung open, and the huge crowd surged forward, swamping the twenty-man detail of District police that had been posted on the White House grounds to keep order. In a welter of torn coattails and crushed bonnets, the excited mob fetched up against the north entry, where a beardless youth in an ill-fitting uniform was standing guard. This military cerberus brandished his rifle and exclaimed in a squeaky voice: "My gosh! Gentlemen, will you stan' back? You can't get in no faster by crowdin'!" To which appeal, an amused newspaperman reported, "the gay and festive crowd responded by flattening him against a pilaster, never letting him loose until his fresh country face was dark with an alarming symptom of suffocation."
Once inside, the visitors removed their hats and gloves, adjusted wrinkled clothing, rearranged windblown hair, and gaped with undisguised curiosity at the lavish new interior furnishings recently installed by Mrs. Lincoln. The public rooms had been completely redone. Gone were the frayed curtains, the swaybacked settees, the grimy rugs that had created an atmosphere so dingy it had reminded one guest of "the breaking up of a hard winter about a deserted homestead." In their place were plush draperies of tasseled Parisian brocatelle, ornately carved rosewood chairs upholstered in crimson satin, and exquisite Wilton weave carpets into which designs of fruit and flowers had been braided. The first lady had exceeded her $20,000 "repairs" budget by $6,700, exasperating the president, who declared it a monstrous extravagance to spend such sums on "flub dubs for that damned old house." But most in the receiving line that now extended from the entry vestibule into the main hall, to the Blue Room, and thence to the East Room, agreed that Mrs. Lincoln's interior decorating added a thrilling touch of glamour to levees such as this.
In the midst of all the splendor, the gangling, plainly dressed president looked sadly out of place. "To say he is ugly is nothing; to add that his figure is grotesque is to convey no adequate impression," marveled an English journalist. "Fancy a man about six feet high, and thin in proportion, with long bony arms and legs, which somehow seem always to be in the way; with great rugged furrowed hands, which grasp you like a vice when shaking yours; with a long scraggy neck and chest too narrow for the great arms at his side. . . . Clothe this figure then in a long, tight, badly-fitting suit of black, creased, soiled, and puckered up at every salient point of the figure (and every point of this figure is salient), put on large, ill-fitting boots, gloves too long for the bony fingers . . . and then add to all this an air of strength, physical as well as moral, and a strange look of dignity, coupled with all the grotesqueness, and you will have the impression left upon me by Abraham Lincoln."
The president stood by a small table in the center of the Blue Room, shaking hands "like a man pumping for life on a sinking vessel." He nodded and spoke as each person was introduced to him, but his eyes were restless, and he gazed over the heads of the people crowding into the small chamber as though searching for something far away.
Perhaps he was brooding about the Emancipation Proclamation, which he would sign later in the day, wondering how it would be received by a public still reeling from the Army of the Potomac's terrible defeat at Fredericksburg two weeks ago. Or perhaps he was thinking about the message received earlier that morning informing him that the Army of the Cumberland was fighting a pitched battle in middle Tennessee. He wanted to believe that Federal forces would prevail, but he feared the worst. Another bloody setback coming so soon after Fredericksburg could shatter what was left of Northern morale and bring the war to an abrupt and ignominious conclusion. With these gloomy thoughts running through his mind, he was hard-pressed to keep a smile on his face and summon a few polite words for the well-wishers who kept filing past him.
At 2 p.m. the reception finally ended. As the last batch of callers straggled out through the East Room, exiting by way of an open floor-to-ceiling window, Lincoln heaved a sigh of relief and went upstairs to his office, where a small delegation of officials, headed by Secretary of State William Seward, was waiting for him. A five-page manuscript, carefully engrossed by a State Department scrivener, had been spread on the cabinet table. With a grunt Lincoln settled into his armchair, picked up the sheets, and read: "By the President of the United States of America: A Proclamation . . . to wit: That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three . . . I do order and declare . . . that all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."
As a piece of prose it was singularly uninspiring. A disenchanted historian would later say that it "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." Yet it was destined to take its place beside the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as one of the epochal documents of American history. Lincoln was keenly aware of this. "If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act," he said to Seward as he carefully proofread the papers he held in his hands. But what, he wondered, would be posterity's verdict on the Emancipation Proclamation? Would it be remembered as the pathetic last gasp of a failed leader, or would it be celebrated as a noble edict that freed 4 million people and provided moral justification for the obscene bloodshed of this dreadful war? He did not know. But of two things he was sure: first, if slavery was not wrong, then nothing was wrong; and second, if he did not use every means at hand to save the Union, then he was unworthy of his office.
He put the proclamation back on the table and reached for his pen, savoring the moment. At long last he was going to strike in public at something he had always detested in private. He hated slavery viscerally, had done so since his youth when the sight of blacks chained together "like so many fish upon a trot-line" had sickened him. He hated it on an intellectual level, too, considering it a moral abomination that deprived America's "republican example of its just influence in the world--enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites." Human bondage made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, which was the wellspring of his political beliefs. It contradicted the fundamental assertion that all men are created equal, and it thwarted America from carrying out what he believed was its great historical mission--to advance the cause of liberty and democratic self-government around the globe.
As much as he loathed slavery and deplored what it had done to the country, the decision to abolish it had been a difficult one. Would emancipation lead Union soldiers to desert en masse, as many prophesied? Would it goad the slaveholding border states into casting their lot with the Confederacy? And what of the ex-slaves? Was America ready for the social convulsion that was sure to come when 4 million Negroes sought freedom's inevitable corollary, equality? Would the price of universal freedom be eternal racial strife?
Lincoln had responded to arguments for and against emancipation by bluntly restating his war aims. The paramount object was to save the Union, he insisted; his policy on slavery would be formulated with that goal in mind.
It was an inescapable fact that slaves constituted more than half the Confederacy's workforce. They raised food, manufactured munitions, hauled supplies, and dug fortifications, enabling the South to field a much larger army than would otherwise have been possible. If he took the toil of these laborers from the rebels, he would severely weaken their ability to wage war.
Equally important to Lincoln's way of thinking was the political and psychological impact of emancipation. Just as Federal armies were arrayed against Confederate forces in the field, so he was pitted against the rebel president in Richmond, engaging in a war of words, the objective of which was to seize and hold the moral high ground. The importance of this war-within-a-war could not, he believed, be underestimated. The power of public sentiment to sustain a seemingly hopeless cause had been demonstrated during the American Revolution, when the rallying cry of liberty had inspired the colonists to fight on against the stronger, better-equipped British until France entered the fray.
The analogies that could be drawn between that conflict and this one made Lincoln exceedingly uncomfortable. When Jefferson Davis trumpeted that the Confederacy stood for independence while the Union stood for tyranny, when he cast himself as Washington to Lincoln's George III, he was gaining the upper hand in the struggle of images and ideas. Lincoln knew the only way to counterattack was to raise high the banner of emancipation and transform the war from a struggle against secession, an undertaking that smacked of subjugation, to a crusade for human freedom, an endeavor consecrated by America's revolutionary heritage. By defining the enemy cause as slavery rather than independence, he would strengthen Northern resolve and make it all but impossible for the governments of Britain and France to intervene on behalf of the South. Forced to depend on its own limited resources, the Confederacy must eventually be crushed by the weight of Northern numbers.
He knew his critics would argue that emancipation by executive fiat was patently unconstitutional. They would say that by flouting that sacred document, he was, in effect, enslaving whites to free blacks. His response to the first charge was that emancipation was a military necessity essential to the preservation of the Union and therefore an action he was entitled to take as commander in chief.
As for the second accusation, he could not deny that it had a demagogic ring to it, but clearly he was not taking liberty from whites in order to give it to blacks. Rather, he was emancipating the slaves so that whites might restore the Union, thereby saving their democratic institutions and perpetuating their republican freedoms. "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?" he had asked shortly after the war began. This proclamation was his answer. The struggle of today was not altogether for today. It was for a vast future also, and so extraordinary measures were necessary, including emancipation, so that America might have a chance to realize the Founders' dream of a permanent democracy based on the principles of liberty and equality.
He dipped the pen in an inkwell, but as he held it over the parchment sheets, his arm began to quiver. Grimacing, he flexed his fingers and massaged his shoulder. "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper," he said apologetically to the small crowd of witnesses gathered about the cabinet table. "But I have been shaking hands since nine o'clock this morning 'til my arm is stiff and numb. Now this signature is one that will be closely examined, and if they find my hand trembled they will say, 'He had some compunctions.' But anyway, it is going to be done."
And with that he slowly, firmly wrote out his full name.
Setting the pen down, he looked anxiously at the glistening signature. It was a little tremulous, he fretted, but then, as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders, he relaxed, settled back into his chair, and murmured in a voice just loud enough to be heard: "That will do."
A fierce blizzard ushered the new year into New England. In Boston traffic was brought to a standstill by blowing and drifting snow. Some 3,000 antislavery stalwarts ventured out nonetheless, making their way on foot to the Music Hall, where a program of speeches and music celebrating the signing of the final Emancipation Proclamation was scheduled for late afternoon.
In attendance was a pantheon of American letters: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton and Francis Parkman. Many of the antislavery movement's leading lights were there, too, including former Boston mayor Josiah Quincy, Jr., novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison.
The concert began shortly after 5 p.m., when Emerson walked out on stage and gave a dramatic reading of an ode he had composed especially for the occasion:
The word of the Lord by night
To the watching Pilgrims came,
As they sat by the seaside,
And filled their hearts with flame. . . .
My angel,--his name is Freedom,--
Choose him to be your King;
He shall cut pathways east and west
And fend you with his wing. . . .
I break your bonds and masterships,
And I unchain the slave:
Free be his heart and hand henceforth
As wind and wandering wave.
The Concord bard's passionate declamation brought the audience to its feet clapping and cheering. The rapturous mood was sustained by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who recited his poem "Army Hymn," and by conductor Carl Zerrahn, who led the Boston Philharmonic in stirring renditions of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," Mendelssohn's "Hymn of Praise," and Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus.
The high point of the evening was to be the announcement that the president had signed the proclamation, and the anticipation in the stifling theater was palpable. But as the hours passed and no word came, the "watching pilgrims" grew anxious. Rumors that Lincoln had succumbed to political pressure and withdrawn the edict circulated through the crowd. Many people found themselves repeating the warning voiced several days earlier by abolitionist clergyman Henry Ward Beecher: "It is far easier to slide down the banisters than to go up the stairs."
Outside the Music Hall the storm had stopped, and the skies were starting to clear. The renowned black orator Frederick Douglass was walking from his lodgings near Boston Common to Tremont Temple, where he was to be the featured speaker at an emancipation celebration sponsored by the Negro-run Union Progressive Association. Douglass was in a jubilant mood as he trudged along the snow-covered streets, looking up at the stars that twinkled through breaks in the low clouds. The soft glow of the lanterns framing the Temple entrance seemed to him almost divinely radiant, and as he entered the building and took his place on the stage, he gave thanks to God that he had lived to see this day.
A line of messengers had been posted between the Temple and the city telegraph office so that news of the proclamation's signing could be rushed to the waiting audience without delay. "Eight, nine, ten o'clock came and went and still no word," Douglass wrote of the vigil. "At last, when patience was well-nigh exhausted, and suspense was becoming agony, a man advanced through the crowd, and with a face fairly illumined with the news he bore, exclaimed in tones that thrilled all hearts, 'It is coming!' 'It is on the wires!' "
There was a moment of stunned silence; then hats and bonnets were hurled into the air, and people shouted, wept, and jumped for joy. The whole audience joined in singing the jubilee song, "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow," after which the text of the proclamation was read aloud. Finally, when the cheering had subsided, Douglass strode to the front of the stage. He raised his arms high and led the throng in a hymn of deliverance, his organlike baritone throbbing with emotion as he sang:
Sound the loud timbrel o'er Egypt's dark sea,
Jehovah hath triumphed, His people are free.
At the Music Hall news of the proclamation's signing caused a commotion "such as was never before seen from such an audience in that place." Casting aside their customary reserve, the Boston abolitionists gave three thunderous cheers for Abraham Lincoln, then three more for William Lloyd Garrison. The crowd was close to hysteria when someone started a rhythmic chant for Harriet Beecher Stowe. The author of Uncle Tom's Cabin acknowledged the huzzahs by coming to the rail of the balcony where she had been inconspicuously seated. She was too overcome by emotion to speak. Gazing down into the sea of upturned faces, she could only wave, bow deeply, and dab at her brimming eyes.
The Music Hall celebrants eventually shouted themselves hoarse and went home. But the black revelers at Tremont Temple were too excited to disperse. At midnight they moved to the nearby Twelfth Baptist Church. There the joyful strains of "John Brown's Body," "Marching On," and "Glory Hallelujah" continued to sound until dawn, when the exhausted but still-ebullient assembly finally broke up.
Nine hundred miles southwest of Boston, in Savannah, Georgia, Colonel Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., scion of a wealthy plantation family, spent New Year's Day worrying about emancipation's effect on the Confederacy. "I look upon it as a . . . most infamous attempt to incite flight, murder, and rapine on the part of our slave population," he wrote. "The North furnishes an example of refined barbarity, moral degeneracy, religious impiety, soulless honor, and absolute degradation almost beyond belief."
The only acceptable response, he argued, was reprisal. "By the statute law of the state, anyone who attempts to incite insurrection among our slaves shall, if convicted, suffer death. Is it right, is it just to treat with milder considerations the lawless bands of armed marauders who will infest our borders to carry into practical operation the proclamation of the infamous Lincoln, subvert our entire social system, desolate our homes, and convert the quiet, ignorant, dependent black son of toil into a savage incendiary and brutal murderer?"
The answer, he concluded, was no, although he was not unmindful of the dire consequences that executing prisoners of war might have. "It does indeed appear impossible to conjecture where all this will end," he lamented.
Twenty-five miles northeast of Savannah, at Camp Saxton in the Union-controlled Sea Islands of South Carolina, the arrival of the new year and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation were commemorated with patriotic speeches, a dress parade, and a big barbecue.
A large, predominantly black crowd began congregating for the festivities around 10 a.m., arriving at the camp by boat and wagon from the plantations at nearby Beaufort, Port Royal, St. Helena, and Hilton Head Islands. Women wearing gingham frocks, delicately fringed shawls, white aprons, and brightly colored scarfs; men dressed in dark trousers, tightly buttoned vests, and Sunday-go-to-meeting coats, gathered about a speakers' platform that had been erected in a grove of towering live oak trees. The morning was cool and bright, and the beards of Spanish moss trailing from the branches stirred in the brine-scented breeze gusting off Port Royal Sound.
The celebration began at eleven-thirty when the soldiers of the First South Carolina Volunteers, a new all-black infantry regiment, formed into ranks behind the platform. Resplendent in their dark blue jackets and red pantaloons, the troops proudly performed the manual of arms, whipping their rifles through the movements so smartly that watching white officers whistled in amazement.
The commander of the First South Carolina, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, stepped forward and unfurled a stand of colors presented to the regiment by the Church of the Puritans in New York City. Before he could begin his prepared remarks, the blacks in the audience burst into song, their voices rising sweet and clear as they sang: "My country, 'tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty." The soldiers quickly joined in and did not stop until they had sung all four verses. It was a spontaneous outpouring "so simple, so touching, so utterly unexpected and startling, that I can scarcely believe it on recalling," Higginson later wrote. "It seemed the choked voice of a race at last unloosed." Deeply moved, he told the crowd that its song had expressed the true meaning of the day far more eloquently than any speech he could make. He presented the flags to the regimental color guards, who led the troops onto the adjoining parade ground, where they marched back and forth, arms swinging and bayonets flashing.
When the close-order drill was finished, the regiment was dismissed and the barbecue began. Ten steers, one for each fifty-five-man company, had been spitted and roasted over a pit of glowing coals, and ten barrels of molasses and water had been mixed and placed on long picnic tables set beneath the trees. Soldiers and spectators alike drank and feasted all afternoon, and when the sun went down, a bonfire was lit and a "grand shout"--a cross between a revival meeting and a Sunday school sing-along--commenced. The winter moon rose over the sound, its pale silver light glittering off the waves, and as the sparks from the fire floated skyward to mingle with the twinkling stars, the ex-slaves sang "some of their sweetest, wildest hymns."
That same evening, four hundred miles to the northwest, Tennessee slaveowner John Houston Bills retired to his study and breathed a sigh of relief: New Year's Day was almost over and his eighty-odd field hands had not run away. "They do not perceive that they are free by Lincoln's proclamation," he scribbled in his diary. He hoped to get several more months' work out of them before they learned of the president's action, but he knew he could not count on it. "We have anticipated trouble," he wrote, "and I think will yet have it with regard to holding them."
One hundred miles north of the Bills plantation, in the bluegrass country of central Kentucky, John Montgomery Ashley assembled his slaves in the great hall of his home and told them about the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Kentucky was a border state and thus exempt from the proclamation's provisions, Ashley had decided to give his servants the choice of continuing as his chattel or striking out on their own. He carefully explained the meaning of the document, then asked them what they wished to do.
For several minutes the blacks were silent. Then Uncle Dan, the oldest of the slaves, stepped forward. "Freedom are an unbroke filly and mighty skittish," he said, looking intently at his master. "But I are goin' to mount her just the same--rheumatiz, cane, and all. Marse Jack, you been a good master to these people, but there's nothin' like freedom--'cepting freedom."
And with that he hobbled out of the house, never to be seen by Ashley again.
Indiana private John McClure had gone to war to save the Union, not to end slavery. He felt betrayed when he learned what Lincoln had done on New Year's Day. "I used to think that we were fighting for the Union and Constitution, but we are not," he wrote with unconcealed bitterness. "We are fighting to free those colored gentlemen."
Like most of his comrades in the Union army, McClure disliked blacks and abhorred emancipation. "If I had my way about things, I would shoot ever[y] nigger I came across," he declared. As for the president's proclamation, he hoped it would fail and that "Old Abe and all the rest of his nigger lovers" would be thrown out of office in the next election.
Five blocks from the White House, in front of the offices of the Washington Evening Star, Henry M. Turner, the black pastor of the Israel Bethel Church, waited impatiently for word that the president had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Although Congress had freed slaves in the District of Columbia eight months earlier, the local black community remained intensely interested in the fate of friends and loved ones still being held in bondage in Maryland and Virginia, or confined to one of the contraband camps--detention centers for runaway slaves--scattered throughout the city.
The crowd in front of the Star building had grown to several hundred when, shortly after 5 p.m., a man appeared at the door lugging a thick bundle of newspapers. "The first sheet . . . with the proclamation in it was grabbed for by three of us," Turner recalled years later, "but some active young man got possession of it and fled. The next sheet was grabbed for by several, and was torn into tatters. The third sheet was grabbed for by several, but I succeeded in procuring so much of it as contained the proclamation, and . . . down Pennsylvania [Avenue] I ran as for my life."
When he arrived at his church, which was nearly a mile away, he was so out of breath, he could not speak. He handed the paper to another man, who promptly read it to the assembled congregation. "They raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening," Turner wrote. "Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands . . . and cannons began to fire at the navy-yard."
At the contraband camp on North Twelfth Street, a bellman made the rounds of the living quarters, summoning the residents to the chapel. By the hundreds they poured out of the drafty barracks, which had previously housed the dragoons of General McClellan's bodyguard, and made their way across the muddy quadrangle to the meetinghouse. The camp's patriarch, a grizzled old black man known as John the Baptist, led the assembly in prayer. Then Superintendent B. D. Nichols read aloud the edict of emancipation. Ecstatic cries arose as he spoke: "I am free! I am free!" and the entire group sang "Go Down Moses" and "There's a Better Day a-Coming."
When the spirituals were finished, the former slaves took turns telling of their experiences in bondage and of the joy they felt now that the day of jubilee had finally come. "Once the time was, that I cried all night," shouted one, a man named Thornton. "What's the matter? What's the matter? Matter enough. The next morning my child was to be sold, and I never expect to see her no more 'til the day of judgment. Now, no more of that! No more of that! No more of that! They can't sell my wife and child any- more, bless the Lord! No more of that! No more of that! No more of that now!"
After dark, a torch-carrying throng gathered in front of the White House and called loudly for the president. He appeared for an instant at a second-story window. The crowd screamed and cried that "if he would come out of that palace, they would hug him to death." Reverend Turner was in the midst of the wrought-up mob, and the feeling that swept over him when Lincoln showed his face was something he would never forget. "It was indeed a time of times," he marveled; "nothing like it will ever be seen again in this life."
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: United States History Civil War, 1861-1865