Watch Night

Did you attend a Watch Night service on the last night of 2012? I’ll answer for most of you and say no although it marked the 150th anniversary of the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. The original Watch Night was just that, a gathering that included prayer; usually held in black churches.

The wait, 150 years ago, was for the news that Lincoln followed through on his promise made after the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. He announced that he would issue a document proclaiming the freeing of slaves. The Proclamation “did free” the slaves in the Confederate states and allowed black men to serve in the Union army and navy. By the end of the Civil War, nearly 200,000 black men, had joined either the Union Army or Navy.

The Hartford paper had a picture of Emmanuel Gomes who had a chance to ring a replica of the Liberty Bell at the Watch Night ceremony held in that city. He is a member of the Descendants of the 29th Connecticut Colored Infantry Regiment which fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Participants in the first Watch Night service, came together to pray that Lincoln would keep his promise. Today, in many cities, they gather to commemorate the event.

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation, the National Archives in Washington D.C. put the document on public display in the Rotunda for a few days.

One could say that the Proclamation actually did nothing much for slaves in the Confederacy because many had been declaring themselves free on their own and the Presidential Proclamation had no true force in the states in rebellion. It was not enforced in Union states because of a fear that the border states that still allowed slaves, would quit the Union and join the states that were in rebellion.

In doing the research for this article, I could find nothing that said that the desk that President Lincoln used when he sign the Emancipation Proclamation, is now a treasured piece in the State Library at Hartford. But I remember hearing about the desk when we toured the State Library as part of a graduate history class.

The Proclamation has been called a moral force to the Union cause. It strengthened the Union both morally and politically. And it led to the passing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Evelyn Marshak
Waterbury, CT © 2012

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