Yet, while social media swarms with memes and statuses claiming this is seemingly one of the worst years on record—and that most people should be anticipating 2017 with more vigor than years’ past—a glimpse at the record provides valuable historical context to other truly imperative, though ambiguous, epochs.
New Year’s Eve 1862 provides perhaps the greatest example of such a time. The United States had been engaged in the Civil War for more than a year, and battles were getting bloodier by the month. The apparent innocence of 1861 engagements like those which were fought at Fort Sumter and Bull Run had been mere precursors to gruesome 1862 clashes at Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
On battlefields east of the Mississippi River, Union soldiers were largely unsuccessful; aside from the nominal victory on Sept. 17 at Antietam, the Army of the Potomac could not claim a single subtantial tactical success to its credit.
It was Antietam, though, which provided the U.S. government and Abraham Lincoln with an unprecedented opportunity: On Sept. 22, in light of the success—limited though it was—the president issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, promising freedom to “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.”
The final days of late-December 1862 posed an incredibly tense way to end the year.
The “so-called holidays of that season” were “uncheerful,” wrote reporter Noah Brooks. Washington “was filled with wounded and dying men.” Hotels were “crowded” with “multitudes of people from the North, seeking lost, missing, or wounded relatives.” And yet, Brooks declared, “with all these great signs of woe on every hand, and with the great heart of the nation oppressed with discouragement and anxiety, the customary and conventional festivities of Christmas and New Year’s day must be observed.”
Meanwhile, throughout the North, white abolitionists and free African Americans (many of whom were former slaves themselves) partook in “Watch Night” festivities--celebrations at public venues where anxious crowds awaited official notifications regarding the Emancipation Proclamation.
Frederick Douglass, a nationally known orator who escaped slavery decades earlier, attended one such gathering at Tremont Temple, a Baptist church in Boston. The occasion provided “scarcely a day for prose,” Douglass announced, but rather “a day for poetry and song.” The “cloudless skies” and “brilliant sunshine” overhead earlier in the week were “in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn upon us.”
While optimistic, Douglass could not help but feel uncertain, as well; as the hands of the clock passed by, hour after hour, “the immense assembly” gathered with feelings of both “hope and fear.” Douglass and company had come together “to receive and celebrate the first utterance of the long-hoped-for proclamation”—that was, “if it came,” and much to the assembly’s chagrin, “it did not come” for quite some time.
By Douglass’ estimation, “Mr. Lincoln was known to be a man of tender heart, and boundless patience” who had not yet “shown himself a man of heroic measures.” The act of signing the proclamation, however, “must be the end of all compromises with slavery,” and therefore Lincoln’s leadership “belonged to that class” of immortality.
“A line of messengers was established between the telegraph office and the platform of Tremont Temple” to transport incoming news, according to Douglass, and as the night passed on, “the time was occupied with brief speeches” by ministers, abolitionists, and other public orators. “But speaking or listening to speeches was not the thing for which the people had come together,” he quipped.
“Every moment of waiting chilled our hopes, and strengthened our fears…,” professed Douglass. He continued:
“The time for argument was passed. It was not logic, but the trump of jubilee, which everybody wanted to hear. We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four million of slaves; we were watching, as it were, by the dim light of the stars, for the dawn of a new day; we were longing for the answer to the agonizing prayers of centuries. Remembering those in bonds as bound with them, we wanted to join in the shout for freedom, and in the anthem of the redeemed.”
Meanwhile in Washington, Lincoln likely pondered the course of events he was about to ignite. According to journalist and historian Todd Brewster, in the 1930s a letter surfaced detailing Lincoln’s activities on the night of Dec 31.
Per Brewster’s explanation of that evening in his 2014 book “Lincoln’s Gamble: The Tumultuous Six Months that Gave America the Emancipation Proclamation and Changed the Course of the Civil War,” Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, maintained that “before she retired” to bed, First Lady Mary Todd “repeated her opposition to the proclamation.” Lincoln apparently had no response; he “simply paced, pausing once in a while to read a few favorite verses from the Bible and to gaze through the White House window at the open sky.”
The document that “is now heralded as one of the greatest acts in the advancement of human liberty” sat on a table in front of Lincoln, Brewster continued. The act of signing it would christen him as “the Great Emancipator,” and bring “men and women to their knees as if he were divinely touched.”
Newspaper correspondent Benjamin Perley Poore maintained that Lincoln held “a steel pen with a wooden handle, the end of which had been gnawed by Mr. Lincoln—a habit that he had when composing anything that required thought.” According to Poore, while alone, Lincoln was usually wearing “a long-skirted, faded dressing-gown, belted around his waist, and slippers.”
At one point that night or early on the morning of Jan. 1, “the good President stood serene and even smiling,” observed Noah Brooks. “But as I watched his face, I could see that he often looked over the heads of the multitudinous strangers who shook his hand with fervor and affection.”
Perhaps, thought Brooks, Lincoln was not mentally present in the moment; it seemed his thoughts “‘were far away’” with soldiers then fighting on “bloody and snowy” battlefields. In Brooks’ opinion, while the signing of the proclamation marked a joyous event, the fact that it took place “in the midst of this turmoil” disallowed it from truly being “an occasion for cheer.”
Whereas Brooks felt Lincoln’s lonely status could be attributed to his reservations about the rightness of the timing, Frederick Seward heard Lincoln explain his reasoning for maintaining quietude. It was not out of reluctance, or gloom, but rather anticipation.
“The broad sheet” bearing the Emancipation Proclamation “was spread out before him on the Cabinet table,” wrote Seward. “Mr. Lincoln dipped his pen in the ink, and then, holding it a moment above the paper, seemed to hesitate.”
Lincoln then looked around and addressed those gathered. There was no uncertainty—merely a tired arm, thanks to “‘receiving calls, and shaking hands’” for several hours.
“‘I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper…,’” he announced. “‘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, any way, it is going to be done!’”
“So saying, he slowly and carefully wrote his name at the bottom of the Proclamation,” reflected Seward. “The signature proved to be unusually bold, clear, and firm, even for him.”
Lincoln followed it up with a smile and a laugh, then affixed “the great seal” and “had the important document placed among the archives,” while copies were distributed to the press.
Several hours later in Boston, the news reached the Watch Night gathering at Tremont Temple.
According to Frederick Douglass, “At last, when patience was well-nigh exhausted, and suspense was becoming agony,” a local judge “advanced through the crowd, and with a face fairly illuminated with the news he bore, exclaimed in tones that thrilled all hearts, ‘It is coming!’ ‘It is on the wires!!’” The room exploded with emotion in a “wild and grand” scene which Douglass described as “startling beyond description.”
“Joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression from shouts of praise, to sobs and tears,” Douglass continued. A minister “expressed the heart-felt emotion of the hour, when he led all voices in the anthem, ‘Sound the loud timbrel o’er Egypt’s dark sea, Jehovan hath triumphed, his people are free.’”
In time, the merits of the proclamation and its effects would be argued—debates which continue even today, a century-and-a-half later. Yet, above all else, as Douglass said, it represented a “first step.” It told American slaves, for the first time, that the U.S. government understood their plight, and would take the necessary measures to ensure their freedom and wellbeing (though even that notion would have a much more complicated legacy in later years).
For that reason, the conclusion of 1862 and the onset of 1863 provides a valuable glimpse at an imperative time of transition between calendar years. Gideon Welles reflected on this general notion on Dec. 31, 1862. He concluded his diary entry that day by writing:
“The year closes less favorably than I had hoped and expected, yet some progress has been made. It is not to be denied, however, that the national ailment seems more chronic. The disease is deep-seated. Energetic measures are necessary, and I hope we may have them. None of us appear to do enough, and yet I am surprised that we have done so much. We have had some misfortunes, and a lurking malevolence exists towards us among nations, that could not have been anticipated. Worse than this, the envenomed, relentless, and unpatriotic spirit of party paralyzes and weakens the hand of the Government and country.”
At the close of 2016 and dawn of 2017, the nation’s political and social landscape is not nearly as bleak as it was then, but from multiple perspectives the experiences of these figures and the weight of Welles’ words are nonetheless remarkably prescient.