What Mattered More?


“Watch Night Meeting”: Slaves await midnight on December 31, 1862; Source: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/odyssey/archive/04/0421001r.jpg

As 1862 drew to a close, as far as emancipation was concerned the nation’s attention was riveted on whether President Abraham Lincoln would finalize the Emancipation Proclamation. They had little to worry about on that score. In the last days of 1862, Lincoln and his cabinet were not debating whether the administration should go ahead with the proclamation, but fussed over its exact wording. While these details certainly were important, it was clear from the discussions that the Emancipation Proclamation was going ahead.

Far from Washington, D.C., however, out in the country other things were happening that make the Lincoln administration putting the final touches on the Emancipation Proclamation seem not quite so important, as titanic a milestone as it was. One such place was Helena, Arkansas, west of the Mississippi River, far from the national capital. Like other parts of the Confederacy that had come under the control of federal forces, slaves in the vicinity fled to Union lines. Yet instead of finding protection, many of the slaves in Helena, Arkansas, instead found mistreatment from the Yankee soldiers and officers.

A committee of chaplains and surgeons reported these injustices to the Union commander of the Army of the Southwest, Maj. Gen. Samuel Curtis, in a letter dated December 29, 1862. They wrote:

The Contrabands within our lines are experiencing hardships oppression & neglect the removal of which calls loudly for the intervention of authority.  We daily see & deplore the evil and leave it to your wisdom to devise a remedy.  In a great degree the contrabands are left entirely to the mercy and rapacity of the unprincipled part of our army (excepting only the limited jurisdiction of capt Richmond) with no person clothed with Specific authority to look after & protect them.  Among their list of grievances we mention these:

Some who have been paid by individuals for cotton or for labor have been waylaid by soldiers, robbed, and in several instances fired upon, as well as robbed, and in no case that we can now recal have the plunderers been brought to justice–

The wives of some have been molested by soldiers to gratify thier licentious lust, and thier husbands murdered in endeavering to defend them, and yet the guilty parties, though known, were not arrested.  Some who have wives and families are required to work on the Fortifications, or to unload Government Stores, and receive only their meals at the Public table, while their families, whatever provision is intended for them, are, as a matter of fact, left in a helpless & starving condition

Many of the contrabands have been employed, & received in numerous instances, from officers & privates, only counterfeit money or nothing at all for their services.  One man was employed as a teamster by the Government & he died in the service (the government indebted to him nearly fifty dollars) leaving an orphan child eight years old, & there is no apparent provision made to draw the money, or to care for the orphan child.  The negro hospital here has become notorious for filth, neglect, mortality & brutal whipping, so that the contrabands have lost all hope of kind treatment there, & would almost as soon go to their graves as to their hospital.  These grievances reported to us by persons in whom we have confidence, & some of which we know to be true, are but a few of the many wrongs of which they complain–  For the sake of humanity, for the sake of christianity, for the good name of our army, for the honor of our country, cannot something be done to prevent this oppression & to stop its demoralizing influences upon the Soldiers themselves?  Some have suggested that the matter be laid befor the [War] Department at Washington, in the hope that they will clothe an agent with authority, to register all the names of the contrabands, who will have a benevolent regard for their welfare, though whom all details of fatigue & working parties shall be made though whom rations may be drawn & money paid, & who shall be empowered to organize schools, & to make all needfull Regulations for the comfort & improvement of the condition of the contrabands; whose accounts shall be open at all times for inspection, and who shall make stated reports to the Department.

Certainly, the Emancipation Proclamation’s finalization ultimately would prove much more important than the ill-treatment of escaped slaves in Arkansas by Union soldiers and officers in late 1862. Still, remembering it should temper the joyful stories of people gathering together on the evening of December 31, what became known as “Watch Night,” waiting for the stroke of midnight when presumably Lincoln’s proclamation would go into effect freeing millions of slaves in the rebel South. (Read this account of one Watch Night service in December 1862 as reported by the New York Times.) It portended the very real problems for freed people that accompanied their liberation from bondage. So while it is proper to remember Lincoln signing the final Emancipation Proclamation, neither should the suffering that accompanied it be forgotten.

Source: http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/Sawyer.html

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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2 Responses to What Mattered More?

  1. Pingback: Happy Emancipation Day « Student of the American Civil War

  2. Pingback: ESSAY: Shaffer on Emancipation and “What Mattered More?” | African Diaspora, Ph.D.

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