As December 1862 faded past Christmas, the calendar suddenly assumed significance for black Americans and many white Mainers who supported or despised them — or did not know what to think upon coming into close contact for the first time with freed slaves.
The “contrabands (escaped slaves) are coming in continually, so that we have now quite a large colony” at Bonnet Carre on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, a 14th Maine Infantry veteran said while celebrating Christmas Day.
Many blacks “are very intelligent, and are waiting with anxious suspense for the proclamation of the President, declaring them free, January 1, 1863,” the soldier informed his family. “The slaves throughout the whole South are well posted up in regard to their anticipated freedom.”
Contrary to future belief — based on “fake history” — that the President Abraham Lincoln freed all slaves within the borders of the United States with his Emancipation Proclamation, it only freed “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State” in which “the people thereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States” as of January 1, 1863. The slaves in those rebellious states and regions “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
With his proclamation Lincoln gained the authority to determine those states and parts thereof “in rebellion”: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana (excluding New Orleans and specific Union-occupied parishes), Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia (minus the 48 counties “designated as West Virginia” and seven Union-held counties in the Tidewater and elsewhere).
“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves” in the listed states “are, and henceforward shall be free,” the Emancipation Proclamation stated.
However, Lincoln’s magnificent proclamation did not free slaves in those states not “in rebellion in the United States.” Slavery remained legal in the slave states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri — all four had remained loyal to the Union —Tennessee, and the exceptions detailed in the Emancipation Proclamation.
On Lincoln’s insistence, West Virginians clamoring to join the Union as a loyal state would place language outlawing slavery in their state’s constitution. Not until the 13th Amendment became law in December 1865 was slavery finally outlawed “within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
On New Year’s Day 1863, Bangoreans ventured forth into “a bright and beautiful winter’s day,” with “the sky brilliant with sunshine, and the weather clear, bracing, and … not too cool for comfort,” penned William H. Wheeler.
En route to his Daily Whig & Courier offices in downtown Bangor, he noticed that “the streets were alive with young people enjoying the glorious weather.” The cold air had hardened the snow pack, thus “improving the opportunity for sleighing.”
Wheeler stood and watched the passing horse-drawn sleighs, a pastime captured by James Lord Pierpont in the song One Horse Open Sleigh, copyrighted by James Lord Pierpont in September 1857.
“All sorts of teams … from the old family tub of the date of ’76 to the dashing cutter” jingled and schussed past Wheeler. A large horse team trotted through Bangor while hauling the ten-seat sleigh Jenny Lind, owned by the Franklin House near the intersection of Franklin and Harlow streets.
The sleigh “takes a whole school of children at a load,” Wheeler commented on this peaceful day, about the only one Maine would experience for quite a while.#
The major news of the day was the Emancipation Proclamation, the politically brilliant September 1862 stroke by Lincoln that added human freedom to the Union’s wartime goals. The far-sighted Wheeler recognized that the proclamation “marks the natal day of universal freedom in this land, and will go down to posterity as the first grand step in the inevitable progress of events destined to place our country before the world as a nation truly just and free, and to vindicate in their fulness the glorious sentiments of our Declaration of Independence.”
Ignoring the human freedom inherent in emancipation, Republican Journal publisher William H. Simpson claimed in Belfast that “the abolition proclamation of Lincoln” was “an invitation to servile resurrection.” As occurred during Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1831, revolting slaves would butcher their white masters, provoking a brutal response upon blacks from the plantation aristocracy.
And for black soldiers caught in uniform, “retaliation by the severest punishments upon prisoners of war [would happen], even to hanging,” speculated Simpson, an anti-abolitionist already promoting Democrat Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan for president.
Next week: Maine press reacts to Lincoln freeing the slaves, Part 2
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.