On this last night of the year, free black Baptist congregations throughout the United States and Union-controlled areas of the South observe the January 1 anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation with a “watchnight” service of celebration and prayer for God-granted freedom.
There is certainly much to celebrate. Tens of thousands of blacks have been emancipated within the past year. Thousands of black freedman are now enrolled in the United States Army; already-active colored regiments have fought with courage, skill and determination. Freedom is sweeping across the South.
Among those yet enslaved, hope glows quietly but resolutely tonight. Anticipating that freedom is nigh, celebrations take place in slave quarters, albeit discretely, apart from their master’s eyes and ears.
Even now, many slaves are en route to their freedom, having in days past fled from the prison of the plantation. Today’s Richmond Daily Dispatch carries a number of reward notices for the reclamation of runaway slaves, such as the following offer for a $300 reward:
Ranaways from the undersigned on Saturday night last my negro woman Martha and her child Nannie.–Martha is of a dark complexion, about 28 years old, and generally dresses in black. Nannie is a bright mulatto, about 12 years old. I have every reason to believe that the above negroes are trying to make their way to the enemy, as they left without any cause whatever, and took all of their clothes off with them. I will give the above reward for the arrest and delivery to me of the above named negroes, or $150 for either one of them, or if they lodged in any jail in this city so that I can get them.
R. B. Tyler, C. S. Laboratory.
One master posts a $500 reward for the capture of his runaway chattel:
Ran away from the subscriber on Tuesday morning, two negro women and a child.
Martha is black, 22 years of age, and has as ugly scar or bald place on the top and back of her head. Her child is a boy three and a half years old, and black.
Sarah is a stout woman, of gingerbread color, 22 years old, and will probably weigh 150 pounds.
I will pay the above reward for the return of the three negroes to me, or $250 for Sarah, and the same amount for Martha and child.
Wm. H. Clarkson.
The dour mood of the white Confederacy at large is evident in the multitude of runaway notices in Southern newspapers as this year draws to a close. The Confederacy is fast sinking, evidenced by the dramatic increase in runaway slaves — for reasons white masters wish not to understand. The tens of thousands of already-emancipated former slaves have become a financial drain on the economy. Inflation is soaring, food is scarce, hope for the preservation of white supremacy diminished. Freedom is slipping away in the South.
The Richmond Examiner summarizes the year in the minds of white Confederates with these simple words: “To-day closes the gloomiest year of our struggle.”
In the ongoing epic struggle between freedom for all and freedom for whites only, one side’s gloom and doom is the other side’s salvation. The December 31 watchnight custom tonight observed in free black churches has since been an annual event in many, if not most, black Baptist–and other black Christian–congregations throughout the United States to the present day.
Sources: “The First Watchnight Service Occurs,” African American Registry (link); “Three Hundred Dollars Reward,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 31, 1863 (link); “500 Dollars Reward,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 31, 1863 (link); Richmond Examiner, December 31, 1863, quoted in Civil War Interactive (link);