The African American Civil War Museum invites you to join us on December 31, 2012 for Watch Night services wherever you are.
List your church, synagogue, mosque or temple as a Watch Night site.
In America’s African descent community, Watch Night began on December 31, 1862. It was and is a religious service in which they prayed for and watched for the coming of God’s deliverance. The sign of that deliverance came on January 1, 1863 in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Join us in the 150th anniversary observation of this important American tradition.
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On The Tradition of Watch Night
Frederick Douglass wrote that December 31, 1862 was “a day for poetry and song, a new song. These cloudless skies, this balmy air, this brilliant sunshine, (making December as pleasant as May), are in harmony with the glorious morning of liberty about to dawn up on us.” President Lincoln had promised a proclamation emancipating slaves in the states in rebellion 99 days earlier; and on “watch night,” Americans of African descent faithfully “watched” for his proclamation to be issued on the 100th day. In Boston, Douglass reported that “a line of messengers was established between the telegraph office and the platform at Tremont Temple,” where Douglass and many others gathered on “watch night.” With great expectations, African Americans looked to January 1, 1863, as the day of jubilee. Many of their faithful elders who had ascended such as Reverend Absalom Jones had admonished those oppressed by the Great Houses of America to believe that God had indeed heard their cries and would deliver them from their taskmasters. The believers congregated in churches in the North and around “praying trees” in secret locations in the South on the evening of December 31, 1862, to “watch” for the coming of the Emancipation Proclamation, evidence that God had heard their cries; thus, the tradition of “watch night” was born.
When what Douglass called the “trump of jubilee” was heard, “joy and gladness exhausted all forms of expression,” he wrote, “from shouts of praise to sobs and tears.” In Washington, Reverend Henry M. Turner, pastor of Israel Bethel AME Church located on Capitol Hill, wrote that it was in the churches of the District of Columbia where “expressions of sentiments” for the Emancipation Proclamation could be heard. “Watching” for the issuing of the final Emancipation Proclamation was not simply “watching” for emancipation. African Americans were “watching” for the opportunity to fight for freedom. It was the beginning of their journey through the parting of “a red sea” of blood. There would much more bloodshed before all could sing freedom’s song. The enslaved in the District had already been emancipated, but they prayed for the freedom of all; and they expressed their willingness to fight for the freedom of all. “Several colored men in this city,” wrote Reverend Turner, “say they are now ready for the battlefield. Abraham Lincoln can get anything he wants from the colored people here from a company to a corps. I would not be surprised to see myself carrying a musket before long.” Later that year, Turner would recruit hundreds of men and become a chaplain in the Union Army. The Day of Jubilee began a journey to freedom in league with the Constitution of the United States, and that beginning is what they were watching for on Watch Night.
It is important that we in the 21st century understand what they were watching for on Watch Night. We must first appreciate that the Emancipation Proclamation did not simply free the slaves. It declared free slaves in the states in rebellion. It was in Lincoln’s words “a fit and necessary war measure” for preserving the Union. Lincoln also wrote in the Proclamation that it “was warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity.” The military necessity that led to the Emancipation Proclamation meant that the help of African Americans was needed to save the Union. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, declared in January 1863 that the “proclamation is also an authentic statement by the Government of the United States of its inability to subjugate the South by force of arms.” We can add without the help of the so-called Negro because the Government of the United States was able “to subjugate the South by force of arms” after African Americans officially joined the fight in league with the US Constitution. After almost two years of war, it was recognized by the leadership of the Confederacy government and the leadership of the Federal government that the Emancipation Proclamation was a military necessity that explicitly called on the help of African Americans.
Unequivocally, Lincoln believed that African descent soldiers were critical to Union success. The President wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant in August 1863 stating that he believed African descent soldiers were “a resource which if vigourously [sic] applied now, will soon close the contest.” Grant replied stating that he shared the President’s belief declaring that “by arming the negro, we have added a powerful ally.” In response to criticism of Union men who opposed emancipation and the use of African descent soldiers, Lincoln wrote, “I know, as fully as one can know the opinions of others that some of the commanders of our armies in the field, who have given us our most important successes, believe the emancipation policy, and the use of colored troops, constitute the heaviest blow yet dealt to the rebellion; and that at least one of those important successes could not have been achieved when it was, but for the aid of black soldiers. Among the commanders holding these views are some who have never had any affinity with what is called abolitionism, or with Republican party politics, but who hold them purely as military opinion.” Lincoln was fixed in the opinion that persons of African descent were needed militarily to save the Union.
Therefore, when we celebrate and commemorate Watch Night and the 150th anniversary of the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, we should appreciate the importance of the African American freedom fighters that helped save the Union and freed themselves by enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation. Such an appreciation for their contribution is to apprehend the practical significance of the Proclamation as the people who made the history understood it. We are commemorating the “watching for” the hour that the federal government’s policy aligned with the prayers of the oppressed, and we are celebrating the contributions of African descent patriots who armed with the musket and the Emancipation Proclamation marched on to victory over secession and slavery.
On the 150th anniversary of Watch Night, we should gather in churches, synagogues, mosques and in not so secret locations recognizing and commemorating those men and women of faith who gathered on December 31, 1862, to watch for the opportunity to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity under the banner of the U. S. Constitution. Indeed, on the 150th anniversary of the Day of Jubilee, we should celebrate when the war to preserve the Union officially became a war to end slavery, thus recognizing the efforts of Americans of African descent who freed themselves by helping to save the Union.
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