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It was Jubilee Day, Jan. 1, 1863. In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln was expected to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared that slaves held in the rebel states that had seceded “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
In Boston, a hotbed of the anti-slavery movement, people were gathered and waiting at Boston Music Hall and Tremont Temple. A “Grand Jubilee Concert” was held at the Music Hall. The front of the program read “The Day! The Proclamation! The Emancipation Of The Slave!”
At the last minute, Ralph Waldo Emerson joined the event, reading his “Boston Hymn.” Emerson’s reading is noted in the program with a handwritten note, stating simply Emerson Poem.
President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day putting the finishing touches on the document and greeting visitors at the White House.
Finally, in the early evening, the text of the Emancipation Proclamation was transmitted over the telegraph wires and the news reached the crowd at Tremont Temple. The crowd, which included the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, broke out in celebration, which eventually moved to Twelfth Baptist Church.
“This is a big deal, thousands of people participating,” said Peter Drummey, librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. “For the abolitionists who had been outcasts within the sort of social life of Boston going back to the 1830s and ’40s, here’s vindication.”
The document Lincoln signed on New Year’s Day 1863 was the final version of a preliminary proclamation Lincoln had produced after the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. That was the bloodiest day of combat in American history, but it was perceived as a Union victory and that gave Lincoln the cover to take, as Douglass called it “the first step” toward ending slavery.
That didn’t happen until Congress passed, and the states ratified, the Thirteenth Amendment two years later in 1865.
The amendment abolished slavery and the new film “Lincoln” tells that story, which Washington College historian Adam Goodheart says would have never been possible without the Emancipation Proclamation.
“If universal freedom had been proclaimed early in the war it would have probably split in half the already deeply fractured northern public and quite possibly actually ended the struggle to save the Union almost before it had begun,” Goodheart, author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening,” told Here & Now’s Robin Young.
The Emancipation Proclamation re-galvanized the Union war effort, turning the struggle into one to end slavery as much as to preserve the Union.
The Emancipation Proclamation also made it possible for free black men to join the Union cause, and by the end of the war nearly 200,000 served in the Union Army and Navy.
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, the subject of the film “Glory,” was the first all-black unit mustered in the North. Those soldiers, led by the white officer Robert Gould Shaw, left Boston to great fanfare in May 1863. Charles and Lewis Douglass, sons of Frederick Douglass, were part of that regiment.
Boston’s Museum of African American History is hosting a series of events in 2013 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, under the banner “Freedom Rising.”
And the Massachusetts Historical Society is opening two new exhibits related to the Emancipation. The historical society has the pen Lincoln used to sign the proclamation. President Lincoln presented the pen to abolitionist George Livermore.
Jan. 1, 1863 would be a significant day if only for the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the day is notable for something else: It was the day the Homestead Act took effect.
The Homestead Act allowed people to claim ownership of federal land. One of the first to file a claim was a Union Army scout named Daniel Freeman who filed his claim in the Nebraska Territory, because Nebraska wasn’t even a state yet.
Goodheart believes there is a connection between the Homestead Act and the Emancipation Proclamation, because the Homestead Act declared that the western lands of the United States would be open to everyone, including slaves, who had been freed.