New Year’s Day 1865—and those in the two years previous—were among the most poignant and pregnant with new beginnings in American history. Ever since Lincoln had signaled his intent in September 1862 to declare slaves in rebel states emancipated as of New Year’s 1863, the possibility of freedom for African-Americans in the South had been hanging in the air, depending on the war’s progression.
African-American communities already held traditional church services on New Year’s Eve, but they took on a special meaning as the country welcomed in the watershed year of 1863, becoming the predecessors of today’s Watch Night services. In Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the many free black communities in other cities and towns, African-Americans gathered to anticipate the moment the United States finally would declare itself at war with slavery and not simply disunion.
In Union-held Portsmouth, Va., black families packed the A.M.E. church until well past midnight to pray, to sing, and to hope. Some 5,000 men, women, and children marched and rode horses the next day, hoisting banners. They celebrated despite jeers from troops from New York and also despite the fact that Portsmouth was not covered by the proclamation because it was under Union control before Lincoln made his announcement. But the significance of this decidedly imperfect decree was still electric.
In Georgia, on the plantation that held Ed McCree and his family captive, the Emancipation Proclamation was nothing more than a theoretical abstraction that New Year’s Day of 1863. While it effectively meant the United States government no longer considered Ed the property of his owner John McCree, the proclamation was not known to any slave on the plantation. As 1863 dawned, the Union Army was two years away from being in a position to deliver on the proclamation’s promise to Ed.
Sherman’s March to the Sea from Atlanta in late 1864 took the Federals right through the McCree plantation before Christmas. After the troops had passed, Ed remembered his owner gathering his former property before him and beginning to state that they were free. The young boy didn’t actually hear what was said; he remembered bolting at the first words and running “around that place, a-shouting at the top of my voice.”
Emancipation was the beginning of a host of decisions and challenges for Ed and his family. The entire world the former slaves knew and had learned to survive, especially Georgia and South Carolina’s “Kingdom of Rice,” was gone. Should the family stay where they were or should they follow Sherman’s Army? Even if they were slaves no more, the Emancipation Proclamation did not make African-Americans citizens. And many who’d hoped for slavery’s abolition also hoped people like Ed would leave the country in which they were born to “go back to Africa.”For some members of my extended family back then, uncertainty about their future in the United States was enough for them to go to Canada.
In honor of all the folks for whom emancipation suddenly marched their way as 1864 came to an end, we are putting a decidedly Savannah flavor into the traditional dish of New Year’s hoppin’ John with Carolina Gold Rice and low-country red peas, a staple for slaves in the region. We will enjoy the dish as a tribute to the resilient spirit of the thousands who found themselves traveling a new road to find their way in a new, unknown America.