Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas with the Slaves

A few days ago, I mentioned the book The Civil War in Song and Story 1860-1865 by Frank Moore and posted that I would be adding a few more stories from it. Two of the stories I found involved African-Americans and the celebration of Christmas, which I thought would be appropriate during this yuletide season. Here is the first one, from pages 465 and 466 of this fascinating book.

CHRISTMAS WITH THE SLAVES  - A letter writer at Port Royal, South Carolina, gives the following account of the way in which the slaves kept the first Christmas after the Proclamation of Emancipation:

"Christmas Eve was celebrated by the colored people at General Drayton's plantation. About half past eleven o'clock a bell was rung, and precisely at twelve a pine fire was kindled in front of the cabin where the meeting was to be held. They called the festival a serenade to Jesus. One of the leaders, of which there were three, was dressed in a red coat with brass buttons, wearing white gloves. The females wore turbans made of cotton handkerchiefs., All ages were represented, from the child of one year to the old man of ninety.

"The first exercise consisted in singing hymns and spiriual songs, among which were those beginning, "Salvation! O the joyful sound; ' 'The voice of free grace;' 'Come, humble sinner, in whose breast;' 'O, poor sinner, can't stand de fire, can't stand de fire in dat great day;' and a Christmas song containing a medley of everything the fruitful mind of the leader could suggest, with the refrain, 'We'll wait till Jesus comes.' One of the leaders lined the hymns, and though none of them could read, it was remarkable with what correctness they gave the words. Their Scripture quotations were also correct and appropriate, not only having the exact words, but naming the chapter and verse where they could be found.

"After singing for some time, a prayer-meeting was held. The prayers were fervent and powerful, and when an allusion would be made to the soldiers who had come from  their distant homes, in the North country, to 'help and save de poor slave, and, like Jesus, bring dem good tidings of great joy,' a shout went up that sent its notes on the still night air to the distant pickets in the surrounding pines. When asked, as they could not read, how they could quote the Scriptures, they replied: 'We have ears, massa, and when de preacher give out his texts, den we remembers and says dem over and over till we never forgets dem; dat's de way, massa, we poor people learns de Word of God.'

"The next exercise consisted of speaking and signing, at intervals. While one was speaking, another would take a blazing pine torch from the fire, and hold it up, so that all might see the speaker. At two o'clock, a recess was had, and all were invited to partake of coffee, which luxury they can now purchase without any difficulty, as they have plenty of money, obtained of the soldiers for vegetables and poultry.

"After this came what they called the shouting exercise. It was introduced by the beating of time by three or four, with the feet. Soon the whole company formed into a circle, and commenced jumping and singing to the time and tune of

'Say, brothers, will you meet me,
Say, brothers, will you meet me,
Say, brothers, will you meet me,
On Canaan's happy shore?'

This was continued until the most fertile imagination was exhausted, embracing an invitation to sisters, soldiers, preachers, &c., to meet them on Canaan's happy shore.

"Never did these poor slaves celebrate a Christmas Eve under such circumstances before. Whatever may be their future, the are now, 'to all intents, purposes, and constructions whatever' free; that they may 'choose it rather' is beyond question more certain."

The General Drayton referred to is Confederate General Thomas Fenwick Drayton

Some background information on the verse they sung that night is at this link, as this hymn was one of many verses adapted to the tune we know now as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."   Another source of  information about it, including words to other verses, is here.

I also included this timeline of events involving the Port Royal area during the Civil War including General David Hunter's May 1862 attempt to declare local slaves free, months before the Emancipation Proclamation (and the above story) and which President Lincoln revoked, believing such decisions belonged to the President and Congress, not generals in the field. (Lincoln had previously countermanded a similar order from General John C. Fremont in Missouri in September 1861).

I wonder how many people have felt a spirit of Christmas as intense as the feeling those newly freed people experienced on that glorious night and morning.

Glory, hallelujah, indeed!

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