In this New Year’s greeting for 1863, Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, the military governor of the Department of the South, encourages the African American population of the area under Union control in South Carolina to assemble to hear the Emancipation Proclamation read and “to indulge in such other manifestations of joy as may be called forth by the occasion.” The celebration took place at the camp of the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, the first unit of former slaves raised for military service during the Civil War.
The Emancipation Proclamation read in Beaufort, South Carolina, on 1 January 1863, was not the Proclamation that President Lincoln signed that day—his 1 January Proclamation would not arrive in Beaufort until 12 January, but the preliminary Proclamation, dated 22 September 1862, that announced that, if the states in rebellion—the Confederacy—did not return to the Union by 1 January, slaves held in those areas in rebellion would be “forever free.” The thousands of fugitive slaves assembled at Beaufort were part of the small percentage (tens of thousands) of four million slaves in the United States who actually were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on the day it went into effect.
Rufus Saxton, the author of the New Year’s greeting, was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 1824. He attended the United States Military Academy, graduating in 1849, fought against the Seminoles in Florida, and surveyed railroad routes in the Rocky Mountains before the Civil War. Saxton was an unusual professional army officer for his day. He was an outspoken abolitionist—making him almost unique in the officer corps. He served as an instructor at West Point and in 1855 received an honorary degree from Amherst College. During the opening campaigns of the Civil War, Saxton quickly rose to the rank of brigadier general. He won the Medal of Honor for his successful defense of Harpers Ferry during a crisis early in 1862, although his true heroism may have been to remain calm while being bombarded with contradictory and unnecessary instructions from both President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
In May 1862, Saxton became military governor of the Department of the South—those portions of coastal South Carolina, Georgia and Florida under Union control—with headquarters in Beaufort, South Carolina, the site of the Port Royal Experiment. When Union forces seized control of Port Royal and the other Sea Islands of South Carolina in the fall of 1861, the white slaveholding population fled, leaving behind thousands of slaves. Reform-minded missionaries and abolitionists flocked to Port Royal and it became a proving ground for the education of freedmen and a “rehearsal” for postwar Reconstruction.
General Saxton chafed in his role as a military administrator and devoted much of his time and energy to the recruitment and training of former slaves as soldiers. He personally recruited Captain Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a minister and abolitionist from Massachusetts who was serving as a regular officer in the Union Army, to command the First South Carolina Volunteers. Locally recruited African American soldiers soon were reinforced by free men of color from the North, beginning with the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Infantry Regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commanding the First South Carolina Volunteers, was the host for the celebration at Beaufort on 1 January. General Saxton expected 5,000 slaves to attend the celebration that would announce their freedom. Higginson had ten oxen roasted for the occasion to be washed down by a “slight collation” of barrels of molasses mixed with water. In his Army Life in a Black Regiment, Higginson recalled that the attendees were not as jubilant as he expected. They were “nominally free” already by their own actions and knew that their “practical freedom” could only be maintained by Union victory. Nevertheless, he thought the occasion a “perfect success,” and wrote movingly of how the ceremony ended with now-former slaves breaking into song—the Star Spangled Banner. There was even time for romance in the midst of the busy events of that day. General Saxton was observed wrapping his sash—a symbol of his rank—around the waist of Matilda Thompson, the “belle of Port Royal,” who had come from Philadelphia to teach in a school for freedmen. Rufus and Matilda were married in Beaufort three months later.
A year later, in his New Year’s Greeting for 1864, General Saxton addressed not slaves, but the Freedmen in his department. Looking back on the previous year, Saxton saw the Emancipation Proclamation as “the death warrant for human slavery,” but it had not come without “toil, sorrow and blood; dark shadows have passed over many hearts, and many homes in our land are desolate.” The celebration on 1 January 1864 was held at Camp Shaw, named for Robert Gould Shaw, whose brief career as commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry had ended in glory and tragedy in July 1863. Saxton urged those who assembled on 1 January 1864 to pay tribute to “those who have laid down their lives for your cause,” but then to “make merry and be glad, for the day of your deliverance has come.”
After the Civil War, General Saxton became an assistant commissioner for the Freedman’s Bureau. He later returned to regular military service, finally retiring in 1888. Finding the western Massachusetts of his youth rather quiet after his busy military and public career, he made his home in Washington, D. C. where he died in 1908. His wife, Matilda, died in 1915 and is buried with him at Arlington National Cemetery.
On 1 January 2013, the Massachusetts Historical Society will open a new presidential exhibition, Forever Free: Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, featuring the pen Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. The exhibition includes paintings, engravings, broadsides, manuscripts, and artifacts that tell the story of how the Historical Society acquired this extraordinary artifact; how Boston celebrated Emancipation on 1 January 1863; and the larger context of the Proclamation. A photograph of the Emancipation pen, together with related artifacts from the Smithsonian Institute and the Library of Congress, appears in the December issue of Smithsonian Magazine.
The exhibition will open with special hours on the day of the anniversary, 1 January 2013, 12:00-4:00 PM, with gallery talks by MHS Librarian Peter Drummey and Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 2:00 PM. On the same day that the Forever Free exhibition opens, the Society will open a display of additional Lincoln materials from its collections, Abraham Lincoln in Manuscript and Artifact, in the Historical Society’s Treasures Gallery. Two items featured in the accompanying exhibition will be Lincoln’s famous 1855 letter to Joshua F. Speed, explaining to one of his closest friends his evolving views on slavery, and the Society’s casts of the life mask and hands of Lincoln made by Leonard Volk in the spring of 1860.
After the special New Year’s Day event, the exhibition will be open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, through 24 May 2013. For the dates and times of other gallery talks and events related to the exhibition, please check the MHS Events Calendar.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Army Life in a Black Regiment. Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870.
________. “A Massachusetts General, Rufus Saxton.” In Carlyle’s Laugh and Other Surprises. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909, p. 175-182.
Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964 (reprinted by the University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1999).