Freedom's Eve: Awaiting the Passage of the Emancipation Proclamation

On December 31, 1862, enslaved and free Black Americans across the country stayed up until midnight to await the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln was to sign on January 1, 1863. Lincoln first announced his plans for the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, when he issued a preliminary version of the decision after the Battle of Antietam. Black Americans enslaved in Confederate states understood that the future of slavery in the United States hinged on whether Lincoln would follow through with his promise to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Since the start of the war, well before the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, enslaved people had been taking matters into their own hands: they escaped to US lines by the thousands and by resisted enslavement in other ways such as demanding wages. Policy makers in the United States, especially Republicans who supported the ultimate abolition of slavery, took notice; they recognized that cracks in the institution of slavery weakened the Confederate war effort. However, getting to the point where the white Northern public and US military would accept emancipation as a war aim took would take time as the military and political landscape evolved.

A historical photograph of Black Americans crossing a low river.
A photograph captured in the summer of 1862 shows formerly enslaved Black Americans crossing the Rappahannock River to US lines prior to the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Library of Congress

Notably, the presence of large numbers of enslaved people in US military camps and in Washington D.C. pressured the US government to take more decisive action against the institution of slavery. This pressure led to decisions like the First and Second Confiscation Acts, policies that slowly began acknowledging the freedom these refugees sought. The Emancipation Proclamation built on top of these existing policies.

While the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all enslaved people in the United States, it did legally free enslaved people living in areas controlled by the Confederacy—an important step toward the permanent abolition of slavery. The decision also allowed for the enlistment of Black soldiers in the United States military. Americans understood the implications of this policy: freedom would follow the arrival of the US military into any Confederate territory gained beyond January 1, 1863, and formerly enslaved men could officially participate in this liberation.1

However, the fall of 1862 had not treated the Federal war effort well. Bloody repulses came not only at Fredericksburg but also at Chickasaw Bayou, Mississippi. A Confederate raid destroyed equipment U.S. Grant had been storing for an attack on Vicksburg, Mississippi. Outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the armies waged a gruesome battle along the banks of Stones River. Politicians and lobbyists encouraged Lincoln to back away from his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation; they believed it was not the right time, in the face of so many defeats, to go ahead with the document. Lincoln refused. "The promise must now be kept, and I shall never recall one word," Lincoln told a visitor to the White House.2

A printed illustration of a huddled group of Black Americans in a small room with candlelight.
"Watch meeting, Dec. 31, 1862--Waiting for the hour / Heard & Moseley, Cartes de Visite, 10 Tremont Row, Boston."

Library of Congress

During the night of December 31, 1862, many Americans on both sides of the conflict reflected on the significance of what was to come the following morning. Frederick Douglass, who spent the night in Boston, wrote, “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four millions of slaves.”3 That night, Black Americans gathered to pray and sing as they waited for midnight. The tradition continued in following years and became known as Watch Night, or “Freedom’s Eve.” Although Watch Night was first celebrated on January 1, 1740 as a Protestant religious service, the celebration gained a new meaning in 1862.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg, many soldiers wrote about the prospect of emancipation within their letters and diaries. Taylor Pierce, a soldier in the 22nd Iowa Infantry, wrote on December 28, 1862, “We are all looking anxiously for the 1st of January and the workings of old Abe’s proclamation. We all feel that it will end the war and that it is the only thing that will give us a chance of seeing our homes since Burnside’s defeat on the [R]appahannock.”4 While Pierce spoke favorably about the coming Emancipation Proclamation, not every soldier was supportive of Lincoln’s plans for New Year’s Day. Their lack of support, however, did not hinder its passage or impact. Regardless of personal opinions toward the subject, soldiers on both sides of the conflict, as well as enslaved people in the South, understood the immediate impact that the Emancipation Proclamation would have and the irreversible changes it would bring to the United States if the Union won the war.

At the Chatham plantation in Fredericksburg, it is unclear if any enslaved people still remained on the property following the Battle of Fredericksburg in December of 1862. Earlier in 1861, the plantation’s wartime owners, Horace and Betty Lacy, moved a portion of the enslaved population at Chatham to a farm in Powhatan County before departing from Chatham themselves. The exact number of enslaved people moved to Powhatan is unknown. The Lacys tasked their neighbors, James and Susan Heflin, with looking after the plantation in their absence. In May 1862, Betty Lacy returned to Chatham briefly and discovered that roughly twenty enslaved people who had been left behind, had run away to US lines. Thirty-two enslaved people were still present in July of 1862.

If any enslaved people still remained at Chatham by the time that the Army of the Potomac arrived in November of 1862, it is possible that they took advantage of the presence of US soldiers at that time and escaped to freedom. The Heflins were still living at Chatham during the Battle of Fredericksburg, but there are no known mentions of enslaved people within letters and diaries written by those who spent time at Chatham during and after the battle. While specific information about the enslaved population of Chatham in December of 1862 is unknown, there are accounts of enslaved people in the area who celebrated the coming of the Emancipation Proclamation.

According to an article published in the Alexandria Gazette on December 31, 1862, a newspaper correspondent observed a group of enslaved people living on a plantation near Portobago, Virginia, roughly twenty miles east of Fredericksburg. The property was “one of the old Fitzhugh plantations” in King George, County.5 The correspondent wrote that the enslaved people there were “by no means mere idle spectators.” They were “fully aware that the First of January” was approaching and were “jubilant beyond description.” They sang, danced, and feasted in celebration because they “knew that a new day was dawning for them, and that the presence of the National army in their midst would hasten its approach.”6

Though the outcome of the war was far from decided on January 1, 1863, many were already certain that the final destruction of slavery would come. Enslaved people living in Virginia during the war benefitted from the many battles that took place within their state; the US Army was within reach of thousands of enslaved people, who used the opportunity to claim freedom as these battles took place. Meanwhile, enslaved people in the far reaches of the Confederacy who never encountered US forces during the war waited in earnest for the war’s conclusion and for Union victory. An enslaved woman named Fanny who lived in the Fredericksburg area chose not to flee to freedom during the war. But following the Battle of Fredericksburg she assured her enslaver that despite the setbacks, “I am as certain this war will set us free as that I stand here.”7

Fanny’s prediction came true when the United States abolished the institution of slavery by passing the 13th Amendment in 1865. Still, just as securing wartime freedom had been a process, so too would be defining what Black freedom would look like in the United States.

Monumental events like the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation continued to be celebrated by formerly enslaved people once the war was over.

Black church communities still celebrate Watch Night today. Congregations typically spend New Year’s Eve at a church service, which is followed by a meal on New Year’s Day. Traditional foods such as Hoppin’ John, a mixture of black-eyed peas and rice, are enjoyed. Historically, black-eyed peas were a symbol of good luck in West African cultures. Other cultures have since adopted the practice of eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Today, modern celebrations of Watch Night focus on the history of slavery in America and the beginnings of freedom on January 1, 1863.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park

Last updated: December 31, 2022