Another perspective on Emancipation Day

Posted on January 1, 2013 by


It didn’t dawn on me until I read a post on Facebook…

Yes, I know it’s the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and I’ve been keenly aware of that since midnight.

Some see the document and its reach as meaningless, but those who do so seem to look at it more from the surface… a document that proclaims freedom of slaves in the Southern states under rebellion, and yet does not do the same for those slaves in bondage in states that did not secede. Even more, a document that proclaims the freedom of slaves in what some considered another country altogether.

For those who see it in such a shallow way, there’s obviously much more for them to learn and realize. But to teach/preach that is not the purpose of this post… well, maybe it is to a degree.

Allow me to get to the point.

I see the EP for the greater document that it was… and is, but that post on Facebook, by the Andersonville National Historic Site… that moved me in yet another way.

What follows below is what they posted, and was extracted from Rev. Hamilton W. Pierson’s account of the Emancipation Day ceremony at Andersonville, on January 1, 1869:

This day so full of interest to the freedmen, so identified with the name and fame of the lamented Lincoln, and so glorious in the history of our country, was duly celebrated in Andersonville, Georgia.

If called upon to state what have been the instrumentalities at work among this people that have led to what I think all must esteem a most appropriate and beautiful celebration of the day, I must name as first and most efficient the School for Freedmen, established here by the American Missionary Association, in the fall of 1866, and successfully carried on up to the present time. Its first teachers were Miss M. L. Root, of Sheffield, Ohio, and Miss M. F. Battey, of Providence, R. I., who labored here for two years, with a Christian heroism, wisdom and success that have left their names indelibly engraved upon the grateful hearts of all those for whom they toiled. During the second year, Miss M. C. Day, of Sheffield, Ohio, aided them, and was a worthy and efficient co-laborer.

For reasons unknown to the writer, none of these ladies returned the third year, but were succeeded by Miss Laura Parmelee, of Toledo, Ohio, and Miss Amelia Johnson, of Enfield, Conn., who are carrying forward the work so successfully inaugurated with undiminished success. The colored people have become so impressed with the value of the school that they are contributing to its support with increasing liberality and enthusiasm.

As the schools for the freedmen are all suspended during the Christmas holidays, a number of teachers and their friends, in other places, had availed themselves of this opportunity to visit Andersonville. At a social gathering at the “Teachers’ Home”[Pg 24] it was found that, including the visitors, the clerks in the service of the government, and the teachers here, there were present representatives of seven northern States, and all were ready to unite heartily with the freedmen in the celebration of Emancipation Day. They were Miss Russell, of Maine; Miss Champney and Miss Stowell, of Massachusetts; Miss Johnson and Misses Smith, of Connecticut: Mr. Pond, of Rhode Island; Mr. North, of Indiana; Mr. Haughton, of New York; Miss Parmelee, of Ohio, and Rev. Dr. H. W. Pierson.

The committee appointed to make arrangements for the appropriate celebration of the day, anxious to make the fullest possible exhibition of the loyalty of all who were to unite with them in its celebration, determined that it should include (1st,) Services in the Freedmens’ Chapel; (2d,) The decoration of the Cemetery; and (3d,) The Salutation of the “Dear Old Flag,” at the depot.

Main avenue, Andersonville National Cemetery, 1870.

Main avenue, Andersonville National Cemetery, 1870.

All entered with alacrity and delight upon the work of preparation for these services. The colored people ranged the woods to find the choicest evergreens, and the young ladies, with willing hearts and skillful hands wrought the most elaborate and beautiful wreaths from the Magnolia, Bay, Holly, Cedar, and other boughs with which they were so bountifully furnished. Songs were rehearsed, and all arrangements were duly completed.

Rev. Floyd Snelson

Rev. Floyd Snelson

On New Year’s morning a deeply interested audience met in the room occupied both for school-room and chapel, and at 10 a. m., Mr. Floyd Snelson, (colored) President of the day, called the meeting to order, and services were conducted as follows: (1.) Singing—”From all that dwell below the skies.” (2) Reading the Scriptures, by Miss Johnson, of Enfield, Connecticut. (3.) Prayer, by Deacon Stickney, (colored.) (4.) Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, by Miss Parmelee, of Toledo, Ohio. (5) Singing—”Oh, praise and thanks,”—Whittier. (6) Address by Rev. Dr. H. W. Pierson. This programme having been carried out, the entire audience was formed into a procession and marched to the Cemetery, about half a mile north of us, under the direction of Mr. Houghton, of Brooklyn, New York, Marshal of the day. That procession, embracing so many happy Freedmen and representatives from so many States, moving with so much order, and bearing such beautiful wreaths, was certainly one of the most impressive and beautiful I have ever seen. I am sure the sight would have melted tens of thousands of hearts could they have looked upon it. Onward they marched upon their sacred mission, singing at times most appropriate and beautiful songs:[Pg 25] winding down the hillside, crossing upon a single scantling the muddy stream that furnished water for our own prisoners, passing near the rude cabin where the blood-hounds were penned, in full view of the stockades where so many thousands yielded up their lives, moving onward and up the gentle elevation with slow and solemn tread, they at length reached the front (south) entrance of the Cemetery, where the procession halted. On the right (east) of the gate is a post and tablet in the form of a cross, bearing this inscription: “National Cemetery, Andersonville, Georgia.” On the left (west) of the gate is a similar post and tablet, bearing this inscription:

“On Fame’s eternal camping-ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards, with solemn round,
This bivouac of the dead.”

A young lady, designated for the purpose, left the procession and hung one of our most beautiful wreaths upon the cross above this inscription.

The gates were then thrown open, and the entire procession entered the Cemetery. But how shall I describe the scene spread out before us as we entered this solemn, silent city of the nation’s dead? The Cemetery contains forty-three acres, which are enclosed by a high board fence. It is divided into four principal sections by broad avenues, running north and south, and east and west, intersecting each other at right angles at the center of the grounds. There is a sidewalk and row of young trees on each side of these avenues. And then on either side of these avenues and walks, what fields, what fields of white head-boards, stretching away in long white parallel lines to the north and south, each with its simple record of the name, regiment, and date of death of him who lies beneath it. So they sleep their long sleep, lying shoulder to shoulder in their graves as they had stood together in serried ranks on many a field of battle.

Resuming our march, and moving up the broad avenue, with rank upon rank, and thousands upon thousands of these solemn sentinels upon either side of us, we find on the left (west) side of the avenue, a tablet with this inscription:

“The hopes, the fears, the blood, the tears,
That marked the bitter strife,
Are now all crowned by victory
That saved the nation’s life.”

[Pg 26]We paused, and hung a wreath above this inscription, and then moved on to a tablet on the right (east) side of the avenue, with this inscription:

“Whether in the prison drear,
Or in the battle’s van,
The fittest place for man to die,
Is where he dies for man.”

We hung a wreath here, and again our procession moved forward and halted on the left (west) side of the avenue, at a tablet bearing the inspired words:

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

Here we placed another wreath, and moved onward to a tablet on the right (east) side of the avenue, where we read—

“A thousand battle-fields have drunk
The blood of warriors brave,
And countless homes are dark and drear,
Thro’ the land they died to save.”

Another wreath was placed here, and we marched to the last tablet in the north of the Cemetery, standing in the midst of a section of graves numbering thousands, and inscribed—

“Through all rebellion’s horrors
Bright shines our nation’s fame,
Our gallant soldiers, perishing,
Have won a deathless name.”

After hanging a wreath here, we marched to the center of the Cemetery, and hung our last wreath upon the flag-staff from which the stars and stripes shall ever float above those who died in its defence.

It was no place for speech. The surroundings were too solemn. Our only other services were to unite in singing “My Native Country, Thee,” (America,) and Rev. Dr. Pierson offered prayer. And so we decorated the National Cemetery at Andersonville, Georgia. It was little, very little, we did, but we could not do more, and we dared not do less. Here are the graves of 12,848 “brave boys,” who died as prisoners of war in the stockades. Eight hundred and sixty-eight other soldiers have[Pg 27] been disinterred and brought here from Macon, Columbus, Eufaula, Americus, and other places in Georgia, so that now this Cemetery numbers 13,716 graves. We could not decorate them all, and we dared not decorate those of the States we represented, or of any particular class. We dared not single out any for special honors. We felt that all were worthy of equal honor from us, and from the nation they died to save. And so we decorated the Cemetery as a whole, as best we could, and our tribute of affection was bestowed equally upon each one of all these 13,716 hallowed graves. And most earnestly did we implore the blessing of Almighty God to rest upon our whole country, and upon all the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, widows, and orphans, whose “dead” we thus attempted to honor.

It will gratify the relatives and friends of all those buried here, to know that the nation is watching over their dead with pious care. Hundreds of men have been employed in making the improvements already mentioned, and many others I have not time to notice, and a number are still at work. They are planting trees, making and improving walks, placing sod upon the graves, and otherwise beautifying the grounds.

But I am detaining my readers too long from what I have already indicated as the third and final part of our programme.

Day after day the starry banner, the banner of peace (“Let us have Peace”) is thrown to the breeze from the flag staff in front of the office of First Lieutenant A. W. Corliss, near the Andersonville depot. This is the most beautiful sight; indeed, almost the only beautiful sight that greets the vision of a lover of his country here.

We wished to give expression to the warm feelings of our own hearts, and also to make a demonstration of our loyalty and love for the flag in the presence of the unusual concourse of people assembled at the station for the business or pleasure of New Year’s day.

Our procession was re-formed in the Cemetery, and taking the broad avenue that has been constructed by the government from the depot, a distance of about half a mile, we marched slowly back in the same order, and singing beautiful songs, as when we came. A part of the way our procession was in full view of the residents of the place, and the visitors there. Fortunately, as we reached the depot, the passenger train arrived from the south, and witnessed our loyal demonstrations. Arriving at the flag-staff, the entire procession formed in a circle[Pg 28] around it, and sang with enthusiasm Mr. William B. Bradbury’s “See the flag, the dear old flag,” with the heart-stirring chorus—

“Wave the starry banner high,
Strike our colors, never!
Here we stand to live or die,
The Stripes and Stars forever.”

Mr. Snelson, the President of the day, then proposed three cheers for the “Dear old Flag,” which were given with a will. Three cheers were then proposed for Lieutenant Corliss and others, which were given in the same hearty manner. Other patriotic songs were then sung, and after a brief prayer and the benediction, by Rev. Dr. Pierson, the audience quietly dispersed.

So we celebrated Emancipation Day in Andersonville, Georgia. To all of us who participated in it, it was a joyful day. We also hope our services may gladden and cheer many other hearts all over our broad land.

It makes me think that perhaps this may have been the first time that the graves of my kin, buried there, were decorated, and that most certainly includes two of my Southern Unionists kin who wore blue… one, a Nicholson; and the other, a Moore.

It makes me think of a piece of art with which some readers may be familiar… that of a slave, watching from her modest abode near Andersonville, as Confederates march Union P.O.W.s to Camp Sumter.

"Near Andersonville", by Winslow Homer

“Near Andersonville”, by Winslow Homer

I think of that Nicholson… a 23 year-old, black haired, blue eyed, farmer… born and raised in Madison County, Virginia, just about an hour to the southeast of where I now live… who moved with so many other family members, deeper into the mountains of Virginia… what became West Virginia (Doddridge County, to be exact)… around 1858/59. While serving in a West Virginia cavalry regiment, he was captured here in the Valley, outside Staunton, in June 1864. He died at Andersonville, in January, 1865.

I also think of that Moore… a 23 year-old, blue eyed farmer, with light red hair, from Clear Spring, Maryland… also about an hour from me now, but to the north, and still south of of the Mason-Dixon. He too was captured, but at Loudoun Heights, in January, 1864, and died at Andersonville in August of the same year.

The story of the 1869 remembrance effort, and the Winslow Homer piece makes me wonder… if, by chance… slaves had seen these two young men make the walk… that last long walk… to Camp Sumter.

Image from my last visit to Andersonville, in April, 1997, looking at a rebuilt section of the prison stockade.

Image from my last visit to Andersonville, in April, 1997, looking at a rebuilt section of the prison stockade.

… and then I wonder if one (or some) of these same folks, now former slaves, placed a wreath upon one, or both of their graves. If they did, of course, they would have no idea who they were, or that they had actually seen them at any one point. Nicholson and Moore were just one of many a man in blue to walk by, and now, with nothing more than crudely etched wooden markers to indicate their last places of rest.

Whether or not the former slaves had seen these men, or others, as they walked to Andersonville; whether or not they placed a wreath, or some form of evergreen on the graves… well, there’s more to it than having known or witnessed.

Rather, it was the thought; it was the thanks; it was the appreciation that was shown to so many men, among whom I can claim people of my own.

The former slaves marked the day… the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation… by saying thank you to the men who fulfilled the hope that they saw in the Emancipation Proclamation… to be free. By their deeds, these men in blue forged a seal on the promise offered in the EP, and those who finally had a chance to savor the fruit of those sacrifices were appreciating that… with all of their heart.

Looking toward the grave of James Draper Moore, in April, 1997. At the time, the headstone was marked with inaccurate descriptive information... wrong name and state, but correct grave number.

Looking toward the grave of James Draper Moore, in April, 1997. At the time, the headstone was marked with inaccurate descriptive information… wrong name and state, but correct grave number.

It might be that the spirits of these men in blue looked down that day, in great appreciation for those who honored them, and felt they had accomplished things even greater than they had imagined when they donned those blue uniforms… something for humanity. But, we have no idea.

What I do suspect is that the family members of these two young men likely never made it to see the graves of their sons, and that people who had no knowledge of who they were, other than the markings on crude wooden slabs, took the time to visit and reflect.

What we do know… what I know… is that the gesture of appreciation that took place, on this day, 144 years ago, strikes a chord in me. It has nothing to do with me, other than my chance to reflect upon people to whom I can trace links… my Southern kin in blue… who helped to make something possible… something great… so that others could be free.

How could one not feel something similar when reflecting upon such associations with kin? How could one not be humbled to be nothing more than connected in blood and name to such people… to people who were honored by those formerly in bondage for having helped secure their freedom?

“Glory, Glory Hallelujah”, indeed.


*Source of Rev. H.W. Pierson’s account, which also offers other challenges for our considerations.