After time off for Christmas and feasts with young pigs, cattle and peaches (still summer-sweet because they were packed in wheat straw and cottonseed that kept them fresh), New Year's Day typically meant that Ed McCree, enslaved on a thousand-acre Georgia cotton plantation 150 years ago, would be again forced to carry buckets of water to the men and women working in the fields.
But in December of 1864, William Tecumseh Sherman's Union Army had just marched across Georgia and reached the seaport of Savannah, offering it to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present. The New Year's Day that followed — and those in the two years previous — were among the most poignant and pregnant with new beginnings in American history. Ever since Lincoln had signaled his intent in September 1862 to declare slaves in rebel states emancipated as of New Year's 1863, the possibility of freedom for African-Americans in the South had been hanging in the air, depending on the war's progression.
I've long been fascinated by this transitory period of anticipation, in part because some of my ancestors were living under slavery and grappled with what it meant to be emancipated, either by their own actions or by decree.
African-American communities already held traditional church services on New Year's eves, but they took on a special meaning as the country welcomed in the watershed year of 1863, becoming the predecessors of today's Watch Night services. In Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the many free black communities in other cities and towns, African-Americans gathered to anticipate the moment the United States finally would declare itself at war with slavery and not simply disunion.
In Georgia, on the plantation that held Ed McCree and his family captive, the Emancipation Proclamation was nothing more than a theoretical abstraction on that New Year's Day of 1863. While it effectively meant the United States government no longer considered Ed the property of his owner John McCree, the proclamation was not known to any slave on the plantation. As 1863 dawned, the Union Army was far from being in a position to deliver on the proclamation's promise to Ed.
Sherman's March to the Sea from Atlanta in late 1864 took the Federals right through the McCree plantation before Christmas. After the troops had passed, Ed remembered his owner gathering his former property before him and beginning to state that they were free. The young boy didn't actually hear what was said; he remembered bolting at the first words and running "around that place, a-shouting at the top of my voice."
Emancipation was the beginning of a host of decisions and challenges for Ed and his family. The entire world the former slaves knew and had learned to survive was gone. Should the family stay where they were or should they follow Sherman's Army? Even if they were slaves no more, the Emancipation Proclamation did not make African-Americans citizens. And many who had hoped for slavery's abolition also hoped people like Ed would leave the country in which they were born to "go back to Africa." For some members of my extended family back then, uncertainty about their future in the United States was enough for them to go to Canada.
Today, as we continue to struggle with race relations in America, we should pay tribute to the resilient spirit of the thousands who found themselves traveling a new road a century and a half ago, after emancipation suddenly marched into their lives in 1864. They set out to find their way in a new, unknown America — a goal many of their descendants have already met, while others are still reaching for it today.
Christopher Wilson is director of the program in African-American history and culture at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He also is director of experience and program design and founded the museum's award-winning educational theater program. He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square. His email is WilsonC@si.edu.